Cities are growing. So, too, is the collective demand for food production and waste collection. In New York City - home to about 8.5 million people - more than 6 million tons of waste is disposed of every year. Nearly a third of that waste is organic, including food that:
- Goes bad in refrigerators and on shelves;
- Could be donated from grocery stores;
- or is scraped off dinner plates, cutting boards and lunch trays in residences, restaurants, and commercial establishments.
At the same time, nearly 1.4 million New Yorkers face hunger and food insecurity every year. Some organizations like City Harvest are working at the intersection of hunger and waste, rescuing 150,000 pounds of food every day and delivering it to 500 community food programs throughout New York City each year. Other organizations, like Harlem Grown, operate local urban farms to increase access to and knowledge of healthy food through mentorship and hands-on education. For Tony Hillery (known by many as “Mr. Tony”), Founder and Executive Director of Harlem Grown, food justice extends beyond food production and distribution, and involves harnessing education to create healthy habits and healthy lives.
Harlem Grown embodies the type of on-the-ground empowerment that is essential for transforming our food systems. The organization has been sending rippling effects through Harlem and beyond since 2011. The Harlem Grown team builds farms, provides job training, mentors youth and partners with residents, organizations, businesses, and schools to grow healthy people and healthy food. Harlem Grown is also contributing to New York City’s ability to make better use of its organic waste. Urban farms, like those managed by Harlem Grown, take kitchen scraps and yard waste and turn that organic waste into compost that can be returned to the earth and used to produce more food in the future.
The City of New York takes this waste stream seriously. In 2013, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced food waste as “New York City’s final recycling frontier,” targeting a diversion rate of 75% from landfills by 2030. Why is better management of organic waste so important to the City? For one thing, it comprises nearly one-third of all waste leaving NYC, accounting for about 31% of all waste generated by NYC residents. Hauling waste to landfills hundreds of miles away is costly, and once there, it produces methane as it degrades, releasing the harmful greenhouse gas into our atmosphere.
The OneNYC Sustainability Vision outlines a citywide commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels 80% lower than 2005 levels by 2050. What will help the City reach this goal is another citywide initiative: Zero Waste to landfills by 2030. The City launched curbside organics collection back in the spring of 2013 and has since grown to serve over 3 million households in New York City (Request service to your home or business here). With over 15,500 employees, the NYC Department of Sanitation operates the world's largest sanitation department, collecting 1.6 million pounds of yard waste and food scraps every year. By the end of 2018, the City of New York’s Department of Sanitation will provide all New Yorkers with access to curbside organics pick-up or neighborhood drop-off sites. To date, 74 existing drop-off sites have accepted food scraps from 200,000 New Yorkers, collectively diverting 2.3 million pounds of food waste from landfills each year.
Tracking this food waste has helped the City evaluate progress and make improvements to the program. Today, city data shows that every week, the average New Yorker tosses about 24 pounds of waste: 15 pounds at home, and 9 more pounds at work and on the go. Local, on-the-ground efforts like Harlem Grown and City Harvest are critical for achieving Zero Waste to landfills by 2030, but so are larger systems that will process a bulk of this food waste. That’s where the opportunity of anaerobic digestion comes in.
Anaerobic digestion is the process of using microbes and machinery in airtight tanks to break down organics into biogas, water, and solids (including that which can be used as fertilizer for food production). Learn more about the nitty gritty of anaerobic digestion here. Occupying a smaller footprint than composting facilities and capping odorous smells associated with composting and landfills, anaerobic digestion offers a promising solution for managing urban organic waste. These high-tech plants require larger investment up front and cost about $35 to $50 per ton, which is more than composting, but about half the average price of burying a ton of city waste in landfills. The benefits of using organic waste for producing carbon-neutral heat, electricity, and fertilizer are recognized by some to be a huge business opportunity.
And some people like Charles Vigliotti are ready. Investing $50 million in an anaerobic digester on a two-acre area 60 miles east of Manhattan, Vigliotti will transform food waste into profitable commodities. This business model harnesses once undervalued organic waste and creates a new, renewable energy resource, potting soil, and plant food while helping the city reach greenhouse gas emission reduction goals along the way. The endless supply of food and yard waste in New York City could, therefore, provide a new, endless supply of clean energy for electricity and building heating. Biogas even has the potential to replace traditional fuels in cars, opening up an even broader range of markets for this alternative energy source.
If this shift in food-waste management saves the City money, should that cost savings be allocated to developing more resources for alleviating food insecurity? Do you think separating waste into trash, recyclables, and organics is too burdensome for residents and businesses? How else might the City get to Zero Waste by 2030? Leave your thoughts and questions in the comment section below!
Credits: Images by Alyssa Curran. Data linked to sources.