Food Waste Wasters Squander City Savings

In this Aug. 29 photo, at the Waste Management facility in North Brooklyn, tons of leftover food sits piled up before being processed into biogas. A new report shows how getting more of the city’s organic waste into compost facilities and biogas plants would make a large financial difference. AP Photo/Stephen Groves.

In this Aug. 29 photo, at the Waste Management facility in North Brooklyn, tons of leftover food sits piled up before being processed into biogas. A new report shows how getting more of the city’s organic waste into compost facilities and biogas plants would make a large financial difference. AP Photo/Stephen Groves.

By Sara Bosworth

New York City could recoup $22.5 million annually for its money-losing organic waste collection program — but substantially more New Yorkers must get on board, according to a new report from the New York City Independent Budget Office.

The nonpartisan budget analysts found that just 1.7 percent of the city’s 1 million tons of organic waste is recycled in fiscal year 2017. After processing, the resulting compost is either given away or sold — and this year it’s slated to recoup just $50,000. That’s less than 1.7 percent of the $30 million allocated for the program this year.

If New York City was able to turn all of its 1 million tons of food scraps and pizza boxes into biogas — a renewable energy source used for electricity and heating — it could earn $22.5 million. While that’s still short of the program’s price tag, it recoups funds spent on trucking around waste, whether it’s sorted out or not.

The city’s once ambitious organic waste collection program — in 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan for New York City to become zero-waste by 2030 — has been tempered significantly. The curbside collection program has stalled in Brooklyn, where nearly a dozen neighborhoods are still not included, and collection in the some of the neighborhoods that do participate has become less frequent.

Collection continues throughout many parts of Queens, though Sanitation scaled back collection in Community District 11 to one day a week in August.  CD11 includes Bayside, Auburndale, Little Neck and Oakland Gardens.

The program has not yet expanded to include Community Districts 1, 3, 4 and 6, which comprise much of Northwest and North Central Queens from Astoria to Forest Hills, and Community District 12, which covers much of Southeast Queens neighborhoods like Jamaica, Hollis, St. Albans and Springfield Gardens.

The Department of Sanitation encourages residents to continue checking the department’s website for updates and to consider dropping off food scraps at  28 drop-off sites operated by DSNY in Queens. Partner organizations like GrowNYC and The Compost Project also run drop-off sites, as do a number of community organizations. There are 59 such sites in Queens.

Much of the meager 1.7 percent of organic waste that did make it to the organic waste bins in 2017 was turned into compost, some of which was given away for free to residents at a yearly event, and some of which was sold to landscapers at $10 per cubic yard. The rest of the recycled waste is converted into biogas, a renewable energy source that can be used for electricity and heating.

The report calculates what the potential earnings could be if all that organic waste ended up where it was supposed to. Under the going rate for compost, the city could make $12.5 million a year if all the waste was turned into compost. Alternatively, if all the waste was converted into biogas for electricity, the revenue would reach approximately $22.5 million annually.

The numbers theorized in the report do not take into account collection or infrastructure costs.

Queens residents who opt to recycle their organic waste — which the Department of Sanitation identifies as food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard waste — have two options. If they live in a neighborhood that participates in the city’s residential organics collection program, they can leave their compost outside in one of the city-issued brown bins that are picked up weekly by Sanitation workers.