The City of San Francisco recently announced that it would ban the sale of bottled water in containers less than 21 oz on city property. San Francisco will be the first major city in the US to enact such a ban, though Concord, Massachusetts and Grand Canyon National Park have already replaced bottled water with water bottle filling stations. With a unanimous vote from the SF board of supervisors, elected officials expressed their support for the bill because of the benefits to the environment.
Critics of the new bill claim that water bottles cause a negligible environmental impact because they are made of recyclable plastic. However, even the International Bottled Water Association, a group that represents the bottled water industry, acknowledges that only 38% of water bottles are recycled. The environmental advocacy group Ban the Bottle purports that in fact, a mere 23% are recycled, which reflects the total percentage of plastic recycling nationwide. However, focusing on the landfill versus recycling equation distracts from another environmental cost of bottled water – the production and transport of the bottles. San Francisco Board of Supervisors President, David Chiu, illustrated this point with a water bottle one-quarter full of oil – the amount of fuel it takes to produce and transport one 1.5-pound bottle.
Each year, 9.82 billion plastic water bottles are purchased and 17,677 tons of discarded bottles end up in the waste stream in New York City alone, according to the Department of Sanitation. Since NYC started paying $91 per ton to ship waste out-of-state in 2009, and those costs are expected to rise, that amounts to at least $1.6 million a year spent on the disposal of plastic water bottles. While there are certainly more pressing waste issues in NYC at the moment, such as composting organic waste, San Francisco provides a precedent for waste reduction and environmental sustainability.
In a bold piece of legislation, New York City will reduce its waste by one third by requiring that, by 2015, restaurants, grocery stores, and other commercial food generators send all of their organic waste, including food scraps, to either a compost facility or an anaerobic digester. The 1.2 million tons of organic waste diverted each year under this new program is no drop in the bucket, it is more than the annual waste produced in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and D.C. and it will contribute to the goal to double the city’s current recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017. “All eyes are on New York,” said Samantha MacBride, the city’s former deputy director of recycling and now assistant public policy professor at Baruch College. Organic waste recycling, she said, is the “holy grail of sustainable waste management in my view,” as reported by Gotham Gazette.
New York City has a head start on this program with a pilot program that converts residential and school food waste and organics into clean renewable energy at the anaerobic digester in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The new bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Deborah Rose of Staten Island, provides the scale necessary to make this process cost effective for businesses and motivate private development of organics processing infrastructure for the New York metropolitan area. After its start as a pilot project in 90 public schools, the organic waste recycling program is now being tested with city agencies, single family homes in the Westerleigh section of Staten Island (where, after only a few months, participation rates are above 50 percent) and in two Manhattan high-rise developments.
“We spend over $85 million a year sending food waste to landfills, so there’s a major cost,” said Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, who heads up the composting program. He told Yale environment360 that so far the program is collecting at a pace on the order of “tens of thousands” of tons per year. “It’s growing every day,” said Gonen. “We’re going to continue to expand, in all five boroughs.” By 2014 the program will cover around 100,000 households. In addition to the food waste recycling pilot, the city has partnered with our friends at GrowNYC to begin food scrap collection at green markets throughout the five boroughs. Interested households who are not in the pilot areas for collection can bring their food waste to sites across the city for composting at community gardens and other environmental programs.
By the bill’s extension to the commercial sector, the City expects the residential sector to be better served, lowering disposal fees by circumventing landfills and providing local clean renewable energy generation, local jobs and environmental protection.
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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.
It might be easy to imagine designating a bottle or a newspaper for recycling or reuse – but food? That is the purview of former Mayor Bloomberg’s Food Waste Challenge. Over 100 New York City restaurants have made a commitment to divert at least 50% of their food waste. Of the diverted food waste, a quarter of it is reused: the leftover stir-fry or the day-old bread is sent to shelters and food pantries where it can feed the hungry. The remaining 75% of the food waste, containing things like banana peels and egg shells, is recycled: by composting the food waste, the nutrients can be used to grow more food instead of taking up space in a landfill. In the first six months of the successful program, these 100 restaurants were able to divert 2,500 tons of food waste, which already represent the city’s largest single stream of food waste diversion.
One common hurdle in making food donation programs successful is connecting the restaurants with food banks and non-profits that can pick up the food in a timely fashion. The city has partnered with MintScraps to develop cloud-based software that will allow restaurants to post leftover opportunities and those in need to capitalize on them. Hopefully, businesses will also save money by reducing their waste.
The Food Waste Challenge has gained momentum with support from private business like the Yankee Stadium, JetBlue, and InterContinental New York Barclay. City leaders have already passed the next ambitious step in food waste reduction, passing legislation that would require large commercial food waste producers to send their waste to a compost facility or anaerobic digester. Targeting the top 5% of waste producers would help divert 30% of the cities organic waste, or 250,000 tons annually.
The Sims Municipal Recycling Facility will open soon on the Brooklyn waterfront, providing countless environmental benefits. The large in-city recycling center will be able to process 20,000 tons of recyclables a month; for comparison, at its peak Freshkills received 29,000 tons of trash every day. While it might seem like a drop in the bucket, having a recycling center on the Brooklyn waterfront where loads can come in by barge will save the Department of Sanitation 260,000 miles of truck route every year. That’s equivalent to a sanitation truck driving over ten times around the earth. Reduced truck miles will help with traffic congestion, improve air quality, and decrease fossil fuel emissions.
Beyond the environmental benefits of constructing a new recycling center, the design of the building reflects a focus on sustainability derived from a practice what you preach attitude. The building is constructed using over 90% recycled steel. The roof boasts the current largest solar array in the city, generating 500kW of energy (enough to power about 150 homes). The design firm, Selldorf Architects, even included a spot of green space in their design by incorporating trees and bioswales to capture storm water runoff.
The buildings purpose and design coalesce to make it an incredible opportunity for environmental education. The facility “include[s] an education center that wasn’t just a repurposed closet with an instructional video to torture captive schoolchildren.” With classroom space and cat walks through the plant, students will have the opportunity to experience the process of recycling first hand. Hopefully, some of these students will become champions of recycling and help us build a more sustainable New York City.
The Freshkills team is always on the lookout for engaging initiatives that combine education, sustainability, and art – not to mention recycling. Recology, a waste management company based in San Francisco, supports a young artists program that combines all these topics in one exemplary project. The artist-in-residency program diverts found objects from the city’s landfills into donated studio spaces for the artists – and eventually galleries. The chosen artists are allowed to “scavenger” at Recology’s San Francisco transfer station for supplies and tasked with making art out of 100% recycled materials. Here is a short video about the program featuring one of the recent artists, Ethan Estess:
Freshkills has been the subject of numerous artistic endeavors, including most recently the Land Art Generator Institute (LAGI) competition and publication. The LAGI exhibit is currently on display at the Parks Dept. HQ in Central Park.
Prospect Park is building a composting toilet and putting to use an obsolete building. The Pump House, an unused building tucked away in the center of the park, is not connected to the New York City sewer system so traditional restrooms are not possible but with park use on the rise more restroom facilities are needed, especially in this more remote area of the park.
The toilets will not look or smell unusual, the noticeable difference is that special foam is used to flush. Christian Zimmerman, lead landscape architect at the Prospect Park Alliance, expects that the composted waste will be removed every five years and taken to a landfill, although he hopes that the laws prohibiting the use of this manure within the city will change in the near future. By utilizing composting technology the park is able to provide an amenity where it was needed most while also helping the city reduce the volume of sewage sent to the treatment plants.
The number of composting toilets is on the rise in New York City; The Bronx Zoo, the Queens Botanical Garden, and the Hollenback Community Garden in Brooklyn are already using composting technology.
A composting toilet facility is in the plans at Freshkills Park which is one part of an array of sustainable practices used in the parks’ development.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not Odditorium in Times Square is hosting a contest titled “Materials Matter Amazing Art Challenge” for New York City art students. The submissions for the contest are due in April and selected students will have their work exhibited at Ripley’s. A recent New York Times article highlighted one teacher’s creative interpretation of the prompt to develop works of art from unconventional materials. Jennifer Merdjan, an art teacher at Bard High School Early College in Queens, is having her students make their submissions with recyclable materials.
By using this uniquely environmental spin, Ms. Merdjan’s students are presented with the opportunity to rethink waste products and develop novel approaches to reuse. Some of her students’ projects include a chandelier made from hamster tubes, a handbag sewn together with bicycle tire tubes, and even a dress made with 1,134 plastic straws!
Freshkills Park, built on the former Fresh Kills Landfill, can be thought of in the same vein. As a repurposed landscape and a work of art, Freshkills Park is a prime example of what can come from creative planning and restoration.
An upcoming documentary entitled Landfill Harmonic chronicles the work of Favio Chavez, who is using trash to inspire his local community in Cateura, Paraguay. The documentary follows Chavez, landfill technician and director of the appropriately named Recycled Orchestra, as he constructs musical instruments made of trash sourced directly from the landfill. He provides these instruments to local youth both to inspire them and to try to keep them out of gangs – an unfortunate and all-too-common fate for many in Cateura. He also hopes to use the Recycled Orchestra as a platform from which to teach the importance of recycling, conservation, and the hazards of wastefulness.
At first, building the instruments was a difficult task for Chavez, a landfill technician with only basic carpentry skills. But over the course of four years, Chavez has perfected his craft, discovering which materials works best for each instrument. The film depicts how an oil drum and meat tenderizers can sound as deep and rich as a cello, and that music can be a force to change the lives of a marginalized community.
Like Freshkills Park, Favio Chavez and his Recycled Orchestra are finding opportunities in what is, to many, simply a blighted landscape.
For more than 20 years, Department of Sanitation New York City worker Nelson Molina has curated a collection…of trash. Call it a gallery, a collection, or a museum, Molina and other Sanitation workers have transformed an unused room in an Upper East Side sanitation facility, located on 99th Street between First and Second Avenues, into a showplace for found art in collected trash.
Though the sanitation workers are not permitted to keep anything from trash collection for personal use, this special scenario has been ok’d by the powers that be. The collection has become so well known that Sanitation workers from outside the neighborhood bring Molina items they deem ‘art’ or, at least, interesting, and Molina then decides if and how to display the pieces.
This is truly a great example of ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’
The Department of Sanitation is a partner, along with the Department of Parks & Recreation, in the creation of 2,200-acre Freshkills Park, which is being built over the course of 30 years on NYC’s former landfill.
(via The New York Times)