Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Recycling Cliches

Gotham Gazette focuses on yet another attempt by the city council to find some way to boost New York's anemic recycling rates. Now we go back a long way on this issue, and we have yet to see any measurable difference being made by a single piece of legislation. Meanwhile the costs of both recycling as well as garbage exporting continue to escalate: "With many city residents still dumping all their trash in the garbage can, the City Council yesterday passed 11 bills to spur recycling in the city, including a measure that would let New Yorkers put all rigid plastic containers -- even yogurt cups -- in the blue bin."

Great, just what we need, more mandates-even while the cost per ton on this program far outpaces the revenue. But what really got our interest, was the council's look at composting-evinced in Intro 171, a bill designed to "study" this costly methodology for any complex urban environment. As the council committee's report says: "Food waste constitutes about 18% of New York City’s residential waste stream, according to the 2005 Waste Characterization Study. This is a larger portion of the waste stream than the combined weight of all currently recyclable metals, glass, and plastics, and all rigid plastic containers that are currently not recyclable. With such a significant portion of the waste stream made up of food waste, it is imperative that alternative means of disposal of this material be investigated."

Is the council really serious about this-five years after canning the only proven methodology-food waste disposers-to deal with organic waste? Apparently so-although the report doesn't offer much hope for residential composting: "In the early 1990’s, the Department of Sanitation conducted two pilot programs in Brooklyn to assess the benefits of separate collections for food scraps and other organic household waste. DOS composted this waste at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island and produced finished compost that met State standards for Class I compost."

One community targeted was Park Slope; the other Starrett City: "The Park Slope pilot succeeded in getting residents to separate compostable waste; after four years of service, approximately 40% of compostable waste was captured for composting within the pilot area, a capture rate that is similar to that of other recyclables. The overall recycling diversion rate in the pilot area was increased by 6% as a result of the collection of compostables. In Starrett City, however, residents were very concerned about pests being attracted to separated food scraps which were collected less frequently than normal garbage, and were reluctant to dispose of this waste separately."

Yuh think? But there's no mention of the DEP residential food waste disposer study done by the DEP in the mid-nineties. Why not? What the council never examines in this report is the the back end of the compost collection network-because, even if you get the folks to compost, is it feasible (and economical) to transport this wet waste to a proper facility? After all, Fresh Kills is closed and the nearest composting facility-really a dump-is about 60 miles away.

The DEP study of the nineties posited that the city could bring an additional 30,000 fwds on line each year for thirty years without having any negative impact on the waste water treatment infrastructure.And we bet the folks at Starrett City would like the fact that the wet waste that sits in its basement waiting collection-and attracting rodents and insects-would now be sent down the sewer instead. Yet, the council doesn't even discuss this methodology, why not? In study after study around the country, it has been demonstrated that this methodology is less expensive and more efficient-with even a better end product-than the use of a composting procedure that involves household source separation.

And then there's the council report's discussion of commercial putrescibles: "Private carters have experimented with changed in truck design that allow them to collect these materials more efficiently. A few composting facilities in close proximity to New York City accept compostable materials at much lower rates than those charged by transfer stations and landfills that accept trash. With many new practices having developed since DOS’s last experiments with composting, exploring alternative ways to dispose of compostables is once again timely."

Really? Did the council actually survey the carters? And if the above statement is true-and the collection and trucking of recyclables is efficient and less expensive than simply dumping, why isn't it being done in the private sector? The easy answer is, that, in comparison to dumping, it isn't less expensive.

In spite of these daunting economic realities we get the following waste-of time: "Int. No. 171 would require DOS, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, to conduct a new study of the potential to expand composting of  food waste within the City. The study would be required to explore the feasibility of curbside collection of compostable material, and would require an examination of the capacity for facilities in and around the City to accept more material for composting. It would be required to explore the capacity of existing transfer stations in and around the City to accept compostable material, and the opportunity for those transfer stations to accept such materials in the future. The report would also include a list of locations throughout the City that accept compostable material on a voluntary basis, and would explore the feasibility of building on the capacity of these locations to compost more material."

Head hurt yet? With a simpler and less onerous methodology at its finger tips, the council embarks on its own excellent adventure into La La Land-rebutting its earlier point about private sector composting at the same time: "While some private carters have begun to offer separate collection for compostable waste, the practice remains limited."

But, after hot wiring the demolition of a pilot program on disposers we had helped to introduce in 2005, the council gives us the following narishkeit: "Int. No. 171 therefore requires that the Department conduct a pilot program incentivizing the separate collection of compostable materials by private carters. The pilot program may involve a section, district or neighborhood of the City. It may include, for those portions of the City included in the pilot and in conjunction with the Business Integrity Commission, lowering the maximum amount that may be charged for compostable waste pick-up and raising the maximum amount that may be charged for normal waste pick-up."

Repeal the laws of economics while you're at it. Folks, it is more expensive to pick up and dispose of wet waste-and the BIC adjusts its rates to recognize this. This speculative nonsense is like requiring insurance companies to cover folks with expensive chronic illnesses-but saying that they can't-or don't even have to-charge more for doing so.

But the commercial use of disposers would be embraced by the city's major wet waste generators-restaurants, supermarkets, and green grocers-because it would remove wet waste and lower disposal costs. Yet, the council and the mayor conspired to sand bag the disposer pilot-and "study" its feasibility by allowing the DEP to analyze the issue after it had already came out implacably against the methodology-against the practical experience of municipalities all over the country.

But the council isn't finished with this out of body experience: "It may involve requiring that participating customers dispose of compostable and non-compostable waste with the same carter. It may also include limiting the amount that may be charged by transfer stations within the City for the disposal of source-separated compostable waste. This pilot program will be designed to find effective incentives to maximize private sector participation in composting programs, and a report on the effectiveness of the program will be required within three months of the pilot’s completion."

And, what's next, turning lead into gold? The reality is that the city has an excellent methodology for eliminating a huge amount of the food waste that it currently-in both the residential and private sectors-is forced to export at great expense. Instead, unrealistic concepts are floated that have absolutely zero chance of success. The only result of this exercise in futility will be an increase in the amount of paper being made available for recycling-the reams of city council reports that will literally be grist for the (paper) mills.