From championing energy-efficient buildings to improving air quality, New York is known for paradigm shifts that make cities smarter, cleaner and healthier. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan aims to make it the most sustainable big city in the world and a leader in the fight against climate change.
But part of that plan—forbidding large commercial establishments to send organics to landfills—has many businesses concerned about the impact to their bottom lines. And experts worry that disposing of all that waste without landfills will prove impossible.
Effective July 19, businesses generating large quantities of food must separate their organic waste. This includes food-service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms, food-service vendors in arenas and stadiums with seating capacity of at least 15,000, food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet, and food wholesalers with at least 20,000 square feet.
Organic waste accounts for as much as one-third of the refuse hauled away from businesses. The commercial organics rule that begins next week is not the city’s first such effort—voluntary programs like the Food Waste Challenge and the Healthy Food Donation Initiative have made strides in diverting waste away from landfills—but the new rule promises to have an exceptional impact. By mandating responsible waste management on an unprecedented scale, the rule acknowledges that proper disposal of organic waste is no longer a nice-to-have policy reserved for the environmentally conscious crowd; instead, it’s a shared responsibility.
The rule wisely let businesses choose the path to compliance, but some might not be aware of the options available to them and that some can be implemented without at little or no extra cost.
Most businesses assume the only solution for discarded organic waste is composting. However, after the closure of the city’s closest large composting facility (104 miles away) in 2014, none has been identified that can handle the volume and frequency needed to support the city’s commercial food waste disposal needs while also being affordable.
However, two additional diversion options are allowed.
One is anaerobic digestion. This comes with the benefit of creating sustainable energy but faces the same expensive transportation costs as composting, as only a few facilities are in close proximity to the city. One is being built in Yaphank, Long Island, but no opening date has been confirmed.
The other choice is aerobic digestion. Aerobic digesters break down food waste via microorganisms, producing a gray-water effluent that can be safely discharged to the traditional sewage stream and treated by wastewater treatment plants. Since they replace carting costs, they can be a more economical choice for some businesses. In addition, advanced aerobic digesters also provide customers real-time data and the ability to track the progress of their diversion efforts. This level of insight can help indicate inefficiencies within an organization and help management identify opportunities for improvements. Additionally, by eliminating the need for the diesel-burning waste trucks, they the city cleaner and safer.
Businesses affected by the new rule must get educated on the options available so that they can find a solution that works best, both environmentally and economically. The commercial organics rule furthers the city’s track record of leadership, and Mayor de Blasio and Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia should be commended for their efforts to combat this serious and often overlooked challenge.
After all, if a place called “the Big Apple” can’t take organic waste management seriously, who can?
Frank E. Celli is the CEO of BioHiTech Global, a green technology company that develops and deploys waste management solutions.