The New York City mayor’s office last week announced the rollout of food scrap recycling to City residents after a successful pilot program in Staten Island. While this newest move toward Zero Waste by a big city is encouraging, we suspect that plenty of Zero Waste Outreach will be needed to make this new behavior palatable to blasé New Yorkers. The Big Apple will come up against many of the barriers to food scrap recycling that we struggle with on the West Coast, including countering perceptions of odor and vermin — aka the “yuck factor” — that make introducing food scrap recycling so challenging.
While several headlines focus on New York’s new “leadership” with this move, it should be noted that the City’s broad goal is to divert 30% of waste from landfills by 2017 (and 75% by 2030), as compared to San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020 and the State of California’s goal of a 75% diversion rate by 2020, with an ultimate target of zero waste. New York’s current residential recycling rate is a startlingly low 15 percent.
The City conducted a pilot program in Staten Island, and officials were heartened after reaching a 43% participation rate in the targeted area. However, Staten Island is atypical of New York in that it comprises largely single-family homes. We know from our outreach work that multi-family dwellings (MFDs) are one of the most challenging segments when it comes to organics recycling … and there are a lot of apartment buildings in New York. MFDs lag single family dwellings in recycling rates by a huge margin. In Seattle, for example, single family homes achieved a 70.3% recycling rate in 2010, versus 29.6% for MFDs. Barriers to food scrap recycling in multi-unit buildings include space concerns, the perceived inconvenience, high turnover among residents and building managers, and lack of accountability, as the anonymity afforded by a large apartment building can let people assume that no one will know who’s not using the correct bin.
Believe it or not, curbside food scrap composting has been tried previously in New York, with a pilot program in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. But perhaps the effort was ahead of its time. The pilot wasn’t extended due to concerns that diversion would be low, while the expense and environmental impact of adding another truck route to the waste collection system was high.
In the interim, composting has been championed by a local agency, NYC Compost Project, which supports and promotes community-based composting sites throughout the City. The 20 years that have passed since the Brooklyn pilot likely means a better return on investment
We salute New Yorkers for taking steps toward reducing waste; each diverted pail-full will make a difference. If food scrap recycling can make it there, it can make it anywhere!