Monday, June 17, 2013

Foodwaste Recycling in Princeton and New York

The word from near and far is that composting kitchen scraps makes sense. Far might be San Francisco and Seattle, where keeping food waste separate from the trash is mandatory. Closer to home, a neighbor who recently enrolled in the local curbside collection program was amazed at how little trash he produces now that his food scraps and other organics like paper napkins and stained pizza boxes are going in the green rollout bin. He only has to put his trash can out every other week.

Meanwhile, in New York City, pilot foodwaste collection programs have shown unexpectedly high levels of participation, and plans are afoot to shift to citywide collection, with voluntary participation likely to transition to mandatory in a few years' time. The city's million tons of foodwaste/year, currently sent to landfills as far away as Ohio, is now being seen as an energy source for generating electricity.

Landfilled foodwaste produces methane gas, a potent climate-changing gas. Though some of the methane can be recovered and used for energy, much of it leaks into the atmosphere. During a tour of a landfill near Atlantic City this past weekend, the director of the operation estimated only 30% of the gas is being collected and utilized, despite an elaborate system of pipes running through the landfill to extract the gas.

Backyard composting is the most ecological approach, because there's no transport of heavy food scraps involved, and paper napkins, etc. can be included. But unless someone comes up with a little "Backyard Composting for a Better Planet" sign for people to put in their yards, it's hard for a largely invisible movement to catch on. People imitate their neighbors, for better or worse, and the green bins are a visible expression of environmentalism that can be used to galvanize neighborhoods to increase participation. The town's web page promoting signup for the program drives this point home, asking the question "Are you seen with the green?" In a similar vein, a distinctive look helped the Prius gain dominance among hybrids.

Other green initiatives, like energy conservation, struggle in part because their results are not visible.  If our energy bills showed how each of us rated compared to average home consumption, we might be more motivated to save energy. If a building showed how much energy it was using in real time, on a monitor in the lobby rather than on a meter in the back alley, there might be more motivation to reduce the number. But most of the environmental good news and bad news remains hidden. The green foodwaste bin is a small but growing exception.

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