The Salt
6:11 pm
Thu June 27, 2013

Composting On The Way Up In New York City High-Rises

Originally published on Fri June 28, 2013 10:45 am

High-rise apartment buildings might not seem like fertile ground for making compost.

But officials in New York want to capture and recycle more of the city's food waste — even in some of the nation's most vertical neighborhoods. They're expanding a pilot program that's also trying to encourage composting by turning greenmarkets and libraries into drop-off sites for residents' food waste.

New York's experiment with high-rise composting is already underway in a handful of Manhattan apartment buildings, and officials say they plan to reach 70 buildings in the coming year. Helena Durst is a vice-president at the Durst Organization, the company that owns a luxury rental building near the Hudson River. The city has given each household in the building a small brown plastic bin for organic waste that might otherwise go in the trash. Durst say there's a reason the bin only holds a single gallon.

"The reason we don't want this to be large container is because what organic waste can be known as it putressable waste," says Durst. "Which means it becomes putrescent if it stays in one place too long with too much of itself."

In other words: It stinks. Smell is usually the first issue that comes up when you mention compost to apartment-dwelling New Yorkers. But city officials say recycling food waste could improve the city's aroma.

"We actually expect it to reduce odor issues and actually reduce vermin issues in New York City," says Ron Gonen is New York's deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability.

Gonen says food waste represents 20 percent of what New Yorkers throw away. So if the city can divert that waste, it'll create a useful byproduct while also saving taxpayers money.

"Ten years from now, people will look back at the fact that we were exporting our food waste to landfills, and spending $100 million a year," Gonen says. "And they'll look back and wonder what were we thinking paying all this money."

New York is not the first city to turn its food waste into fertilizer. It's already required in a number of cities, including San Francisco and Seattle. In fact, when it comes to recycling in general, New York lags far behind other big cities, with a recycling rate of just 15 percent.

But Gonen says thousands of new recycling bins are about to appear on city streets.

"It becomes habit-forming," says Gonen. "People see the recycling containers on the street corners. They participate with them. They seem them, and they go home, and begin to recycle."

If the city is ever going to be a national leader on recycling, a lot of New Yorkers will also have to welcome those little brown compost bins into very small apartment kitchens.

New York's food waste recycling program is voluntary, at least for now. Mayor Bloomberg is expected to announce more details on a citywide plan in the next few months. But city officials say that if the expanding pilot program continues to succeed, they can imagine a day when the Big Apple will send all of its apple cores to a big composting facility.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

High-rise apartment buildings might not seem like fertile ground for compost, but New York City has an ambitious plan to capture and recycle more food waste in some of the nation's most vertical neighborhoods.

It's part of an effort to kick-start recycling in a city that still sends 85 percent of its waste to landfills, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: New York's experiment with high-rise composting is already underway in a handful of Manhattan apartment buildings.

HELEN DURST: This is our composting bin. This is the bin that we gave to all of the residents...

ROSE: Helena Durst is the vice president at the Durst Organization, the company that owns this luxury rental building near the Hudson River. She's holding a small, brown plastic bin with a lid that seals tight to hold in banana peels, coffee grounds, and any other organic stuff that might otherwise go in the trash. Durst say there's a reason the bin only holds a single gallon.

DURST: The reason we don't want this to be large container is because what organic waste can also be known as it putressable waste, which means it becomes putrescent if it stays in one place and too long with too much of itself.

ROSE: In other words, it stinks. Smell is usually the first issue that comes up when you mention compost to apartment-dwelling New Yorkers. But city officials say recycling food waste could improve the city's aroma.

RON GONEN: We actually expect it to reduce odor issues and actually reduce vermin issues in New York City.

ROSE: Ron Gonen is New York's deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability. We spoke in the building's basement, where three big green bins full of organic waste stood ready to be hauled off by sanitation trucks. Gonen says food waste represents 20 percent of what New Yorkers throw away. So if the city can divert that waste, it'll create a useful byproduct while also saving taxpayers money.

GONEN: Ten years from now, people will look back at the fact that we were exporting our food waste to landfills and spending $100 million a year. And they'll look back and wonder what were we thinking, paying all this money.

ROSE: New York is not the first city to turn its food waste into fertilizer. It's already required in a number of cities, including San Francisco and Seattle. In fact, when it comes to recycling in general, New York lags far behind other big cities with a recycling rate of just 15 percent. A decade ago, Mayor Michael Bloomberg temporarily suspended curbside pickup of glass and plastics to save money, much to the dismay of environmental advocates.

But Eric Goldstein, at the National Resources Defense Council, says the Bloomberg administration is making up for past mistakes.

ERIC GOLDSTEIN: The rules for what went into the recycling bin and what didn't were confusing, especially for plastics. The school system was completely failing to educate the public and kids about how to recycle. And so, with that history, it's really amazing that the recycling program here in New York has done as well as it has.

ROSE: City officials say there should be less confusion now that virtually all plastics are recyclable. And Ron Gonen says thousands of new recycling bins are about to appear on city streets.

GONEN: It becomes habit-forming. People see the recycling containers on the street corners. They participate with them. They see them visually and they go home and begin to recycle.

ROSE: But if the city is ever going to be a national leader on recycling, a lot of New Yorkers will have to welcome those little brown compost bins into very small apartment kitchens. Paul Quick(ph) lives in a studio in Manhattan.

PAUL QUICK: I think we have enough garbage cans in my kitchen. I don't need one more

ROSE: But John Wangler(ph), of Manhattan, thinks it is a good idea to keep more food waste out of the garbage.

JOHN WANGLER: If you ever walk down any New York street on trash day, there's already composting going on.

(LAUGHTER)

WANGLER: You might as well capture it and use it.

ROSE: New York's food waste recycling program is voluntary, at least for now. But city officials say they can imagine a day when the Big Apple will send all of its apple cores to the compost bin.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.