Memo 3: Annotated Bibliography-Composting in New York City

To: Professor MacBride

From: Kelly Wu

Date: April 15, 2013

Re: Composting in New York City: Residential, Institutional, and Municipal Scales


“Hunts Point Food Distribution Center: Organics Recovery Feasibility Study.” 2005. New York City: DSM Environmental Services.

Summary: The New York City Economic Development Corporation investigated the feasibility of implementing a composting facility near the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center. The Hunts Point Food Distribution Center offers produce to retailers in New York City, generating “approximately 27,400 tons of waste per year…111 tons per day,” of which “three-quarters” are biodegradable (“Hunts Point Food Distribution Center: Organics Recovery Feasibility Study” 2005). The study revealed that anaerobic digestion would be most suitable for an institution like the Hunts Point Market. Bacteria would break down organic compounds without oxygen, creating methane and carbon dioxide in the process. Because anaerobic digestion is initiated in a regulated environment, the methane generated from this process can also be used as a potential energy source. The study also predicted that the compost produced after anaerobic digestion could be sold, creating another source of revenue for its vendors. The operation of the facility would also create potential jobs for those unemployed and significantly reduce the amount of waste exported to facilities located outside of New York. However, despite its many potential benefits, residents around the area do not want a composting site located near their homes. Some vendors believe that a composting facility will negatively impact their businesses because of the stigma associated with composting sites. The study also points out that if New York City agencies were to encourage this idea by providing land, permits, and grants, then the possibility of implementing a composting facility at Hunts Point would be significantly increased.

 Rationale: The Hunts Point Produce Market serves as a great example of how an institution can benefit from a composting facility. The Hunts Point Produce Market is a unique institution in that large amounts of biodegradable and organic waste would be generated from the market on a daily basis. There is a significant need for composting at Hunts Point, and significant benefits will inevitably arise from it, as shown by the statistics in this report. However, despite its many benefits, there are still substantial obstacles to overcome before its implementation. The stigma associated with composting facilities remains a significant problem. Institutional composting is no longer just a matter of costs and benefits, but a matter of radically changing the mindset of people, especially in a city like New York. Government agencies, as this report suggested, can take measures to motivate people to adopt institutional composting. Institutional composting requires a working and understanding relationship with all parties involved, because its success or failure is highly dependent on it.

Lange, Robert. 1999a. “Backyard Composting in NYC: A Program Evaluation”. New York City:

 Summary: The Department of Sanitation investigated the potential benefits of backyard composting in New York City through the implementation of a Backyard Composting Pilot Project. Complications arose when the pilot program revealed that “only one-third of all New York households, or approximately 930,000 homes” had access to backyards (Lange 1999). The segment of the population that had an access to a backyard coupled with an interest in composting was even more minor. Not only did backyard composting have low potential participation rates, but the program also showed that residential composting would have a negligible bearing on the diversion of municipal waste. Despite its failed efforts in redirecting organic waste from landfills, the program still showed many benefits that emerged indirectly from backyard composting, such as improved recycling rates and greater awareness of waste management. Other programs that resulted from the backyard-composting program, such as Compost Giveback days and organic waste workshops, led to better community involvement. In addition, those that participated in the program felt that they were playing an active role in protecting the environment.

 Rationale: This report shows that composting at the residential level is not efficient, especially based on the statistics that resulted from this study. However, something inefficient in terms of statistics does not automatically mean that it is unworthy of practice. Because of this program, the people who engaged in backyard composting actually felt like they were contributing to the health and welfare of the environment.  It even inspired and encouraged people to reflect upon their past consumption and disposal habits. Composting also served as an effective way of educating New Yorkers about waste management techniques. While past waste management strategies encouraged a nonchalant and detached mentality regarding waste, backyard composting urged New Yorkers to assume responsibility of their own waste. Backyard composting might not be efficient in terms of participation and diversion rates, but it remains vital to the psyche and education of New York City residents, which is arguably much more valuable than statistics.

 ———. 1999b. “Composting in NYC: A Complete Program History”. New York City:

 Summary: Over the past decade, the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling has explored the possibility of utilizing composting as a waste disposal strategy in New York City. The many different programs to investigate composting revealed the increasing importance of other viable disposal methods of organic waste, especially after the Fresh Kills Landfill closure in 2001.  To look at the future of New York City in relation to composting, the Department of Sanitation emphasized the importance for New York City to understand the “three essential levels of composting” (Lange 1999). Composting can be accomplished in three scales: residential, institutional, and municipal. Residential composting happens at the smallest scale, usually involving the placement of composting bins in residents’ backyards to dispose of biodegradable waste generated from each household. Institutional composting involves composting at different establishments such as, “schools, museums, and City agencies,” and then diverting the waste collected to a composting facility situated near the institution (Lange 1999). Finally, municipal composting, also the largest level of composting, involves collecting and composting all of the city’s organic waste. New York City’s unique environment presents benefits and obstacles to all three levels of composting.

 Rationale: In order to investigate the viability of composting as a waste disposal strategy, it is important to first think about how composting can be implemented in New York City. The benefits of composting are undeniable, but the way in which composting is incorporated into the city must be given further thought due to New York’s densely populated environment. This report’s definition of the three levels of composting (residential, institutional, and municipal) can be used as an angle to evaluate the efficiency of composting and as a means to develop New York City waste disposal policies. Rather than looking at the cost and benefits associated with composting in general, assessing composting in terms of the specific levels can prove to be much more practical. Looking at composting at the residential, institutional, and municipal scale can lead to specific, rather than general, insight on what difficulties are present with each level. I plan on using the three scales of composting as an approach to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of composting, thereby discovering what level of composting can prove to be the most efficient and suitable for New York City.

 ———. 2004. “Municipal Solid Waste Composting Report”. New York City.

Summary: The Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling attempted to assess whether or not composting is a worthy waste management strategy for the Department of Sanitation to adopt. Composting on the municipal scale tends to involve further complications because residents are not motivated to separate their waste. Even if residents did separate their biodegradable waste, additional transportation that collected only organic wastes would be required, thereby decreasing efficiency levels. Therefore, composting on the municipal scale did not seem like a viable way to treat waste in the past. However, the “residential waste stream is “63.8% degradable and 36.2 non-degradable,” while “the institutional waste stream is 74.5% degradable and 35.5% non-degradable” (Lange 2004). The percentage of biodegradable waste in the city’s waste stream shows that waste can be significantly diverted if it was composted. With mixed waste composting, residents can continue to dispose of their waste as before, and have the ability to capture 100% of its degradable waste stream.  The city’s waste would no longer have to be sent to a landfill, thereby decreasing the amount of methane gas released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, because of the nature of mixed waste, an extensive examination process is necessary in order to remove contaminants after its collection, which can lead to escalated costs if not monitored. In a pilot study, 500 tons of mixed waste was collected from Staten Island and then sent to a composting facility in Marlborough, Massachusetts for intensive examination. The study predicted the cost of a municipal solid waste composting facility to be $75 per ton, which is $20 less per ton compared to the city’s usual disposal methods. Most importantly, the compost generated from mixed waste met Class I compost standards and pollution requirements.

 Rationale: Composting at the municipal scale used to be inefficient for a city like New York to consider because of its dense population. Sending the city’s waste to a landfill was also the most effective way to treat waste in the economic sense, but obviously not the environmental sense. However, if mixed waste composting can be accomplished on the municipal level, then New York City can have a potential waste management strategy that can be efficient in both the financial and environmental sense. Seeing the statistics derived from this report, it is obvious that mixed waste composting on the municipal scale merits further research and development. If a viable waste management strategy emerges, it is the city’s responsibility to further explore the options and overcome the obstacles associated with each option. However, it is also important to consider where the composting facility would be located if such a program was implemented. Should the facility be housed in the city’s borders or would the city choose to transport its waste to a place such as Marlborough, Massachusetts? New York City has the duty to handle its own wastes, and looking into sustainable waste management strategies is just a start.

 Ligon, Paul. 2003. “Rikers Composting Project Report”. Massachusetts: Tellus Institute.

Summary: Rikers Island, the “largest municipal jail complex in the United States,” is an example of a densely populated institution situated in a relatively confined area (Ligon 2003). It generates “approximately 7,000 tons of food waste annually,” most of which was transported to the Fresh Kills Landfill prior to 2001 (Ligon 2003). The amount of organic waste produced by this institution makes it suitable for institutional composting, thereby inspiring the implementation of its Compost Project. Organic waste is first separated and then collected using color-coded plastic containers. The waste is transported to a composting facility situated nearby, where the utilization of an in-vessel, agitated bay technique is applied to initiate the composting of the organic material. Rikers Island’s composting facility conscientiously mitigates odors by keeping the facility under negative air pressure, preventing odorous airs from escape. In addition, the application of a biofilter system, a system containing microorganisms, also eliminates compounds from the compost that produce smells. Because certain parts of Rikers Island used to be a landfill, the compost produced from this process is then used to restore soil quality in portions of the Island, thus creating a sustainable system. The Compost Project in Rikers Island has led to reduced costs and minimized environmental impact of the island, with little expense to the island’s prisoners.

 Rationale: The Compost Project at Rikers Island is a prime example of composting at the institutional level. When large quantities of organic waste are generated in a relatively confined space, such as Rikers Island, it enables the efficient collection of waste and potential cost savings. This self-sustaining Compost Project reveals that composting on the institutional level can be accomplished in a conscientious and proficient way. However, Rikers Island differs from any other institution in New York City. It has enough space that can be allocated to situate a composting facility nearby, minimizing transportation costs. It has a supply of labor that can readily separate and sort out the waste prior to its transportation, minimizing contamination costs. In addition, the inmates housed at Rikers Island had and have minimal say in the implementation of a composting facility nearby. Other institutions in New York City might not be able to afford the space, time, and labor required for institutional composting. Without the space to house a composting facility nearby and labor to separate the waste, costs can escalate rapidly. Residents nearby might not desire a composting facility, which might even lead to public outcry. Rikers Island’s composting facility serves to show that institutional composting definitely merits further research and development, but the type of institutions that is suitable for composting also needs to be kept in mind. The successes of composting at one institution may not be applied to all institutions.

 Norgaard, Kari. 2011. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Summary: Kari Norgaard’s “Climate Change and Background Noise” describes powerful feelings of fear, helplessness, and guilt active in the United States in relation to climate change. With climate change rife with so many uncertainties and risks, many feel that they are helpless in the situation and victims of their political system. Fearful of future impending natural disasters, guilty because of their own contributions to climate change, and helpless due to feelings of incompetence, many have no idea how to deal with climate change. Faced with the enormity of climate change, these feelings of fear, helplessness, and guilt combine to make climate change fade into ignored “background noise” (Norgaard 2011). It is difficult to imagine how the power of an individual or even a city can alter the course of climate change, but such feelings encourage even more inactivity among United States citizens. For the most part, people have accepted climate change to be true, but they continue to behave in ways that do not reflect the acceptance of this knowledge, which is no less worse than outright “denial” (Norgaard 2011).

Rationale: Feelings of fear, guilt, and helplessness can lead to a vicious cycle of denial.  If caught up in this vicious cycle, climate change would just continue to escalate until it’s too late. However, composting on the residential level encourages New Yorkers to take part in fighting against climate change.  With backyard composting, New Yorkers can lessen their feelings of helplessness by actively reducing their own organic waste and educating themselves on waste management in the process.  Although this might not actually stop climate change on a global level, the feeling of agency, the idea that everyone can play a part in reducing their own environmental impact is invaluable to the psyche of New Yorkers. Ultimately, people need to be knowledgeable about climate change, and those that are educated about it need to be reassured that they can help. The average person might not have much control over their political system or the decision making of corporations in relation to the environment at large. However, they do have control over their own consumption and disposal habits, which backyard composting urges people to reflect upon.

 Pellow, David. 2007. Resisting Global Toxics: Transnational Movements for Environmental Justice. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

 Summary: David Pellow highlights how prevailing and dominant environmental racism can be, transcending local, national, and international boundaries. Developed nations such as the United States send their waste to marginalized neighborhoods or countries, letting those without a voice reap all the negative costs of poor waste management policies.  The United States’ waste management strategies encourage an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality and attitude towards waste disposal (Pellow 2007). Towns such as Chester have been the victims of this mentality and attitude, and residents have been exposed to carcinogenic and toxic waste for years. The waste generated by wealthier cities may be “out-of-mind” to some, but very much a reality to the residents of Chester. While people of developed nations continue to consume and dispose waste in immeasurable quantities, the forgotten nation or neighborhood becomes even more disempowered and helpless. Since every society produces waste, it is necessary for the implementation of better and more sustainable waste disposal strategies in order to prevent further exploitation of the disempowered.

 Rationale: Disempowered nations or neighborhoods do not have the responsibility or obligation to treat the waste of a developed nation or city. It is arguably each nation’s own duty to treat the waste generated within in its borders. Like Pellow says, every society produces waste, and this cannot be avoided. However, waste does not magically disappear after its disposal. If a city chooses to treat and manage its own waste through composting, where would such facility be implemented?  Would the government plan to have the facility situated in a disempowered neighborhood instead of a disempowered country? If no one is willing to place a composting facility in his or her neighborhood, how could New York City manage to treat its own waste? Would New York City have to resort to exporting their waste outside its borders again? Composting definitely has its merits, but additional aspects such as location, public participation, and community concern must be considered as well.

*Cited using Chicago Manual Style (author-date)


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