A Third of New York’s Organic Waste Ends Up in Landfills. Here’s a Better Story for How to Dispose of It.
New Yorkers can dump food scraps and other organic material, and even plastic bags, into new bins popping up around the city.
By Samantha Maldonado
Photos by Ben Fractenberg
February 21, 2023
The orange boxes appeared in January as if sprung from sidewalks, inviting New Yorkers to drop in their vegetables, plant clippings, used napkins, meat scraps and coffee filters — even the plastic bags that contain them.
That’s not how it works at other collection sites. Typically, the organic materials collected at community gardens and Green Markets are limited to what you’d find on a vegan plate (plus eggshells).
But the city’s new “Smart Bins,” which can be opened at any hour with a cell phone app, are a key component of the Department of Sanitation’s bid to make food waste recycling easier for all New Yorkers — along with curbside organics pick-up, which DSNY plans to roll out citywide by the fall of 2024.
Organic material currently makes up about a third of New York City’s garbage stream. When it’s sent to landfills, it creates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Right now, not all of the waste that’s even collected in Smart Bins, which are labeled as “compost,” actually ends up as compost.
But a facility in Staten Island gives a glimpse into how the city is preparing to compost more. It’s already composting tons and tons of organics, using both high-tech equipment and low-tech methods.
Astoria resident Jack Bernatovicz dropped his food waste into a “Smart Bin” on the corner of 24th Street and 34th Avenue in Queens.
“It’s easy to just collect the compost in my freezer, and when I need a little walk, I drop it off,” he said. “It’s built into my routine.”
Bernatovicz began separating his food scraps consistently when DSNY rolled out the first Smart Bins in Astoria as part of a limited pilot in December 2021.
DSNY is aiming to install 400 Smart Bins throughout the boroughs, with about 250 in place now.
Drop-off sites across the city, like those in community gardens, only accept fruit, vegetables, tea bags and coffee grounds.
But Smart Bins — contents pictured here — accept meat, fish, bones, dairy products and even plastic bags.
That’s because all of the material dropped off in Smart Bins goes to commercial transfer stations and facilities, which can sort the organics from the trash. They use special equipment and high temperatures to break down the scraps.
Other collection methods deliver some material to community composters, whose processing capacity is more limited.
Sanitation worker Gavin Cleghorn picks up the organic material from the Smart Bins in Astoria.
In many cases, the same trucks that pick up organics from the city’s public schools empty out the bins, which happens at least five times a week.
Cleghorn and his partner Justin Somoano, pictured, will deliver the organic material to a transfer station in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, run by the company Waste Management.
About two-thirds of organics from Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx go to that site, where it’s sorted. Some might be sent to be composted in New Jersey, and the rest gets ‘digested’ by bacteria to become biogas.
Organic material from Staten Island stays in the borough, becoming compost at the 33-acre Staten Island compost facility.
In addition to food waste, the Staten Island facility also handles all the borough’s material from landscapers.
Trucks bring in grass clippings, tree branches and leaves, passing over a weigh station at the site. Landscaping material is processed separately from food waste.
Landscapers pay by the yard to discard the material and can also buy the resulting compost.
A machine called the Tiger separates plastic bags and other contaminants from food waste brought in all over the city.
“The material we get from the Green Markets is quite pure … pure vegetables,” said Ian Twine, DSNY’s deputy director of composting.
But material from other sites isn’t so pure. “The school material — that’s one reason the Tiger is around,” said Twine.
Ground organics are then transferred to giant piles. Over six to eight months, the material gets moved into different piles once or twice.
During the process, organisms like bacteria and worms break down the organic material into nutritious, decomposed matter.
“It becomes dark — as they call it, black gold,” Twine said. “There’s physical turning and natural breakdown, nothing artificial added to this.”
In cold weather, steam rises off the mounds, which can heat up to between 120 to 140 degrees.
The finished compost takes another trip through a machine that filters out any last contaminants.
For nearly two years, the Staten Island compost facility has run its own bagging machine to package the compost on-site. Previously, DSNY paid for the compost to be packaged upstate and trucked back down to the city.
The compost is sold back to landscapers, and given away for free to nonprofits, parks, schools, community gardens and churches.
In the spring, DSNY will begin regular compost giveaways in communities, starting in Queens.
Unlike at the Staten Island facility, not everything New Yorkers separate out as compostable actually becomes compost.
At the moment, most food waste they separate makes its way to become biogas for energy use.
The digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant turn food waste and sewage into methane, which is partly used to help power the facility and partly burned off.
Other food waste goes to the Pine Island Farm Digester Facility in western Massachusetts.
A sanitation worker walks along a new composting system that, upon state approval, will allow the Staten Island facility to process about 20 times as much food waste as it currently can.
The system includes concrete bays in which food scraps will sit, blanked with a tarp. Air will be pumped into the piles from the bottom — eliminating the need to turn the piles.
DSNY plans to perform trial runs on the system, which includes oxygen and temperature sensors, in the spring.