Gardening on the Planet, Ministry of Controversy

Hey, Mayor Bloomberg! Here’s Your New Compost Plan

You may have read that Mayor Bloomberg has a new food scrap composting plan for New York City.  It works just the same way suburban food scrap programs do:  everybody gets a new bin, everybody has to take another step when they separate their trash, everybody has to haul another thing out to the curb.

Having just spent three weeks living in two different small New York apartments, and having spent a couple of weeks once or twice a year for the last ten years or so in other very small New York apartments, I feel qualified to tell the mayor how the city ought to be run.  And I can tell you this:

Asking New Yorkers to set aside food scraps in their tiny little apartments and deposit them into special bins to be placed on the curb in a busy, crowded, pest-filled and sometimes smelly city is an inconvenient, silly and unnecessary idea.

Think about it.  Food scrap recycling in a dense urban area like New York requires millions of people to adjust their compact living spaces to accommodate a new container, and asks them to add one more chore to the zillions of small chores involved in apartment living.  In a small apartment, every little thing has a place.  Every smelly thing has to be taken outside immediately. Every messy thing must be cleaned up promptly.  Every extraneous thing must be disposed of.  Every ugly thing must be concealed.  Every extra thing must be given away or stored. And so on.  That’s just a fact of urban life.

It also requires a new set of trucks to drive around and pick the stuff up and take it to a newly-arranged place where something can be done with it, not to mention the associated administrative time, contracts, supervision, and so forth that goes along with any other municipal effort that serves millions of people by driving up and down streets in trucks on a daily basis.

So what’s the alternative?

Garbage disposals.

That’s right, garbage disposals!  Create a program to offer free or low-cost garbage disposals in New York City apartment buildings, restaurants, and businesses, and let New Yorkers shove all their food waste down the sink.

No special containers.  No extra efforts on the part of millions of people.  No sidewalk bins filled with rotting food.  No specially-rigged trucks driving around New York’s already-crowded streets picking the stuff up before the rats get to it (and burning fuel in the process).

But wait, you ask!  What’s so eco-friendly about stuffing kitchen scraps down the garbage disposal?

Nothing, unless the sewage treatment plant that handles that waste is set up to convert methane into fuel, like they do in Sweden.  And in Philadelphia, Tacoma, Milwaukee, and Chicago, where pilot projects are underway to turn garbage-disposal waste into energy and fertilizer.

How complicated would it be to transform New York’s sewage treatment plant into the sort of facility that could efficiently convert ground-up kitchen scraps into something more useful?  I’m sure it’s complicated.  But here’s the thing:  it’s ONE complicated project, not EIGHT MILLION complicated projects on the part of every household, restaurant, and business in the city.  Make it cheap, easy, or maybe even free for New Yorkers to install garbage disposals, and then focus all your effort on one project–making good use of it at the other end of the pipe.

But what about all that water use, you ask?  It takes water to grind that stuff up and send it down the pipe!  Well, I know this comes from a company that makes garbage disposals, but the figure is that garbage disposals make up about 1% of a household’s total water use, and anybody who washes dishes by hand (as many New Yorkers, lacking the space for a dishwasher, do) knows that the scraps tend to just run down the drain as the dishes are being washed and don’t really require that much more water.  Besides, a well-designed treatment plant will recycle that water safely.

Seems like a better solution to me, Mayor Bloomberg.  But what do I know?

food scrap image via Shutterstock

Posted by on June 26, 2013 at 5:27 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Ministry of Controversy.
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18 Responses to “Hey, Mayor Bloomberg! Here’s Your New Compost Plan”

  1. When the garbage disposal plan goes into action, let me know so I can invest in some NYC plumbing companies. We never purposefully put stuff down the disposal, having had bad experiences both times we did (mashed potatoes once, beet skins next). Our disposal may be capable of chewing up anything, but our pipes are not able to swallow it.

  2. Sandra Knauf says:

    I completely get your point but I agree with Alan. It would be a plumbing nightmare.

  3. Ray Eckhart says:

    Here’s another opinion in support of Amy Stewart:

    “I think the most absurd example is San Francisco’s much touted food waste recycling program . Sending food waste to a landfill is definitely bad, but the best solution is for people to grind it up in their disposal, send it into the sewage system, and for the treatment plant to convert it to renewable, carbon-neutral energy using an anaerobic digester (most advanced sewage treatment districts do this now). But perhaps the San Francisco sewage system can’t handle that volume. In any case, what they do is to drive heavy trucks up and down the famously steep hills of the city collecting the scraps. Then they drive the heavy loads 50 miles to a composting facility in Vacaville. There they generate the trace gases in the process I’ve described above. Then they load the heavy compost back into trucks and haul it 50 to 100 miles to organic vineyards who then claim to be doing something sustainable. That is pretty absurd.”

    More at the link:

    http://appliedmythology.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-serial-blind-spot-for-organic.html

  4. kathy says:

    I remember the day when people in Philadelphia put out their food waste for pickup by farmers on the outskirts. What they did with it, I don’t know, but it did not involve government. Compost or pigfeed, perhaps.
    The practice faded away as the outskirts became suburbs.

  5. Bloomberg has only to move a smidgen further towards autocracy and he’s going to start telling you what garden varieties to plant and how many fresh tomatoes each of you should consume weekly.

  6. filippine says:

    Organic Matter in landfills speeds up the decomposition of other wastes. It is good for landfills.

    In the Netherlands, we had a compost program. Sealable buckets were given to us for our food wast and although the buckets functioned pretty well, it caused quite a smelly mess.
    However, the reason for stopping this program was not the mess or smell, the reason was actually the negative effect on the landfills! Without the organic matter to mix, the other refusal did not compost and became unmanageable.

  7. Dana says:

    Having worked in NYC after hurricane sandy when massive power outages stopped most garbage truck routes, and having worked downtown for several years where there always seems to be trash build-up. I see your point. But saving food scraps can be as simple as keeping a Tupperware container in your freezer. The freezing stops any smells, rotting or mold and still allows for the food to e composted! This way also takes up very little room. It might seem like an inconvenience at first, but composting really is a great idea to cut down on waste in cities that already produce too much trash!

  8. Lynn says:

    I see your point but mixing all that good material with the pharmaceuticals that get flushed and the oily water runoff from the streets would have to make it less valuable.
    When I was in Barcelona I was surprised to see big bins on the street – one part for the landfill, one for recyclables and one for compost. People who lived in apartments used them. Instead of taking one bag with you when you left your apartment – take two.

  9. gemma says:

    Bokashi composting is promoted in New Zealand as an effective way to deal with kitchen wastes in urban areas. It would be an extra step to take it to a drop-off site, but NYC does have a network of community gardens that could take the end product.

    I agree that garbage disposals are a plumbing nightmare, even for committed, experienced users. The worst part is that, assuming those tiny apartments don’t have double sinks, a stopped-up garbage disposal means a stopped-up sink: No dish washing, and no place to put dirty dishes, until a plumber can come.

    There’s that urban myth that NYC’s sewer system can handle anything. But then there’s still the problem of getting the food waste in small-enough pieces to flush. You don’t want backed-up toilets!

  10. John says:

    Amy,

    Thanks for a great post! I agree with you, and I agree with many of the commenters. Great debate! Dana’s idea (freezing food scraps) is interesting. I keep a tall pot with a lid on the counter , and I empty a few times a week. The odor is only apparent for a few minutes (when opening/closing). This could become offensive for someone in a small apartment. I live in a semi-rural area.

  11. commonweeder says:

    I’m passing this whole issue on to my daughter Dr. Betsy who works with municipal water inflow AND now outflow in Massachusetts. I wonder what, if anything, her systems have to say and how they handle wastewater. Fascinating.

  12. shannon says:

    I agree with the comments that plumbing will become a nightmare. Also, I have concerns over the final product from the sewage treatment plant, it will contain heavy metals and pharmaceuticals from other components of the waste stream that I don’t want used on my plants or food crops.

  13. Here in Marin county ( north of the golden gate bridge) we have been encouraged through educational programs to put our kitchen waste in our Green Waste (landscape waste) cans for curbside pick-up. Easy peasy and no hassle. The owners of the garbage company have sleekly designed their cans and trucks so that only one truck is required to pick up the dual flanged cans once a week.
    Our garbage pick-up service runs like a well oiled machine – and they are so proud of how it works there are weekly field trips and seminars available to attend for anyone or any group to see how it works in concert with the environment and the economy. I’ve toured the dump twice in two different locations ! It’s an amazing industry. The dump in S.F. even has an impressive outdoor art gallery in a garden setting.

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  16. greg draiss says:

    Sometimes it is just not practical to go green. Also if you consider food scraps are vital to landfills, aka ginormous compost piles. We have already removed an important nitrogen source form the piles by making grass clippings illegal. Removing yet another source of nitrogen will increase the half life of landfills by a factor of 6 Jerry Baker’s bad tips lists

    THE TROLL

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