Trying To Solve The Chicken And Egg Problem Of NYS Composting

Mar 29, 2017

The rotary digester is the crown jewel of Delaware County's composting facility. It's a massive pipe - 14 feet in diameter, and 180 feet long. The digester, or "bioreactor," breaks down the organic stuff before the non-recycled plastics and other contaminants are filtered out. 

The entire operation - which is very involved - has lengthened the life of Delaware County's landfill by at least 20 years, according to plant manager Andy Zuk.

Other waste haulers want to get in on that sweet composting action. Zuk receives calls from haulers leaving New York City and elsewhere asking: can he take in their food scraps, too? Zuk says "no." Delaware County doesn't want to get overloaded; the facility is already operating at around 80 percent of capacity.

"We're feeding this seven days a week, ten hours a day. If there's a breakdown somewhere [and] I can't feed for a day, all that feed stock backs up," said Zuk.

Cuomo's Composting Proposal

However, upstate New York might soon need a lot more composting capacity. Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing a new rule in the state budget for places that generate at least two tons of food waste a week - like hospitals, big businesses, and arenas. 

Starting in 2021, they'd have to donate any excess edible food, if possible, then send the rest to a composter if there's one within 50 miles. Elementary and secondary schools would be exempt.

The Cuomo Administration says it's a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food decomposing in a landfill.

"It's kind of common sense to people. They understand very easily that you don't want to waste food," said Sally Rowland, who works on organics reduction and recycling at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

She wondered, though, if people don't realize how much is being wasted.

"Forty percent of the food that's produced in the United States ends up being wasted," said Rowland.

(Rowland said this proposal is not connected to the so-called "Farm to Food Bank" bill, which is getting a budget push from the NYS Farm Bureau.)

Can NY Create A Composting Ecosystem?

A lot of big food scrap generators, like Binghamton University, already have composting programs. BU is one of the state's 1,700 large generators of food waste. The school donates a lot of food that never gets to a consumer. The dining halls compost all their food scraps.

"We've actually removed garbage cans from inside the dining halls, so we don't temp people to just throw things out when they're in a rush," said Martin Larocca, Resource Recovery Manager at BU.

The campus puts out about three tons of food waste each week during the fall and spring semesters. Where do they send their scraps? BU has a good arrangement with a Pennsylvania farm and composter, owned by one of the campus chefs.

However, Larocca looked for a backup, just in case. He hasn't found one. He thinks there are places to take the waste, but they're pricey.

"Binghamton University's kind of at a tipping point," said Larocca. "We're large enough that we require a more industrial-size composter to be able to handle our material, but we're small enough that we can't justify the cost for a larger entity to come to campus and pick up directly."

Student workers do a lot of the hauling now, which saves BU money.

Cost is factor into the decision whether or not to compost.

Sending food to a landfill is still relatively inexpensive, according to Rowland. With this proposed mandate, the state's pushing a bigger compost market that hasn't sprouted on its own. 

"We've been in this kind of chicken and egg scenario," she said. "We have a lot of large generators interested in sustainability and recycling their food scraps, and we have companies interested in developing facilities, but we need something to kind of spark to bring those two together."

To help on the capacity side, the proposal would make grants available to start or expand a facility. And If you're a composter, you need a reliable supply, like from the big businesses and colleges affected by this mandate.

"It's useful to them to know how much they can expect and what type of stuff they can expect," said Cole Rosengren, a reporter at the trade magazine Waste Dive. "That's why we're seeing states start in this place. It's sort of the low-hanging fruit."

You might call it the low-hanging banana peels. 

The state budget is due ahead of the new fiscal year, which is April 1.