Update on the City’s Organics Collection Program
Testimony Submitted to the NYC Council Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management
Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony. The mission of the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC) is to achieve constructive change in the finances and services of New York State and New York City government. Our Committee on Solid Waste Management has issued several reports on the City’s waste collection and disposal practices, including Getting the Fiscal Waste Out of Solid Waste Collection in New York City, Can We Have Our Cake and Compost It Too?, and A Better Way to Pay for Solid Waste Management.
In May 2018 Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Kathryn Garcia announced the City would halt the expansion of the curbside organic waste program (“Organics”) to assess ways to improve participation and increase tonnage collected. CBC supports this fiscally prudent decision.
Currently, the Organics collection program provides curbside collection of organic waste, once or twice per week, to more than 3.3 million New York City residents. Organic waste includes food waste, food soiled paper, and yard waste. Curbside collection is now available to buildings with fewer than 10 units in 170 neighborhoods located in 24 of the City’s 59 Community Boards.1 Larger apartment buildings in Manhattan and the Bronx are also eligible to enroll.
Organics collection can reduce substantially the amount of waste landfilled and the associated methane gas produced; however, the curbside program is not ready for citywide expansion because low participation has led to unreasonably high collection costs per ton. In addition, adequate organic waste processing capacity does not yet exist in or near the city.
According to the 2017 Waste Characterization Study, organic waste makes up more than one-third of the residential waste stream, but very little of it is separated for collection. Curbside collection of organics is now at 123 tons per day, up from 19 tons per day in 2014, yet this represents just 3.4 percent of total citywide organic tonnage. In 2017 just 10.6 percent of the organic waste in neighborhoods with the curbside program was separated. This means that 89.4 percent of the organic waste in these districts was still put in regular waste for landfilling.2
Low residential separation rates directly translate into inefficient collection and high collection costs per ton. Organics are collected either by a rear-loading truck or a dual-bin truck (the back is separated into two compartments, so two types of waste can be collected simultaneously) operated by two sanitation workers. The cost to operate the truck is fixed— salaries and benefits of the employees, plus fuel, maintenance, and debt service for the truck itself—regardless of how much tonnage the truck collects on its route. Therefore, to maximize efficiency and make collection cost-effective, DSNY aims to fill the truck with about 10 to 12 tons of waste, depending on the material.
City collections of organics are averaging only about one to two tons per truck-shift—compared to 9.3 tons of refuse and 5.5 tons of recycling on each truck shift.3 Given the low tonnage per truck shift and fixed cost to operate a truck, the cost of Organics collection is likely more than $1,700 per ton, compared to $291 per ton of refuse and $686 per ton of recycling.
Boosting resident participation with curbside collection would increase the tonnage set aside for Organics collection, which would reduce the collection cost per ton, as well as the amount of refuse remaining to be landfilled. It might also be possible to lower the high per ton collection cost by adopting alternative methods of collection, but many operational changes would need to be negotiated with the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.
A related challenge for expansion is that organic waste processing capacity in or near the city is insufficient. Commissioner Garcia noted that an increase in curbside organic waste tonnage would require more processing capacity, which would require overcoming challenges of securing suitable sites, receiving permitting approval, and overcoming neighborhood opposition.4
While there is a lot of organic waste, New Yorkers are still putting most of it in the trash can and buy-in to the Organics program has been slow, even in areas that have had the program since its inception. The DSNY decision to halt expansion allows the department to fine-tune the program by assessing more closely participation in existing neighborhoods, piloting new strategies to increase tonnage, and experimenting with alternative collection schedules or modes, and should be accompanied by more detailed data on tonnage, participation, collection modes, costs, and collection efficiency.
- City of New York, Department of Sanitation, Neighborhoods Receiving Organics Collections Service (accessed September 18, 2018), https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/site/services/food-scraps-and-yard-waste-page/residents/current-organics-rollout.
- Farnoush Amiri, “NYC Pauses Expansion of Ambitious Residential Composting Program,” Gothamist (June 1, 2018), http://gothamist.com/2018/06/01/nyc_composting_sanitation.php.
- This figure is a rough estimate based on fiscal year 2016 data as DSNY has not released more up to date information. Average truck run cost is based on collection cost per ton for refuse and recycling times the average number of tons per truck run. See: City of New York, Mayor’s Office of Operations, Mayor’s Management Report (September 2018), pp. 125-126, https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/operations/downloads/pdf/mmr2018/dsny.pdf. Tonnage per truck run for organics program based on DSNY presentation reporting weekly average of 342 trucks collecting 294 tons, doubled to 2 tons per truck shift to account for increase in overall tonnage. See: Bridget Anderson, Deputy Commissioner, Louise Bruce, Senior Manager, and Shari Pardini, Director, New York City Department of Sanitation, “From Curb to Compost: How the City of New York is Building an Organics Collection Program to Serve 8.5 Million People” (presentation to the “Compost2017: 25 Years and Growing!” Conference, Los Angeles, January 25, 2017).
- Danielle Muoio, “De Blasio’s lofty organics goal stalled by lack of funding, participation,” Politico New York (September 4, 2018), www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2018/09/03/de-blasios-lofty-organics-goal-stalled-by-lack-of-funding-participation-591124.