Taking Out the Trash

Trash is no trivial issue. Last month I attended a conference at Baruch College called A Panel On Long-Term, Sustainable Solutions For Managing New York’s Refuse, sponsored by State Senator Liz Kreuger; this discussion explored many angles of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra. One that came up repeatedly was the importance of composting — and we are talking Large Scale Composting, at the municipal level. Without getting too technical here, let’s just say that landfills are so tightly compacted that even materials capable of biodegrading are unable to do so, because there is no air circulation. Thus landfills do not get smaller, they only get bigger. People do not like to live near them, as they tend to do bad things like leaching toxins into the water supply and creating a constant stench. If a city’s mayor wanted to ingratiate himself to a community located near a landfill, one way to do it might be to close the landfill and spend billions of dollars sending the city’s trash away in fume-belching diesel trucks to… oh, who knows, somewhere else. Some of you may recognize this as what became New York City’s waste management policy in the Giuliani era. In the context of this blog (no politics, I promised!) I will simply state the obvious: this policy is unsustainable from both an environmental and a financial point of view.

Fortunately, members of the Baruch panel and many other great minds are joining forces to create a 21st Century approach to waste management. Unbeknownst to most of us, a cabal of folks has been working for years behind the scenes in New York City to implement a concept known as Zero Waste: “a combination of waste prevention, reuse, recycling and composting”. “Reaching For Zero: The Citizens Plan for Zero Waste” has existed since 2004 (one of its authors, Barbara Warren of Sustainable South Bronx, was on the Baruch panel), apparently languishing for lack of a receptive audience with the appropriate policymakers. It seems that whatever governmental epiphany brought us PlaNYC has also brought us much closer to making Zero Waste a topic for mainstream discussion in 2007.

Zero Waste is already the policy in many cities, particularly those cute ones on the West Coast that we all know about. (While visiting my parents in Berkeley, CA, I personally witnessed the delivery to their doorstep of a small green plastic bucket accompanied by a two-pound bag of garden compost. The city is now doing curbside pickup of kitchen scraps, in addition to yard waste.) But trust me, Zero Waste is making its way to big bad NYC. It has to. The cost of trucking our trash out of state is only increasing, and the day will come when our garbage gets rejected to go search for another landfill, likely even further away. That means the day will also come when all of our restaurants, schools, hospitals, etc. will not only sell their used cooking oil to biodiesel manufacturers, they will also separate their food waste and it will be carted off, preferably by rail, to a massive compost pile, preferably within 100 miles of the city. Unlike landfills, compost piles DO shrink, because the stuff can actually decompose. (There is a company called Greenway Environmental in Newburgh, NY that composts all the food waste from Vassar College, and that pile has been the same size for about 10 years.) If viable large-scale composting sites can be established in New York state, we will not find ourselves constantly having to “go west” in search of ever-larger potential landfill sites. These composting facilities would also generate new companies and jobs, desperately needed in many upstate communities that are struggling economically in the post-industrial era. Along the same lines, manufacturing of new products from recycled materials such as paper, metal, glass and plastic would put a cash value on items that now too often end up in the trash, while creating more jobs and new businesses. See the logic? Trash becomes something valuable. It’s the essence of permaculture: turning a liability into an asset.

I am convinced that it won’t be long before apartment buildings such as mine will pay carting fees based on how much garbage they produce. And when that day comes, the work we have done to improve our recycling compliance will pay off in spades. Hopefully before that day comes we will create our own composting site where residents can bring their food scraps and staff can bring yard waste such as leaves and clippings, and the compost will be used to feed our currently undernourished gardens and tree pits. Savvy landlords and co-op owners will recognize the dollar-and-cents value of creating systems for their buildings to reduce, reuse, and recycle. With the requisite carrot-and-stick incentives in place, sustainability will make financial sense.

Okay, great. But until there is curbside pickup of kitchen waste in Brooklyn, how can I compost my own food scraps in an apartment with no outdoor space?

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