From Farm to Fork to Farm, Transforming Food Waste

Cutting down food waste is on everybody's plate these days—from John Oliver's coverage on Last Week Tonight to Urban Green Board Chair John Mandyck's new book Food Foolish.

Tipping the scale at over 1.4 billion tons of waste a year, global food waste accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than those emitted by any single country except for China or the United States. The U.S. alone produces 35 million tons of food waste a year, making waste management an essential tool in mitigating climate change.

At Zero Waste: The Organics Factor speakers Brett Mons (NYC Department of Sanitation) and Christina Grace (Foodprint Group) dug into how the city is tackling the issue of zero waste by 2030 (as stipulated in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s One New York plan), and where building design comes into play.

Mons offered his experience in implementing the Department of Sanitation’s voluntary organic waste pilot programs for residential curbside collection and schools as required by Local Law 77. Although he says the results were modest, Mons pointed out that that the DSNY had exceeded its goals, reaching 133,000 households and collecting a total of 13,200 tons of waste over the 20-month period. This pilot program is to expand to all New Yorkers by 2018, with a projected target of collecting 50,000 tons of waste per year.

Grace spoke from her perspective of a food waste consultant, focusing on what building design can do to facilitate food waste recycling in compliance with Local Law 146, which mandates that DSNY set organics separation requirements for different business types identified as major food waste generators.

“Separating food waste in the kitchen is easy,” Grace explained, “it’s post-consumer separation that requires good design.” She cites her work with the Related Companies’ Hudson Yards project and their efforts to decrease the volume of food waste going to landfills with a high-tech Envac separation system. The issue with these systems, however, is that they are expensive to implement in retrofit projects and better suited for new construction. A less intensive method of facilitating food waste separation in existing buildings is to better illustrate waste stations. Public waste stations are often poorly designed, resulting in high contamination rates of recyclables.

Both Grace and Mons emphasized the challenge posed by contamination in organics waste management.  Many processing facilities will reject entire shipments of organics because of too much plastic, paper, or other materials that could throw off the composting process. Facilities and processors can also have different notions of what constitutes acceptable versus contaminated recyclables, which causes even more confusion.

However, Mons’ experience with the New York City Organics Pilot Program showed a contamination rate of less than 5%. Moreover, there was a 3-6% rise in overall recycling in low-rise residential buildings when organic waste management was added.

Grace ended with a vision of a citywide design competition of waste stations that properly mark where waste goes. A member of the audience suggested looking to a local restaurant where the waste stations are marked “landfill” and “I believe in reincarnation.”

About the authors

Abigail Stevenson
Abigail is the Communications and Development Intern at Urban Green Council.