As the country’s most populous city, New York City (NYC) experiences a unique set of challenges when it comes to managing its waste stream. Generating 1.8 million tons of commercial and residential organic waste yearly, NYC is making efforts to face this waste diversion problem head-on.
In 2013, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg committed to doubling the organics recycling rate by 2017. In December 2013, NYC passed its Commercial Organic Waste law (Local Law 146), mandating specific large-scale generators to arrange for the recycling of their organic materials or employ department-approved methods to process the material themselves. However, according to a 2017 Mayor’s Management Report, organics recycling had only grown from a 15.1% capture rate in 2013 to 17.4% in 2017. And, despite pledges by Bill De Blasio (NYC’s mayor from 2013-2021) to expand organics collection to the entire city by 2018, only 3.3 million out of 8.4 million NYC residents had access to curbside organics collection in that year.
The curbside collection service had expanded to serving 3.5 million residents before the program was put on hold due to COVID-19. The city has since recommitted to its curbside organics collection service as well as sending zero waste to landfills by 2030.
The 2012 waste characterization study estimated that organic waste composes about one-third of NYC’s commercial waste stream (and updated figures from 2017 estimate a 34% share of organics suitable for composting). Seeing the opportunity to significantly reduce the volume of NYC’s waste stream, the City Council passed its 2013 commercial organic waste law (Local Law 146, now codified as §16-306.1). The new law used the same definition for organic waste as found in §16-303 of the New York City Administrative Code, with the exception that organic waste to be recovered is not “food that is donated to a third party, food that is sold to farmers for feedstock, and meat by-products that are sold to a rendering company.”
Organic waste is defined in the New York City Administrative Code as follows:
““Organic waste” means any material found in the waste stream that can be broken down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost, such as food scraps, soiled paper, and plant trimmings. As determined by the commissioner, such term may also include disposable plastic food service ware and bags that meet the ASTM International standard specifications for compostable plastics, but shall not include liquids and textiles.”
Chart from New York Dept. of Sanitation’s 2017 Waste Characterization Report
As of July 31, 2020, the organic waste generators falling under the category of “Establishments covered by Commercial Organics Rules” are the following:
- Food Service Establishments (such as restaurants, delis, coffee shops, cafeterias, etc.)
- Food Service Establishments having 7,000 to 14,999 square feet
- Chain Food Service Establishments of 2 to 99 NYC locations with combined floor area 8,000 square feet or more
- Food Service Establishments in Hotels having 100 to 149 guest rooms
- Food Service Establishments with combined floor area 8,000 square feet or more in the same building or location
- Retail Food Stores (such as supermarkets and grocery stores)
- Retail food Stores having 10,000 to 24,999 square feet
- Chain Retail Food Stores of 3 or more NYC locations with combined floor area 10,000 square feet or more
- Food Preparation Locations having 6,000 square feet or more
- Catering Establishments hosting on-site events to be attended by more than 100 people
- Temporary Public Events to be attended by more than 500 people
Note: all references to square feet refer to floor area
Each designated “covered establishment” entity will be required to arrange for one of the following options:
1) Ensure collection by a private carter of all source-separated organic waste generated for composting, aerobic or anaerobic digestion, or other department approved processing methods
2) Transport their own organic waste to a facility for composting, aerobic or anaerobic digestion, or other department approved processing methods
3) Provide organics processing on-site via in-vessel composting, aerobic or anaerobic digestion, or other department approved processing methods
In conjunction with these options, establishments are required to:
- Provide separate bins for the disposal of organic waste
- Post instructions on the proper separation of organic waste
- Post a prominently displayed sign near the premises’ main entrance which clearly states the business name, address, and telephone number (this clause does not apply to sponsors of temporary public events)
- That sign must also state whether the establishment provides for on-site processing, or state the day and time the organic waste is either picked up by a private carter or otherwise transported by the establishment to a processing facility
Private carters will be required to deliver collected organic materials to either a transfer station or directly to a facility for composting, aerobic or anaerobic digestion, or other department approved processing. Transfer stations that accept source-separated organic materials will also be required to deliver or arrange for delivery of these materials to a facility for composting, aerobic or anaerobic digestion, or other department approved processing.
Sufficient Capacity Clause
Under Local Law 146, the Commissioner of the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) will determine on an annual basis whether there is sufficient capacity within a one hundred mile radius of the city to process the organic waste being generated. In addition, the Commissioner will determine whether the cost of processing organic waste is competitive with the cost of disposing of organic waste by landfill or incineration. As organic waste processing capacity increases within the region, the Commissioner is able to phase-in the requirement of an increasing number of commercial enterprises to source separate their organic waste.
The most significant impact of COVID-19 on NYC’s commercial organics collection service was the temporary suspension of curbside collection. The curbside collection service is set to resume in fall 2021, with a new requirement that interested participants must register for the collection service instead of being automatically enrolled.
Under normal circumstances, violations to the Commercial Organics Law are liable for a civil penalty that may amount to $250-$1,000 per violation after a 12-month warning period. However, due to the impacts of COVID-19, DSNY has extended the warning period for establishments, transfer stations, and private carters covered by the updated legislation that took effect July 31, 2021, thus no penalties will be issued until July 31, 2022.
Recommitment and Steps Forward
In March 2020, The NYC City Council released a policy paper on adaptation and mitigation strategies for NYC in the face of Climate Change, which reported that 80% of residential waste still ends up in landfills, despite the City’s commitment to sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. It calls for a comprehensive plan for waste diversion, including an organics recycling mandate.
In February 2021, the NYC Mayor’s Office released the City’s first-ever 10-year food policy plan called Food Forward NYC, in accordance with NYC’s food equity agenda. This food policy plan sets the goal of 90% collection of organic waste by 2030 with mandated source-separation of organics by 2050 for city institutions and schools, and by 2029 for all residential buildings. Additionally, it calls for engagement with environmental justice advocates and the design community to bolster new and existing infrastructure and procedures to support sanitary and equitable composting and source-separation practices.
- Local Law 146 – Commercial Organic Waste (now codified as §16.301)
- DSNY – Register for Curbside Composting
- DSNY – Curbside Composting Resources for Residents
- DSNY – Commercial Organics Requirements
- Make Compost, Not Trash
Original post from July 14, 2014
Updated August 23, 2021