Since convenience is in fact such an important factor in garnering the public’s support and ensuring their adequate and consistent participation in any solid waste management program, it is time to start exploring other alternatives to the curbside collection of organics in NYC.

Robert Lange, Commissioner

June 1, 2022

9 Min Read
Why Mayor Eric Adams Needs to Be Applauded Rather Than Politically Pummeled for Halting the Expansion of Curbside Organics

Recently it was announced that Mayor Adams had submitted a preliminary budget proposal to the City Council calling for a hiatus to rethink the Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY’s) curbside organics collection program. This announcement was, immediately met with condemnation by some local environmental organizations, local grassroots advocates, and elected officials at both the state and local level who promised to fight to restore the proposed budget cuts.  A knee jerk reaction rather than a well thought out response to the factors that led the new mayor to propose this change.

Many articles covering this announced policy change then went on to cite the opinion of many critics, who the press referred to as “experts”. Including a recent IBO report cited by many to back up their claims, a report which can only be described as pure fantasy As a professional in the field of solid waste management, I assure you that the term “expert” is frequently bandied about by those in opposition to government policies and programs without any attempt to explain exactly what constitutes that alleged expertise.

This lack of due diligence on the part of the press in general runs the gamut from a minor oversight in failing to explain the context in which their alleged expertise resides to attributing expertise where it does not even exist.  Perhaps the media outlet which has failed the most in setting the appropriate context for “experts” opinions is NYC’s paper of record.  In a recent article, The New York Times presented the following quote referring to the halt to the curbside collection of organics:

            The move is the latest snag for a program that climate experts say is one of the easiest ways to reduce New York’s planet-warming emissions

                                                                                NYT 02/17/2022

The above implied “if -A then -B” statement fails to explain the challenges associated with getting from A to B.  Stating that the curbside collection of organics will miraculously result in a significant reduction of planet-warming emissions and even save money is without substance.  This simplistic statement fails to provide for an understanding of the complexities associated with the curbside collection of organics. It is an undeniable fact that the correct, adequate, and consistent compliance and participation of the public is chief among those challenges. Without those behaviors, the program’s inefficiencies and excessive cost per ton far exceed its environmental impacts.  In fact, in such circumstances, the adverse environmental impact of empty additional trucks traversing city streets far exceeds any alleged environmental benefits.

Such statements are the equivalent of stating: If one took up weightlifting and changed one’s eating habits one could easily transform oneself into Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The reality of implementation is completely missing from such statements. With regard to the curbside collection of organics, the likelihood of behavioral change happening on an individual as well as on the level of the general population of NYC as a whole -- the necessary level of participation required to maintain a viable and “sustainable” program -- are remote at best.  Studies done by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) have confirmed this inconvenient truth. 

In addition, all such statements made in relationship to the curbside collection of organics in NYC’s also lack any understanding of history. NYC has on numerous occasions tested out the public’s willingness to fully participate in the residential recycling of food waste organics collected curbside, and the public has come up short each time in its willingness to engage fully. 

The DSNY’s five-year Intensive Zone Pilot in Park Slope in the 1990s and in the previous administration’s far more extensive citywide efforts from 2014 to 2020, again demonstrate that the public is unwilling to participate at the levels necessary to ensure the success of such efforts. Two previous efforts where extensive funding resources were expended to support the programs on a level that could not be matched to support a full citywide program. 

In response to this harsh reality, advocates, elected officials, and alleged “experts” call for the program to be made mandatory in order to force the public into full compliance. Calling for participation in food waste set out by residents to be made mandatory demonstrates both an ignorance of history and yet another instance of profound naïveté by those same advocates and elected officials; believing that requiring compliance will result in significant compliance by the public. Assuming naively that if you legislate a desired behavior, it will result in significant compliance, presumably through enforcement against the more recalcitrant members of the public. This belief fully ignores the first thirty years of mandatory recycling in NYC wherein efforts by DSNY to increase compliance through enforcement met at every turn with both advocates and elected officials requests to utilize public education rather than enforcement.  This response from advocates is based on their belief that New Yorkers are doing DSNY a favor by compliance rather than a civic duty; and a response from elected officials demonstrates their fear that residents would reflect their displeasure with summonses in the voting booth.

Where NYC has found a constituency for fully engaging in the recovery of residential organics, information found also in the above reports, is among the already converted. These are NYC residents who already perceive a value in seeing their food waste organics composted. Gardeners are a substantial part of that core constituency, and the foundation of DSNY’s NYC Composting Project, originally operated through the city’s four botanical gardens.  Since there is a small but committed group of NYC residents already committed to composting as a concept and practice, by dropping off their household’s food waste at community gardens and other DSNY sponsored sites, allocating more funds to support and expand these efforts would be funds well spent.

While it is correct that organics are a component of the residential waste stream that requires alternatives to disposal, it is not at all clear that curbside collection of organics, particularly in a city the size and complexity of NYC, is the correct means of achieving that goal. What is clear, as demonstrated by over thirty years of recycling paper and metal, glass, and plastics in NYC, is the importance of convenience in securing the participation of households in recycling.  Thirty-three years after the institution of recycling in NYC, the previous group of materials targeted for set out by the public still maintain a consistent capture rate of 50 percent. These materials can be described as not too challenging to set aside and set out weekly in comparison to the challenges of storing food waste and setting it out later for collection.

Since convenience is in fact such an important factor in garnering the public’s support and ensuring their adequate and consistent participation in any solid waste management program, it is time to start exploring other alternatives to the curbside collection of organics in NYC. One such alternative that comes easily to mind is the wider use of garbage disposal units by the public.  Unlike curbside collection, this infrastructure already exists in each household, eliminating the need for the additional collection vehicles and the concomitant additional diesel emissions. This solution effectively eliminates for residents the inconvenience associated with curbside collection.

While the addition of ground food waste may require some adjustments to DEP’s existing infrastructure to handle the additional load, as it incrementally increases as garbage disposal units are installed, doing so seems far more environmentally advantageous than requiring DSNY to take on the burden of additional collection routes with little or no demonstrated interest by the majority of the public.  Adjusting to incremental increases made to incoming material loads to an existing infrastructure, as residents and landlords incorporate garbage disposal units into dwellings is a better choice and easier to achieve than attempting to create an entirely new collection fleet with no guarantee that there will be anything at the curb when the truck arrives on collection day.

Expanding community composting efforts and the wider use of garbage disposal units will only address a portion of the food waste generated by residents, though they are two options which have demonstrated their viability and cost effectiveness in comparison to the attempts to collect food waste curbside from residents. Clearly given the scale of residential food waste generation in NYC, other efforts will need to be taken as well to try and capture the remaining amounts of food waste not captured in this manner. 

However, before deciding that the only other alternative is to, once again, return to curbside collection as the answer, other strategies need to be explored.  In that exploration the dominant theme informing possible alternatives must be maintaining convenience for the participating members of the public.  In fact, if at all possible the degree to which reliance upon the public for the possible success or failure of any alternative through their active participation should be eliminated.  Emerging technologies already exist for processing garbage on a large scale which show promise for reducing reliance upon educating the public perennially about the minutia of setting out their household discards. Technological solutions cannot be implemented on a large scale in NYC overnight, but they should be explored to determine their viability for NYC.  Just sending another vehicle to pick up yet another subset of NYC’s waste stream is an easy solution to quell the calls for a solution to food waste.  But one implemented without adequate forethought, planning or input from actual experts is doomed to failure.  Real solutions take time and planning rather than as NYC’s new mayor has categorized the recent efforts; “purely symbolic in nature.”

In the effort to capture more organics an area which requires further study before new programs are implemented due to political pressure is the growing presence of PFAS in compost, biosolids and digestate.  While we need to address organics and deal with biosolids we also need to be fully cognizant of the impacts upon the whole process from the material inputs used, to the material outputs from whatever processes are utilized, and how those outputs can be used and what restrictions apply to the use of those outputs. Otherwise, in our rush to capture organics we may be creating future unanticipated problems by further spreading PFAS and other forever chemicals throughout our environment, our food chain and ultimately in our own bodies. Chemicals which have already been determined to be human endocrine disruptors. Along with the enthusiastic rush to capture organics there should be a concomitant effort by advocates and elected officials to reduce the use of plastics for product packaging and other less than vital uses, to limited, if not eliminate, the further introduction of plastic into our environment and thereby ourselves.

The City of New York recently issued a new RFP calling for a comprehensive analysis by experts in the field of solid waste management of how to successfully address organics in a city as large and complex as NYC. An analysis which will hopefully reset the ongoing debate in NYC regarding organics management on a rational basis rather than based upon totally unfounded anecdotes and fantastical projections based on pure speculation.

About the author:

Robert Lange was the prime architect of NYC’s Recycling Program as its director from 1994 to 2014. He can be reached at [email protected]

 

Editor's Note: Waste360 welcomes contributed articles and opinion pieces. Submit your commentary to Editorial Director Stefanie Valentic at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Robert Lange

Commissioner, Solid Waste Management Authority, North Hempstead, L.I.

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City's recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. Prior to leaving city service, Lange was responsible for the Office of Beneficial Reuse Planning, Infrastructure Development & Management, within the Bureau of Solid Waste Management of the New York City Department of Sanitation. He recently accepted a position as the Commissioner of a Solid Waste Authority on Long Island. 

 

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