You may have read that Mayor Bloomberg has a new food scrap composting plan for New York City. It works just the same way suburban food scrap programs do: everybody gets a new bin, everybody has to take another step when they separate their trash, everybody has to haul another thing out to the curb.
Having just spent three weeks living in two different small New York apartments, and having spent a couple of weeks once or twice a year for the last ten years or so in other very small New York apartments, I feel qualified to tell the mayor how the city ought to be run. And I can tell you this:
Asking New Yorkers to set aside food scraps in their tiny little apartments and deposit them into special bins to be placed on the curb in a busy, crowded, pest-filled and sometimes smelly city is an inconvenient, silly and unnecessary idea.
Think about it. Food scrap recycling in a dense urban area like New York requires millions of people to adjust their compact living spaces to accommodate a new container, and asks them to add one more chore to the zillions of small chores involved in apartment living. In a small apartment, every little thing has a place. Every smelly thing has to be taken outside immediately. Every messy thing must be cleaned up promptly. Every extraneous thing must be disposed of. Every ugly thing must be concealed. Every extra thing must be given away or stored. And so on. That’s just a fact of urban life.
It also requires a new set of trucks to drive around and pick the stuff up and take it to a newly-arranged place where something can be done with it, not to mention the associated administrative time, contracts, supervision, and so forth that goes along with any other municipal effort that serves millions of people by driving up and down streets in trucks on a daily basis.
So what’s the alternative?
That’s right, garbage disposals! Create a program to offer free or low-cost garbage disposals in New York City apartment buildings, restaurants, and businesses, and let New Yorkers shove all their food waste down the sink.
No special containers. No extra efforts on the part of millions of people. No sidewalk bins filled with rotting food. No specially-rigged trucks driving around New York’s already-crowded streets picking the stuff up before the rats get to it (and burning fuel in the process).
But wait, you ask! What’s so eco-friendly about stuffing kitchen scraps down the garbage disposal?
Nothing, unless the sewage treatment plant that handles that waste is set up to convert methane into fuel, like they do in Sweden. And in Philadelphia, Tacoma, Milwaukee, and Chicago, where pilot projects are underway to turn garbage-disposal waste into energy and fertilizer.
How complicated would it be to transform New York’s sewage treatment plant into the sort of facility that could efficiently convert ground-up kitchen scraps into something more useful? I’m sure it’s complicated. But here’s the thing: it’s ONE complicated project, not EIGHT MILLION complicated projects on the part of every household, restaurant, and business in the city. Make it cheap, easy, or maybe even free for New Yorkers to install garbage disposals, and then focus all your effort on one project–making good use of it at the other end of the pipe.
But what about all that water use, you ask? It takes water to grind that stuff up and send it down the pipe! Well, I know this comes from a company that makes garbage disposals, but the figure is that garbage disposals make up about 1% of a household’s total water use, and anybody who washes dishes by hand (as many New Yorkers, lacking the space for a dishwasher, do) knows that the scraps tend to just run down the drain as the dishes are being washed and don’t really require that much more water. Besides, a well-designed treatment plant will recycle that water safely.
Seems like a better solution to me, Mayor Bloomberg. But what do I know?