Explainer: The Mayor's Proposed Food Scrap Recycling Initiative

New York may be joining cities like Toronto, San Francisco and Seattle in implementing a citywide composting initiative meant to cut down on waste. Unclear on the details? Worried about what it means for you? WNYC's Amy Eddings spoke with Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway.

For the full interview, click the audio above.

1. What is the initiative, exactly?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed expanding a successful pilot program recycling food scraps to more single-family homes, high rise buildings and schools. Within three years, the Bloomberg Administration says, the hope is that recycling food scraps will be mandatory and as much of a routine as recycling glass, metal and plastic. The plan is already getting support from mayoral candidates like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

The current pilot program includes 3,500 Staten Island families, 90 schools and a scattering of high rises on the West Side of Manhattan.

2. Why is it important to compost? It's already difficult to recycle — and NYC only has a 15 percent recycling rate.

"Well, the Mayor has called this the last frontier of recycling, and that's because it's currently not mandatory to recycle food waste," Holloway said. But 1.2 million tons of the city's garbage is food waste, which is about one-third of the total amount of waste in the city. Currently, except for the pilot program, that waste is being buried in landfill.

"That's terrible for the environment and it also turns out it's terrible for taxpayer pocketbooks, because at this point we know that it would be much less expensive if we can recycle or reuse that part of the waste stream," Holloway said.

3. What type of food can you recycle? Is it like regular composting, where you can't include meat or cheese scraps?

In the current pilot program, residents can recycle all food waste — and add in paper like napkins and plates. The Sanitation Department collects it; part is sent to a wastewater treatment plant in Newtown Creek and part to the composting pile in Staten Island. "You can actually put any food waste into the pile," Holloway said.

4. The New York Times reported that some of the waste might be turned into biogas. How does that technology work?

"That happens through a process called anaerobic digestion, and the interesting thing is the city is already doing that on a massive scale on the wastewater side," Holloway said.  "We're basically converting some of that waste into energy. . . . We know when we get to scale here that we'll need to send that 100,000 tons to different places and some of that could be waste to energy." NYC produces 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a year. Holloway said some of the waste would likely also go to compost.

5. Where is this waste company going to go?

"We'll have to wait and see what the market tells us there," Holloway said. 

6. New York Times commenters are already worrying about the potential smell of compost stations, or of increasing numbers of rodents or roaches. 

"This is why we're piloting the programming — we want to make sure the program works for all the different communities in New York City," Holloway said. "The good news is, the high rises that are already piloting the program are collecting more than 125 pounds of food a day. We're going to make sure the containers that are used do trap odors and make sure there isn't a quality of life issue for those people in buildings."

7. Are restaurants going to be rolled into this program as well?

A city spokesman says that full restaurant inclusion is "not months, but years away," but there is currently an 100-restaurant pilot program. 


To hear the full interview, click the audio above.