The Big Apple Takes on Food Waste

Gijs Langeveld

20 November 2017

New York City is tackling organic waste to reduce their impact on climate change. Curbside organic waste collection started as a pilot in 2012 and is now rolled out to 3.3 million city residents. We interviewed the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation, Kathryn Garcia, to hear why the city introduced a separate collection of organic waste, the status of its program and the biggest challenges it faces.

“Organic waste contributes about 4% to New York City’s overall greenhouse gas footprint, which makes it incredibly important to figure out how to use it in a way that is beneficial.

Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Photograph supplied by New York City

Why is introducing a separate collection of organic waste important to New York City?  

Organic waste rotting in landfills is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. Organic waste is just over 30% of the City’s residential waste stream, and it contributes about 4% to New York City’s overall greenhouse gas footprint, which makes it incredibly important to figure out how to use it in a way that is beneficial. Although buildings and transport contribute higher percentages, New York’s waste is landfilled in faraway states—so we need to be good stewards of our waste for the sake of the residents that are affected far away. We have also committed to meet the Paris Climate agreement levels here in the City of New York, despite what is happening at the federal level.

When you ask people to start separating out and recycling food waste, they also become very aware that they are either overbuying or poorly planning for their meals. This is an impactful thing to realize for your family’s budget, but also for your business. We educate food service establishments on the benefits of source separation and food waste prevention. If you’re not doing it, you’re letting some of your profits go to waste. There is a direct correlation between being efficient with food and the amount of waste you produce. Making sure that you do better means a healthier bottom line.

What is your outreach to households at this stage?

We serve over 3.3 million households now. We have been very aggressive in trying to engage New Yorkers. Sometimes they embrace it, sometimes they push back. One of the best stories I like to tell is one from this year when we were going house to house and giving people their brown bins. One older gentleman said: “Never. I don’t want it. I am not going to do it. Take it away.” We were at the same time giving out compost that had been made at the facility on Staten Island, and he wanted that! And so we were able to connect the dots for him to understand we need his banana peels to produce the compost that he actually finds very valuable.

Another story is about a giveaway of compost we did at our facilities on Staten Island. We were supposed to start at 9 AM. At 6 AM there were 1,000 cars blocking the highway to get their compost. One of their Council members called me, and said: “Are they really in line to get dirt?” And I replied: “Yes. People love it, they love this material.” It’s important to make the connection for the public that this thing you think of as a waste product becomes very valuable and your neighbors want it. Keeping it within the city helps. We have historic challenges for the way New York City grew and how they made land out of nothing.

Food waste container for households in New York

Are you pleased with the results until now? And what feedback did you receive from participating households?

Right now we are seeing what we have seen historically when we introduce any new recycling programme: There are places where we have huge participation and there are places that are trickier, that resist the concept. It takes time to involve everyone. Most of the people who have started participating do it because they don’t like food waste mixed in with the garbage sitting on the curb. We have been giving them the tools to manage the wet part—the food waste—in a way that doesn’t create odors or attract critters. They can use a plastic liner for the bin. And, if they are recycling properly, they have very little regular garbage left. They are astonished by how little waste is left. And they come up to me and say: I have nothing left.


What are your biggest challenges? 

The biggest challenge for us will be high rise buildings in the City’s public housing program. They have fewer resources allocated to maintenance services. Their floor plans, the way they were built: It is just not conducive for recycling. There are physical obstacles: There is no place to put it, there is no lobby, and if you put the containers outside, they are relatively contaminated. So, how do you incentivize the residents and figure out the physical infrastructure that will work? Solutions like resident chip-cards which restrict permission to use the bins only to residents, could be interesting. But behavior change is always hard.


Public Housing in New York City

This is a process of change for households but also for your organization. How do you manage the process of change in your organization?

Some portions of the organization are very enthusiastic and see the benefits. And there are other portions of the organization that do not like change. So I spent a lot of time going out and talking to the front line on a pretty regular basis. I get up at 4 o’clock and go and meet them at their garages at 6 when the shift is starting. We have a direct conversation. In such a large organization that is spread out across the City, there can be some gossip and rumors about why we’re doing the program, and what it means for the job. The only way to sort that out is to be out there, talking to the front line. They are the folks who are getting the tough questions. I don’t want anyone to say: “I don’t know, someone in management said we should do this. I don’t know why we are doing it, I don’t know where this is going.” So we’re making sure everyone can articulate the importance of separate organic collection and explain where the compost is ending up.

Union Square Greenmarket, New York City

In San Francisco they are managing a recycling and composting programme which has been widely successful (read here). One of the key elements is regulation and soft enforcement. Is that a model which can be applied to New York according to you?

San Francisco is very different from New York. First of all, they are a tenth of our population. Secondly, the population is very wealthy. Recycling in general is correlated with income. Not in terms of the desire to recycle, but there is definitely an aspect of overcoming physical logistics that is easier for the higher income population.

What are your next steps?

My next year is pretty well mapped out. It will take us all of 2018 to expand the organics program, in curbside collection and convenient drop off sites, to the entire city. At this time, we are not planning to automatically roll out curbside collection in areas with a lot of high rise buildings, like the South Bronx and Manhattan. Those buildings will enter the program via an application process to make sure we have the building management involved. If I do not have the building management involved, the program doesn’t work. You can have every single resident properly separating their waste, and if the super, porter or maintenance staff is not on board—it will all come out mixed into a black bag for landfills. The application is open now; any building manager or resident can apply to get their building into the process.

Another big question on my mind is how we transition to a mandatory program. There are conditions we need to meet first. One: we need to have the service in place across the city. And the second condition needed is political support.


Is New York City developing a food waste strategy?

We are in the process of developing a strategy for food waste, for both the commercial and the residential side. As part of this process, we will continue to experiment with things. For example, we realized we need to install pre-processing equipment for organics collection, because people prefer to put their food waste in a plastic bag. They don’t like to touch the food waste, and they don’t want to have to clean out their bins often. So we had to figure out a way around that, and that is technology.


A special thank you to Monika Wysocki, Samantha MacBride and Bridget Anderson for their support and contributions to this post.


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