NYC Compost
Erika Matthias

In an obvious effort to be more like San Francisco, New York is rolling out a composting program.

We on the West Coast know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. We don’t mind at all! In fact, we’re just itching to offer advice.

When I asked Melanie Nutter, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, what counsel she would give, she said cities really have to teach people how to compost. “It’s not something you necessarily know how to do, so there has to be education,” she said. “And it has to be multilingual.”

How do you educate? Robert Reed, spokesperson for San Francisco’s waste management company Recology, says you just have to show people how cool composting really is.

Reed gets really excited about compost, and it’s infectious. “When people start to understand all the benefits they literally say, ‘From now on I’m always going to use that green bin. Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?’” Reed said.

“We’re keeping 600 tons of organic material out of landfills every day, which means it’s not rotting there and producing greenhouse gases. And instead it’s going to local farms and improving yields, and fostering microbes in the soil, which means the soil gets softer and absorbs more rainfall — it becomes a sponge — which means the farmer doesn’t have to use as much groundwater, so they are using less power to run their pumps. And then, the food comes back to the city in the form of more delicious, healthier crops. By composting you are making yourself healthier, your city healthier, and the earth healthier.”

Let’s break down that pitch:

  1. Less garbage: The less waste we produce, the less land turns into dumps. New York generates 1.1 million tons of food waste annually, and hopes to begin diverting a tenth of that at the start of the new program. That means it should save a lot of money on landfill fees — up to $100 million, if it ramps up to full capacity. For this reason garbage collectors like Waste Management have sometimes fought government composting regulations.
  1. Greenhouse gases: Rotting food produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Many landfills have begun capturing methane and burning it for energy, but they don’t get all of it. Composting, of course, produces methane too, but there are a couple ways of dealing with it. You can run the waste through a digester and pipe off the gasses for fuel, then use the solids as fertilizer. Or you can use a secondary set of microbes to break down the methane, which is what happens with the bulk of the waste in the San Francisco Bay Area. The emissions pass through mounds of almond wood chips, which is full of germs that eat the gaseous organic compounds.
Compost biofilter
Larry Strong, Recology
Drawing gases into the wood-chip biofilter (the exposed mound).
  1. Fertilizer for farms: Farms using compost need less industrial fertilizer, which reduces their carbon footprint, and — if they grow cover crops — they sequester more carbon.
  1. Enriching the soil: Soil amended with compost can be less compacted, and more likely to sponge up water, preventing erosion. There’s some evidence that good soil ecology can discourage soil diseases and make micronutrients more available to plants.
  1. Better food: Provide the fertilizer that organic farmers need and you are a lot more likely to have access to delicious food.
  1. Unforeseen benefits: Recology found that once composting became the norm in San Francisco they could recover a lot more recyclable material from the trash because it wasn’t covered in gooey, week-old hamburger meat.

There are naysayers, of course, who say that New York will never be like San Francisco. Composting is just too much work, they say, and all the food waste will encourage vermin.

But vermin are a function of food in the trash, not a function of composting. Rats and roaches don’t care if their lunch arrives in a green bin or a black one. And the Environmental Protection Agency’s Jared Blumenthal told the Washington Post it’s only a matter of time before composting is everywhere: “[N]ow everyone from Massachusetts to Minnesota has programs starting up, and pretty soon there will be a critical mass.”

So the question isn’t: Will New York imitate the West? The real question is: How long will it take for them to catch up?

Editor’s Note: This story originally contained two incorrect figures, one for the amount of organic material San Francisco keeps out of landfill (it’s 600 tons a day, not 600 million tons) and the other for the amount of organic waste New York produces annually (it’s 1.1 million, not 1.2 billion tons). We have corrected those figures, and we’ve also clarified the explanation of the amount New York could save on landfill costs.