0x30 NYC by Samantha Schulman, April 02 2019, 1 Comment

Zero Waste

I recently received a package of “zero waste” groceries, delivered right to my home in Brooklyn, NY. At my door, I was handed a blank tote bag carrying smaller mesh bags and mason jars filled with my order of vegetables, chocolates, granola and powdered laundry detergent—all the essentials. When I receive my next order, I can return the original containers to the delivery person for reuse, which eliminates the need to dispose of and obtain new packaging. In this example of a circular economy, no waste is created, the company turns a profit, and I get fed.

What is 0x30?

With a vision like this in mind, in 2015, the mayor of New York City (NYC), Bill de Blasio, established the OneNYC plan for NYC to “become the most resilient, equitable, and sustainable city in the world”. Among many initiatives, the plan sets out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, improve air quality and water management, and the one I would like to discuss: achieve "zero waste". The goal of the Zero Waste initiative is to send at least 90 percent less waste to landfills by the year 2030, in reference to the 3.6 million tons that the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) picked up in 2005.

All About Trash

The residents of NYC currently generate about 3 million tons of personal waste each year, which amounts to about 15 pounds each week per household. The DSNY oversees all curbside trash from residents, institutions, nonprofits and municipalities; however, this accounts for only about one-quarter of the city’s total waste. Commercial and industrial businesses that generate an additional 3.5 million tons of waste per year and construction debris that add another 6 million tons are under the responsibility of private carting companies; this is much harder for the city government to control.

Where does all this trash go?

First, the brunt of all NYC’s waste removal and processing (public and private), takes place in just a few neighborhoods: South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens. The predominantly lower income communities surrounding these waste transfer stations are burdened by transport trucks that collect and drive the garbage to far-away landfills, which disproportionately affects their environmental health when compared to the rest of the city.

Landfills and incinerators are outlawed within NYC, so 100 percent of the city’s waste must then be exported to facilities outside of the five boroughs. About one-third of it is sent via rail to Perinton and Macedon, just outside of Rochester, NY, and home to the High Acres landfill. The contribution of NYC’s trash has made High Acres the second largest landfill in the state, which has forced the residents to file a suit against Waste Management due to the odor, noise and air pollution that decrease their quality of life.

So what happens if High Acres and the landfills in other states stop accepting NYC’s garbage? Instead of searching for alternative places to send their trash, the residents of NYC need to simply produce less, highlighting the importance of the Zero Waste initiative.

To find out more about how to engage people in Zero Waste, I had the opportunity to speak with Jacquie Ottman, a long-time advocate and advisor for reducing waste. She is the creator of WeHateToWaste.com where users around the world can share ideas and inspiration to live, “trash free and happy too,” as she has coined. Ottman is also the Chair of the Manhattan Solid Waste and Advisory Board (MSWAB), where she consults the DSNY, City Council, the Mayor’s office and many more organizations on sustainability and zero waste. 

All About Compost

Compost

Ottman has observed how people all over the world are concerned about food waste more than anything else, and we share the belief that people get excited about composting when they know why it is so important.

Food and yard waste that gets thrown away releases methane gas as it decomposes in a landfill. The Global Warming Potential (GWP) measures how much warming an emitted gas will cause in relation to the same quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a set period of time. Over a 100-year period, methane gas has a GWP ratio of approximately 28-36 to 1. The value is continuing to increase due to new scientific research including the indirect warming effects of methane. In comparison, when organic materials (made up of organic compounds, or almost everything found in the natural environment), are collected together with exposure to oxygen and without contamination, it allows for microorganisms, bacteria and insects to break down the materials into nutrients for the soil. This is called compost.

NYC is trying to expand its organics collection to over 3.3 million residents under the Zero Waste programs, although it has been slow to take off due to a lack of participation. People often need to have a tangible understanding in order for some of their barriers to be broken down. To help, Ottman offered a suggestion for everyone who is skeptical—save their food scraps for one week and see how much accumulates. After one week of separating their organic waste, the build-up may shock many people, while the lack of odor and flies that they once feared could be a happy surprise.

Another way to educate the neighborhood and make recycling food waste more accessible and even fun is through community compost gardens. The board that Ottman leads (MSWAB), provides these gardens every year with grant money, which is used to purchase composting equipment.

“It is such a natural way for them to offer local composting," said Ottman. "We should be trying to find more creative ways to compost scraps right here in the city.”

In addition to the gardens, there are compost collection booths at every GrowNYC Greenmarket across the entire city. They are perhaps the easiest way to drop off your food scraps and can also teach you everything you could want to know about food waste and compost.

Changing Our Lifestyle

Fabric Waste

To help feed the 1.2 million New Yorkers that go hungry each year and reduce the amount of edible food that is sent to landfills, the DSNY created the donateNYC Food Portal. This resource pairs businesses and non-profits that accumulate leftover food waste with local organizations that collect and distribute the food to those in need.

By working together to develop innovative zero-waste products, small businesses can turn the food waste from one industry into their own nutritious and sustainable ingredients. For example, Rise Products in Brooklyn, NY, upcycles the organic barley byproduct from local breweries to produce high-fiber and protein-rich flour.

Meanwhile, companies like FABSCRAP are filling a major void in textile recycling. Traditional non-profit clothing donation centers do not accept commercial fabric scraps that require a different sorting and redistribution process. FABSCRAP properly recycles the waste fabric that no one else can process and offers free textiles to the volunteers that help sort the fabric, giving benefit to both the corporation and the individual.

People also have a tendency to want to own items that they do not use every day. However, sharing plays a big part in waste reduction, and more and more companies are popping up to bridge the gap. One well-known example is Rent the Runway—a company that allows my sister to wear a different dress every day, then return each one to be washed and worn by the next fashionista. 

You Can Help

No matter if we are talking about expanding compost and recycling programs or initiatives to reduce, reuse and repair, ultimately if people do not engage, the effort is also wasted. Wherever you live, you can lobby for campaigns like greeNYC, which is dedicated to educating, engaging and mobilizing New Yorkers to achieve the Zero Waste and Greenhouse Gas Emissions goals. You can carry reusable bags and jars in order to shop package free, repair your things when they break and promote Right to Repair—legislation that calls for products to last longer and be made for easy repair, especially electronics. This has been introduced in New York and 18 other states.

If you are a resident of NYC, you can take the Zero Waste pledge, and we can all be advocates for change. Every week more and more kids from around the world are joining in to protest climate inaction and take control. I predict that one day this future generation will see landfills and high levels of CO2 start to decrease and be replaced by vast parks and forests that provide oxygen and an environment for all life to thrive.