Food scraps and organics waste collection is a key component of the city of New York’s goal of zero waste to landfill by 2030. Commercial businesses contribute a significant volume of food waste generated. In fact, the city suggests that food and organic waste make up more than a third of all commercial waste in New York City.
As part of the zero waste goal, the city hopes to divert this waste for use as compost or as an energy source in aerobic and anaerobic digesters, but processing capacity has long been an obstacle to that end.
Recent initiatives by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to promote collection of food waste and use of composting techniques represent opportunities for food-related businesses, from fruit stands to restaurants, to adopt new best practices that just may result in lower disposal costs and boost the local environment.
The proposed rule requires DSNY to annually evaluate organics capacity to require certain food-generating businesses to separate food waste. The rule would expand the mandate that food service businesses and retailers of a certain size comply with source separation, storage and labeling of food waste. It provides that food service establishments with: a floor area space of at least 7,000 sq. ft.; that are part of a chain of 50 or more locations in the city and operate under common ownership; or a retail food store with at least 10,000 sq. ft., or a food store that is part of a chain of three or more stores with at least 10,000 sq. ft. of combined floor space and common ownership.
One of the six largest private carting companies in New York, Mr. T Carting Corp., in Glendale, N.Y., has collected organics from some of the city’s commercial customers—restaurants, catering halls, grocery stores and fruit stands—for more than a decade.
“Mr. T Carting has had a program for separate food waste collection since 2005. More than 40 percent of our customers are in food-related businesses, so we know how important it is to offer this food waste collection service. Many new customers appreciate that they can contract with Mr. T for compost collection, recycling and trash services—all from a single vendor,” says Mr. T. Carting CFO Tom Toscano.
There are additional operational benefits to separate food waste collection, Toscano added. It contributes to the overall cleanliness of the store or restaurant. It also helps with pest management. “Rats and mice have much less to feed on when food waste is stored in tight containers,” he added.
Most of Mr. T’s accounts from the start were fruit and vegetable stands, where food waste consisted primarily of pre-consumer spoiled food. Customers were looking to dispose of the heavy produce that had spoiled before it was sold. Toscano says the company carted the waste, and continues to do so, to a site on Long Island, where the processor was taking food waste at a lower price than garbage. The customers appreciated the break on weight-based waste disposal costs.
It wasn’t always smooth along the way. At one point, the hauler began collecting organic waste from fish markets, but the fish drew seagulls to the processing facility and neighbors were not happy. Originally, post-consumer food waste also was a problem with some health issues, but in time, processes have come along and food service pre- and post-consumer waste is the next frontier.
Thus far, he says, savings can be but are not always as significant for restaurants. While fruit and vegetable stands have very little trash outside of food waste and cardboard, restaurants have pre- and post-consumer food waste, regular waste and recycling.
Restaurants in the city typically are smaller in size. Moving customers in and out quickly is a priority, Toscano says. There is little time to separate and even less space to store containers of food scraps.
“So there’s not as much bang for their buck,” he says. “But that’s changing with the law.”
According to Bonnie Chaplin, operations manager at Five Leaves restaurant in Brooklyn, a Mr. T Carting customer, it is not only a forthcoming regulation, it is more efficient for food-related businesses to separate their trash before it is collected.
“Trash pickups are priced by weight. When we separate the organic trash and recyclables, the remaining items, of course, weigh less,” Toscano says. But he thinks it's the right approach.
“I’m bullish on organics,” he says. “Long-term, I think it works.”
Basil Lee, owner of Finback Brewery of Queens, agrees.
A maker of a variety of beers, Finback is a small creative recipe-driven brewery that makes a few new beers per week. That creativity leaves behind a lot of waste grain, the weight of which makes it hard to store and transport without the help of Mr. T Carting.
In business for four years now, the brewery has always collected its spent grain for processing.
In the beginning, the brewery produced hundreds to thousands of pounds of the waste grain. Today, it is generating thousands to tens of thousands of pounds. The motivation wasn’t in the cost because the volume and weight of the waste grain is significant.
“It ends up costing us a fair amount,” Lee says. “But there’s so much of (the waste), it feels almost irresponsible to just dump it in a landfill.”
Collection is a fairly efficient process, he adds. Organic waste is kept separate from traditional waste. Brewing is a relatively set schedule, so beer is brewed and the spent grain is put out that night and collected.
Lee says he personally supports organics collection both at home and at work. The city will need to spend some time working out the logistics for commercial food waste.
“In terms of food service, I think it’s a great thing. Hopefully from a legislative and a social responsibility standpoint, we can get there,” Lee says.
If the city takes things in stride, not rolling it out too quickly, it can work, Toscano agrees.
One challenge to increasing food waste collection is the processing. New York city doesn’t have the room for processing facilities—processing is done through either anaerobic digestion in large tanks or in large piles turned and processed for mulch, says Toscano.
“Large scale organics—you’re not going to process in NYC,” he says.
The city says there are many processing facilities within a 50 or 60 mile radius. That may be, Toscano says.
“No one in this industry is going to want to drive a garbage truck 50 or 60 miles,” he says.