A bill was recently passed to ban Polystyrene Foam (also known as Styrofoam) in New York City’s food service, joining cities like Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Seattle; and Amherst, Massachusetts. Most recycling programs, including New York City’s, do not accept Foam Plastics for recycling because the material necessitates separate processing and must be kept exceptionally clean. Furthermore, when it is mistakenly put into the recycling or organics stream, it renders that stream contaminated and the entire stream therefore ends up in the landfill, at a higher cost to taxpayers. The bill reinforces public understanding of Styrofoam as damaging to the environment, and the expense associated with its disposal. Taxpayers end up paying to have their Styrofoam dumped in landfills or worse, our water supply, and both fates threaten our environment and our health.
The bill to ban Styrofoam is a call to New York City residents to take responsibility for their waste. By way of eliminating non-recyclables from the city’s food service, consumers are more directly confronted with their waste when prompted to separate recycling from garbage destined for the landfill. If New York City residents collectively made a conscious effort to minimize waste on an individual level, our landfills would diminish and our water would be cleaner, positively affecting our parks and their cleanliness. Styrofoam constitutes 0.5% of the weight of all waste and 0.64% of household hazardous waste, as defined by the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling of the NYC Department of Sanitation. Although small in mass and volume, Styrofoam takes over one million years to decompose and the decision to ban the packaging product is a strong step in the direction of a more sustainable future of waste disposal and recycling. As the largest economy and market in North America, New York City sets a precedent in ceasing and banning the production and sale of consumer goods and packaging that is not recyclable.
The complex relationship between cities and agriculture was a hot topic this spring at the “Feeding Cities” conference at the University of Pennsylvania. Growing populations are demanding more food, as well as increasing the geographic footprint of cities. Once fertile land on the outskirts of cities is being developed, and agriculture has become dominated by large scale corporate farming, which further complicates food distribution issues. However, Heather Grady of the Rockefeller Foundation stated in her key note speech at the conference that by getting rid of waste in processing, delivery and sales, as well as conserving land for agriculture within and surrounding urban areas can help address global food security issues.
Although food security issues are present at a global scale, solutions are being explored at a more local level. The Urban Design Lab (UDL) of Columbia University’s Earth Institute undertook a study of the feasibility of urban agriculture in New York City. The UDL published their results in The Potential for Urban Agriculture in New York City report in 2011. The study identified almost 5,000 acres of vacant land likely to be suitable for farming in the five boroughs of New York City, as well as more than 1,000 acres of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) green space, underutilized open spaces, and Greenstreets.
On Staten Island in particular, a large portion of the vacant land was found not to be suitable for farming, due to the difficulty of establishing a farm on such sites, as well as the problems innate in converting valuable ecological resources such as wetland or forest to food production, including much of Freshkills Park. Although there are currently no plans to incorporate agriculture into the park plans, the study found over 4,000 acres on Staten Island that have the potential for urban agriculture.
The report outlined the numerous benefits to developing agricultural spaces within or near urban areas, including the potential to reduce food transportation costs and environmental effects, as well as provide opportunities for economic development and diminish the disparities in access to healthy foods. However, in order to become a viable option to food production for the masses, urban agriculture must overcome challenges of scalability, energy efficiency and labor costs.
A new study released this week by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 40 percent of food produced in the United States ends up in the trash, making food waste the single largest portion of trash in our landfills. While the amount of food thrown away has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, one in six Americans struggles to pay for food today.
And then there’s the energy used in the production, transport, processing, and disposal of the food, only for it to be thrown away. According to a study commissioned by the Environmental Working Group, nearly 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and processing food. At Freshkills Park, buried food waste is part of the decomposing organic material that produces Landfill Gas (LFG), a byproduct of anaerobic decomposition which is collected and processed to extract methane. The methane produced at Freshkills Park is then sold for use in providing energy to local homes on Staten Island. However, across much of the U.S., LFG- a mix of methane, carbon dioxide, and other contaminants- ends up in the atmosphere and is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
What can be done? There are many ways to prevent food from ending up in the garbage. According to NPR, new innovations in how food waste is dealt with are being developed to facilitate collaboration and changes in habits at many different scales, from food consumers to food retailers and food producers. The Environmental Protection Agency also provides a useful webpage with resources on donating food to food banks and food rescue programs.
If food must be thrown out, one alternative to the landfill is the compost bin. The New York City Compost Project provides low cost compost bins, education, and information on community-based composting projects and will be doing composting demonstrations at the Sneak Peak event at Freshkills Park on Sunday, September 23rd. In New York City, a growing number of local Greenmarkets are now also collecting food scraps for compost to use in local gardening projects and urban farms.
(via Good and NPR)