Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Can compost replace Girl Scout Cookies?

Can NYC community organizations earn income from neighborhood scale food waste collection and composting?  To put it another way, could bags of compost with the name of your block association or church ever be used for fundraising like Girl Scout cookies?  

“We currently spend more than $1 billion a year to manage solid waste including $300 million to export 3.3 million tons of City-collected waste. These costs are projected to rise exponentially. We must take aggressive steps to make our waste management system more environmentally and economically sustainable.” PlaNYC, p. 137.

According to the NYC Dept. of Sanitation (DSNY), food scraps constitute about 17.7%, approximately 650,000 tons annually, of the total NYC DSNY-managed waste stream. 4% of the City’s waste stream is leaf and yard waste. (PlaNYC, p. 138) 

Before we delve into opportunities for businesses and nonprofit groups to earn income while dealing with this problem, we'll review the City’s current efforts, and then the Bloomberg Administration’s newly announced plans to expand recycling.

Food waste collection today

Some community groups have been collecting food waste from residents at their facilities for years. Red Hook Community Farm, NY Restoration Project, Earth Matters, and the Gowanus Conservancy all collect food waste and compost it for use in their own gardens. It’s fairly easy for programs that compost up to 1,000 cubic yards per year to meet NYS licensing requirements. (Volume above that requires a NYS DEC Part 360 permit.)

DSNY is collecting and composting food scraps dropped off by NYC residents at neighborhood locations through the newly launched NYC Compost Project Local Organics Recovery Program (ORP) and the GrowNYC Food Waste Drop-Off Program. There are fifteen food scrap drop off sites.  DSNY also collects food scraps from about fifteen Green Market sites.

DSNY and Department of Education are already piloting a food waste collection program in about 40 Manhattan and Brooklyn public schools and 20 nonprofit institutions. (More at
DSNY Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling.) Those programs only account for a microscopic percentage of the food waste that’s dumped in NYC trash every day.

What about selling compost?

Lower East Side Ecology Center has been collecting food waste at the Union Square Market, composting it near the East River, and selling it back to consumers since 1994. BuildItGreen! Compost in western Queens has been making its own compost since 2010, but as required by its funding gives it away instead of selling it. Its director Justin Green is looking at creating a huge worm composting facility to create a high quality, higher priced compost. “We haven’t come up with a money making formula yet. The market for compost and how you reach it is still unknown.”

GrowNYC enters the compost retail market

A big breakthrough in compost sales is coming this year. GrowNYC / Greenmarket plans to start selling bags of Greenmarket branded organic compost, with an estimated retail price between $10 – 12 for a 12 lb. bag, according to David Hurd, Director of GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education.

Hurd agreed that it’s possible for community groups to buy Greenmarket brand compost at wholesale and resell them at their local Greenmarket, but that doesn’t mean it would work. Although some NYC gardeners will pay extra for Greenmarket compost, and would be more willing to buy if some of the sale price was going to their neighborhood group compost is probably never going to compete with Girl Scout cookies as a fundraising product for nonprofit groups. Besides, it’s hard to compete with the low end of the market. Generic compost from Lowes sells for about $2 for a 40 pound bag.

Will New Yorkers pay to have their food waste picked up and composted?

Ordering take-out food for home delivery is a standard business, but will it work the other way?
Greg Todd has proposed collecting food waste from residents or businesses for neighborhood composting using industrial tricycles, charging a fee for waste pickup and perhaps selling the finished compost. This method has been pioneered in Northampton, Massachusetts. It’s a fascinating idea, but there are legal and operational barriers to this in NYC.

To actively pick up food waste, a license from the NYC Business Integrity Commission is needed. NYC BIC aims to eliminate organized crime from the business sectors it regulates, such as waste carting. Carting licenses cost $5,000 for a two year term, with extra fees per vehicle. BIC license fees and procedures pose a barrier for community groups which might want to collect food. Entrepreneurs would have to convince City officials and lawyers to create an exemption for community based food waste pickup, or find ways to partner with commercial holders of BIC licenses.

Another challenge would be finding multiple sites on which community composting facilities could be sited that are large enough to process large amounts of food waste. And finding the money with which to purchase and operate the composting facility, when there’s no guaranteed market for its product, and the City’s newly announced plans for massive expansion of food waste collection.

Perhaps there are ways to capture very specific parts of the waste stream for value added products. Two UC Berkeley seniors discovered they could use coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms. Their Oakland-based company now employs 21. They’re selling mushroom growing kits at Whole Foods, as well as very pricey bags of compost. If you can think of any, please post them. 

The City changes the game - announcing new recycling and composting plans, and a styrofoam ban

In his February 2013 State of the City Address, Mayor Bloomberg laid out a host of new initiatives:

“We’ll also take major new steps toward another important sustainability goal that we’ve set: Doubling the city’s recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017… It starts with making recycling easier for everyone by putting 1,000 new recycling containers in streets on all five boroughs this year… We’ll also tackle New York City’s final recycling frontier: food waste… So with Speaker Quinn and the City Council, we will work to adopt a law banning Styrofoam food packaging from our stores and restaurants. And don’t worry: the doggie bag will survive just fine.”

• Put 1,000 new recycling containers on streets in all five boroughs this year.

• Work with Speaker Quinn and the City Council to adopt a law banning polystyrene foam food packaging from stores and restaurants.

• Finalize a major new facility in South Brooklyn that will accept all kinds of plastics, have a state-of-the-art education center to teach children about recycling and one of the largest solar installations in the city.

• Begin recycling food waste, nearly 200,000 tons of which fill landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price.

• Launch a pilot program to collect curbside organic waste from single family homes in Staten Island for composting.

Ron Gonen, Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability at NYC Department of Sanitation, told us that the most important question is how to increase the organic waste processing capacity in the NYC area. What’s needed is not just industrial size but municipal size facilities. “We need companies with much bigger capacity, like Recology.” The City of San Francisco partners with Recology and now diverts 80 percent of all waste generated in the City away from landfill disposal through source reduction, reuse, and recycling and composting programs. San Francisco’s recycling and composting rate is the highest of any city in North America. Other leading municipal recyclers are Portland, Seattle and Toronto.

The biggest challenge, says Gonen, is making sure that NYC has the budget and the long term vision to build the composting and recycling infrastructure we need. The City is expected to issue requests for proposals (RFPs) from private firms to build massive composting facilities in the metro NYC area.

Businesses can join this effort, Gonen suggests, by looking into the design of products and packaging, and stimulating consumer demand for products made from and packaged with only recycled materials.

Back to our original question: can community groups make some money from composting while complementing City efforts?  Even if someone could hurdle the legal and logistical obstacles to neighborhood food waste collection, they would be in competition for what NYC plans to offer for free as a municipal service.  As far as we can tell, this is one of those sustainability dilemnas that cannot be addressed by entrepreneurial projects.  It requires massive government action, and fortunately, it's on the way. 

As with urban agriculture, there may not be much money to be made, but a great need to make New Yorkers more environmentally literate that doesn't translate easily into income.  We should still encourage people to garden in their own yards, using the compost they produce from their own food and landscaping waste.   The new DSNY composting services will need lots of neighborhood champions.  We'll need to build broad public support for a range of government sustainability measures in economically volatile times, and composting isn't a bad place to start. 

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