New Yorkers inconvenienced by having to haul their table scraps to the green market every weekend were overjoyed when, in 2012, it was announced that they’d be getting little brown organic waste bins to call their own. At long last, the Big Apple would be joining landfill diversion-happy cities such as Portland and Seattle with its very own residential curbside compost collection program. With the aim to divert 100,000 tons of food scraps from landfills annually, the pilot program has already been unrolled in a handful of neighborhoods (not including any in Manhattan as of yet) and hundreds of schools with plans to eventually make curbside organic waste pick-up mandatory for residents of all five boroughs by 2016.
But until the day when a half-dozen crazy floating composting parks magically materialize in city waterways, New York's organic waste, much like its run-of-the-mill rubbish, is exported — hauled out of state where it becomes another community’s problem.
And as it turns out, the community that’s been on the receiving end of NYC’s composting scheme does indeed have a problem with it.
As reported by WNYC, the Delaware waste facility that processed most of New York City’s organic waste was shuttered in October when the state's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) declined to renew the company’s permit following a heated public hearing where as many as 200 area residents showed up to sound off on the noxious nature of the plant.
Located at the Port of Wilmington, the 27-acre Delaware facility owned by Peninsula Compost Group had been struggling to keep up with the amount of waste being delivered to it not just from New York City but also from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The five-year-old facility, capable of converting 160,000 tons of organic waste into marketable compost each year, also dealt with a large amount homegrown organic waste.
Although a boon to composting newbie New York, Peninsula’s inclusive, “we’ll-take-it-all” approach played a significant part in the plant's closure. While many smaller composting facilities turn away any and all contaminated organic waste, Peninsula accepted it with open arms, extracting garbage from the compostable waste on-site. As WNYC explains, magnets were used to remove errant metals while Peninsula workers were tasked with plucking out plastics and other organic waste stream interlopers.
A certain level of plastics and other non-compostables co-mingling with organic waste might have not been an issue if Peninsula was dealing with city more seasoned at waste separation than New York where the Department of Sanitation permits residents to toss waste organic waste such as eggshells, meat, bones and grease-covered paper products in with their banana peels, grass clippings and wilted lettuce. But due to volume and a high amount of contamination, things quickly went south at Peninsula.
Regulators found equipment that was not working. Non-compostable residue pulled from the food and yard waste, such as plastics, metal, and plain old trash, were piled up on site above approved levels. There were standing pools of leachate, the cloudy, smelly, liquid that often trails garbage trucks. There were fires.
At the public hearing leading up the closure of Peninsula’s Wilmington facility, the state took into account complaints from residents living in close vicinity to the waste processing plant. Residents of the Southbridge community near the Port of Wilmington complained of a knock-your-socks off stench emanating from the overburdened facility, a smell that at times was so overpowering that parents were reluctant to let their children play outdoors. At times, the stench would drift across the Delaware River and into New Jersey.
Northeast Wilmington resident Brenda Watson told the Delaware News Journal: "The smell is too much. In the summertime, you want to save on the expense of the air conditioner in the evening so you put in a window fan, but the smell is so bad you have to shut everything all the time."
With Peninsula Compost Group no longer accepting deliveries, New York City has begun sending organic waste to smaller plants in Connecticut and in the Hudson Valley. However, some of the organic waste — it’s unclear exactly how much — that New Yorkers are dutifully placing in their specialized curbside bins for food scraps and yard waste is being landfilled along with the regular trash.
Deputy Sanitation Commissioner Bridget Anderson relays to WNYC that the smaller facilities taking on the city’s organic waste in the wake of Peninsula's shut-down are not as permissible as their predecessor: "… it is true that some of this material is too contaminated to go to these other facilities.”
She explains: “We're stuck right now in this place where we're trying to encourage the front end behavior and also figure out how to manage the processing side. So there's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg issue."
So with an unknown amount of organic waste being collected as part of New York’s curbside composting program being rerouted to landfills, should participating residents even bother separating their compost-ready rubbish from everything else? Does it matter if there's the chance that it might all go to the same place, anyways?
The short answer: Yes.
If anything, Peninsula’s closure should encourage New Yorkers to keep on it while being even more mindful that their dedicated brown bins are free of anything that shouldn’t be in there in the first place. If should also, ideally, prompt the Department of Sanitation to explore alternatives that are cost-effective, efficient and a wee bit closer to home.
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