What do you do when a piece of Legislation passes, whose goals you wholeheartedly support, but whose language is self destructive and is full of loopholes that functionally prevents itself from accomplish its intended goals?
This is how we feel at Sustainable Materials Management, Inc. about the New York State organics recycling mandate that was passed with the 2019-2020 State budget (pg 41-45). The stated goals of this legislation is to divert food waste from the waste stream by incentivizing each level of the organic waste hierarchy: edible food donation, animal feed, and organics recycling. This will be accomplished by mandating that all “large generators” of food waste must donate their edible foods and recycle their food scraps. Large generators are being defined as an entity that generates 2+ tons/week of edible food and food scraps.
We want to acknowledge the small victory that New York State has a law on the books that mandates organic waste diversion, but remain honest about our criticism of the legislation. While this legislation is better than nothing, it falls short of accomplishing it’s goals. Our critique of the legislation comes down to the exemptions: a 25 mile exemption radius; and exemptions for hospitals, nursing homes, primary and secondary schools. If a large generator is located greater than 25 miles from an organics processing facility, they will be exempt from this mandate.
What is the logic behind the mileage exemption? Why is there a mileage exemption for food scraps and not for MSW? MSW In New York State often travels hundreds of miles to a landfill or an incinerator- many of which are out of state. Not only are we generating more emissions by traveling to landfills and incinerators, but the facilities themselves generate quantities of greenhouse gases that far exceed any organics recycling operation. By creating more stringent standards for organics recycling, this legislation essentially supports landfilling and incineration over more sustainable organics recycling operations.
Facility size and location is largely dependent on the population density of a given region. A 25-mile radius exemption does not make sense anywhere in the State of New York. It doesn’t make sense in the more densely populated urban/suburban regions, nor does it make sense in the more open rural regions of the state. In urban/suburban areas the physical space does not exist to create the number of facilities you would need to adequately process the food scraps in a 25 mile radius. In rural sections of the state, there is not enough material generated in a 25 mile radius for an organics recycling facility to operate a profitable business at a rate competitive with landfills and incineration.
As an example, let us evaluate the implications this legislation will have in Westchester Country using a 25 mile radius from the Sustainable Materials Management, Inc. located in Cortlandt Manor. A 25-mile radius does not even incorporate the entire County— it excludes either portions of or the entirety of some of the most heavily populated municipalities and cities in Westchester. Roughly 2/3 of Westchester’s population and business are located south of I-287, so it is safe to assume that this is where the majority of the large generators are located. If you draw a line from the Yonkers Train Station, north-east to Portchester, everything south of that line would be exempt. This means that large generators in four of the five largest cities in Westchester would be exempt from the organics mandate (parts of Yonkers and Port Chester, New Rochelle, and Mount Vernon). How is that equitable? Wouldn’t that be giving differential treatment to businesses based on their proximity to a processing facility?
In addition to the exemption mileage radius, we also question why certain categories of generators receive exemptions from this mandate. Why are healthcare facilities (hospitals, nursing homes, etc.) and grade schools exempt from complying with this mandate? Many of these institutions are not only large generators of food waste, but they are also large generators of edible food waste. Hospitals, nursing homes and schools are required to provide their patients/students with every food option, regardless of whether they want or are able to finish all of it. This results in a large amount of food waste- much of which is individually packaged and can safely be donated. So, why are they exempt?
Furthermore, we need to be educating our children on responsible and sustainable behaviors. Countless studies demonstrate that the efficacy of early childhood awareness and education. A lack of public education now, will result in high contamination rates and be a strain on any municipal composting program or organic waste processor down the road. Contamination is costly to all parties involved: generators, haulers and facilities. Mandating schools to source separate organics is best way to teach students. Forgoing this opportunity is foolish and short-sided.
Even though this new mandate feels superficial and insufficient, we will take small victories where we can and continue to advocate for better, more impactful legislation as organics recycling continues to grow. Hopefully, one day soon, organics recycling will be included in New York State’s mandatory source separation law and accessible for all people and entities in New York State. Remember the organics hierarchy: donate edible food; divert scraps as animal feed; and then recycle what is left. Food scraps are a tremendously valuable resource that should never go to waste.