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Whether They Want to or Not New Yorkers May Soon Have to Compost

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For New Yorkers, the city’s war on trash is about to hit home.

On Thursday, the New York City Council is expected to approve a bill that will require New Yorkers to separate their food waste from regular trash, much as they already do with recyclable items. The residential mandate would roll out borough by borough, starting with Brooklyn and Queens this October, followed by the Bronx and Staten Island in March 2024, and Manhattan that October.

The goal is to reduce the amount of organic waste the city sends to landfills, where it produces a particularly potent greenhouse gas called methane.

The timing roughly approximates the rollout of the mayor’s previously announced citywide composting program, but the two differ in one important aspect: The mayor’s plan is voluntary.

Although some experts believe that making the program mandatory is key to its financial sustainability, the mayor’s administration believes that New Yorkers need time to adjust to a new regimen. It is unclear if Mr. Adams will sign the bill, but it appears to have enough support to override a mayoral veto.

“We have a supermajority on all of the bills,” said Sandy Nurse, the councilwoman who chairs the Sanitation Committee and is one of three lead sponsors of the legislative package. “Whether or not the administration wants these bills to happen is irrelevant. They’re happening.”

A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment.

The success of the Council’s mandate will depend on the Sanitation Department’s effective delivery of the program. But the city’s sanitation commissioner, Jessica Tisch, declined to comment directly on the Council’s legislative package, instead trumpeting her own department’s voluntary program as “easy, no drama, focused on service.” And she noted that starting June 30, the city will be rolling out a smaller-scale mandate of its own: Queens residents will be required to separate out their leaf and yard waste during certain months of the year. That mandate does not apply to food scraps.

Separately, the Council plans to require the city to establish e-waste recycling and organics collection centers in each borough and to codify its goal to eliminate all recyclables and organic matter from its waste stream by 2030.

From a waste management standpoint, New York City is behind the curve. Starting in 2009, San Francisco and Seattle began mandating composting. California has a statewide composting mandate. Barcelona’s trash containerization techniques have become the envy of New York City urbanists.

In New York, the financial and cultural capital of the United States, access to organics collection sites is hit-or-miss, largely dependent on location and administrative caprice. New Yorkers who want to responsibly dispose of their hazardous waste, including electronics and paint, have even fewer options; many wait for a city legislator to sponsor an ad hoc disposal fair.

This legislation aims to bring New York City’s waste management practices into the modern era, and to embed them into law. Like recycling, the separation of food waste will be enforceable with fines.

But if recycling enforcement is any indication, penalties will likely be few and far between. Lily Baum Pollans, an associate professor at Hunter College who studies waste management, said the lack of enforcement is a factor in the city’s low compliance. The city’s overall curbside recycling diversion rate is roughly 17 percent.

The composting mandate encompasses all New York City residents, in buildings big or small, with the exception of the roughly 400,000 New Yorkers who live in public housing, because the public housing authority is “characterized as a federal agency,” and is not subject to such city mandates, said Shahana Hanif, who, with Keith Powers, are the other two leads sponsors of the legislative package.

To further the goal of reducing methane, some of the organic waste to be collected will be composted, a process that produces “hardly any methane,” according to Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

But until the city sets up better composting infrastructure, much of those organics will be fed into anaerobic digesters, which Mr. Goldstein describes as superior to using landfills, but less than ideal. In those digesters, “the methane is captured to generate energy, replacing fossil fuels,” he said.

Roughly half of New York City’s residential waste is organic matter, and it “represents the largest portion of New York City’s residential solid waste that could be diverted from landfills,” according to a 2021 report from the New York City Independent Budget Office. (The Sanitation Department puts the proportion of organic waste at a more conservative 37 percent of the city’s waste stream.)

The report noted that the per-ton cost of hauling organic waste is significantly higher than it is for recyclables and regular trash, a situation that can only be fixed by expanding the program citywide.


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