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Most of Your Compost Smart Bin Food Scraps Don’t Actually Become Compost [Updated]

But the word "compost" is right there on the bin...

3:31 PM EDT on April 6, 2023

New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Jessica Tisch announce a roadmap to implement the nation’s largest composting program at City Hall on Wednesday, February 1, 2023. (Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)

The City has been pushing composting, hard. In February, Mayor Eric Adams took a bit of a victory lap when he announced he would be creating what he described as the country's largest composting collection program (though in response to a question from a plucky Hell Gate reporter, Adams refused to commit to long-term funding for the program). "For more than two decades, past administrations have been working to achieve citywide composting—and today, I'm proud to announce we are getting it done," he said. "By reducing the food waste that we put into trash bags, our streets will look better, smell better, and best of all, will be dealing a blow to New York City's number one enemy: rats."

Part of the rollout of the citywide composting program has been the distribution of almost 250 "compost smart bins" in neighborhoods throughout the city, which residents unlock with an app to drop off their food scraps. You've probably seen the bright orange bins, with the word "Compost" written on the side in large white letters. 

You, like me, probably imagined that the veggie scraps that you dumped in those orange bins were all being turned into delicious, nutrient-rich compost, and felt good about that. The word "compost" is right there!

But as New York magazine's Clio Chang reported on Thursday, think again. As Chang wrote, all of the food scraps that are deposited in those bins (outside of Staten Island) are processed at a private Waste Management facility in Williamsburg—and the majority is turned not into sweet sweet compost, but something called "engineered bioslurry," which then gets turned into…methane. I thought the whole point of composting was to not release any methane, but what do I know. 

Via Curbed, emphasis my own:

The slurry is then piped into tanker trucks and they drive from Williamsburg to the Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Greenpoint, which is run by the Department of Environmental Protection. The plant is an imposing part of Brooklyn's landscape, famous for its eight plump, 185-foot-high anaerobic digester “eggs” that tower in front of us. (Plant chief Steven Cubero says employees use bicycles to get around.) This is where the slurry will get turned into its final state—methane.

The solids get significantly reduced and the rest becomes methane. This methane can be turned into biogas—essentially synthetic natural gas—which is the ultimate product of all this processing. Half of the methane is currently being used to power the Newtown Creek facility itself, while the other half is being burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the air.

Chang notes that "about one-third of the leftover solids" from this process does get actually composted. 

As New York City sinks underwater and we descend into climate chaos, at least we'll have fewer rats we'll need to fight for survival, I guess. 

Update (4:54 p.m.): After this story was published, Sanitation Department spokeperson Joshua Goodman shared this statement: "Every single pound of compostable material put in a Smart Composting Bin is a pound that stays out of a landfill, and that is a win for New Yorkers. Turning this material into renewable energy or biosolid fertilizer is far, far better than simply leaving it in the trash where it becomes nothing but rat food. We are thrilled that our bins have been opened over 100,000 times in just a few months, and that people are using them in every borough."

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