New York City interested in large-scale food scrap recycling

National Geographic discusses plans for food scrap recycling in New York City:

In his State of the City address in February, Bloomberg had called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” The mayor said, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

The administration says it will soon be looking to pay a local composting plant to process 100,000 tons of food scraps a year, or about 10 percent of the city’s residential food waste. In the Big Apple, only residential refuse is handled directly by the city, since businesses must hire private disposal service providers…

The city says it also intends to hire a company to build a plant that will turn food waste into biogas—methane that can be burned to generate electricity just like natural gas. The food waste program is expected to ramp up over the next few years, starting with volunteers, until it reaches full deployment around 2015 or 2016…

Under the mayor’s new program, participants will get picnic-basket-size containers, which they can fill with everything from used coffee filters to broccoli stalks. Those bins will then be emptied into bigger brown containers at the curb for pickup. Those who live in apartment buildings, as many Manhattanites do, will drop the waste off at centralized bins.

Administration officials told reporters that the city can save $100 million a year composting food waste instead of sending it to landfills, most of which are in other states. Bloomberg has said he expects the program may become mandatory in the coming years, although that will be up to his predecessors, since his term is winding down.

Curbside composting! Read on to see how this has played out in San Francisco which has had mandatory food waste composting for several years.

The green efforts plus the potential cost-savings will interest a lot of people. But, this is also a large infrastructure effort involving getting containers to residents, coordinating pickups and centralized locations, and then finally disposing of the material. I hope we see more about how such a program is implemented and effectively run. And, if the program has such good benefits, why haven’t more cities jumped into this? Perhaps it is just a matter of time. Also, could suburban composting work like this or are there more costs due to lower densities?

Side note: it will be interesting to see the visuals of compost boxes out on New York streets. The contrast between garbage day in New York City versus Chicago and its system of alleys where the garbage is away from the street is striking.

Indispensible infrastructure of the day: the development of the garbage truck

Without the development of the garbage truck, modern life would be different:

According to this history, garbage trucks began with horses pulling cars of stuff around. Then came modified versions of things like Ford Model Ts, which had only been around since 1908. These were way better than horses, but they were still little more than people throwing trash into the back of a Ford pickup truck, itself a pretty primitive, though effective, concept.

The idea of an enclosed trash truck, so things wouldn’t fly out at speed, was started in Europe in the 1920s. It’s actually kind of amazing it took someone that long to think of that, but anyway. The Americans thought of the waste hauler we’re more familiar with today, the external hopper truck…

Thus, in 1935, the Dempster-Dumpster was born. Mouthful-of-a-name-aside, this dumpster was a container on a lift for workers to put waste in and then have it loaded into the covered part of the garbage truck. The front-loading dumpster fitted to garbage trucks to this day lowers from the top to the ground level where garbage is scooped up. This cut the amount of labor needed to haul stuff by 75 percent and the order books filled up…

Along the way, there have been side-loading trucks, ones with vacuums and lots of other variations on a theme. But none have surpassed the truck fitted with the Dempster-Dumpster because it’s such a simple, but effective, idea. It’s a device that’s been adopted by just about every country, too. It is also where the term dumpster comes from, so there you go.

Getting rid of garbage is a surprisingly complex issue when larger populations are involved. Of course, the garbage truck is only one part of the garbage chain which also involves consumption, throwing out waste, emptying the garbage truck somewhere (landfill or otherwise), and then the fate of the garbage over time. (All this presupposes a lot of prior societal features like having a strong emphasis on consumption in the economy, a complex division of labor in society, and a system of roads and motor vehicles.)

This also reminds me of one of my favorite Monk episodes: Mr. Monk and the Garbage Strike (video here, Wiki summary here). The city of San Francisco starts filling with garbage during a strike and Mr. Monk, not a friend of germs and filth (to put it lightly), eventually operates a garbage truck to deal with the garbage himself.

Sociologist immerses himself in dumpster diving

Sociologist Jeff Ferrell spends “a couple of hours each day” dumpster diving. Here is some of what he has discovered while dumpster diving:

“There is a stereotype that (dumpster diving) is done mostly by the homeless. Yes, many were. But they were generous and helpful to me and helped me survive. But they were only one group doing this.”

Ferrell said there are several categories of trash pickers. “The good old boys,” he says, are an ethnic mix of mostly older males who drive pickup trucks and scrounge for scrap metal.

Some, Ferrell said, are immigrants from Mexico and Central America who came looking for the American dream and were left with “scraps of the American dream.”

Another group Ferrell describes a “freegans,” people who came out of the vegan movement and consider eating thrown away food less harmful to the earth than “going to Walmart to eat a vegetarian sandwich.”

Alternative artists also make frequent dumpster dives, searching for scrap metal, broken glass fragments and other material.

Ferrell’s friend, Dan Phillips, builds low-income homes in Texas made entirely from salvaged items.

“These people are not lazy, ignorant and shiftless,” said Ferrell. “They are remarkably resourceful and smart.”

The last group of participants, said the professor, are those who shop retail and don’t have to dumpster dive to survive.

This is not an area that many Americans spend much time thinking about but texts like Ferrell’s Empire of Scrounge and the 2001 book, Rubbish!, written by two archaeologists working on the University of Arizona’s garbage project, shed some light on what happens to what we throw away.

It is also interesting to note that Ferrell seems to become quite involved in his research. The article also mentions his research time of five years as a graffiti writer (published in the book Crimes of Style).  In both of these instances, studying dumpster diving and graffiti, it would be near impossible to conduct a typical survey or even a broad range of interviews due to the more hidden and deviant nature of these activities. Additionally, this consistent insider perspective can provide much different information including insights into motivations and social hierarchies within these activities.

Politicians and their responses to snow (and other events)

Is it any surprise that Mayor Daley of Chicago has been absent from the response to snowstorm of recent days? What exactly could he gain at this point in his career?

We know from recent history that politicians have plenty to lose in such circumstances. Look at Mayor Bloomberg in New York a month or so ago – if he can’t even get the snow plows working, how could he achieve higher office? Past Chicago mayors, such as Michael Bilandic, have been burned by snow.

My guess is that this is one of those situations where people in charge get little credit if all goes smoothly but proportionately more blame if things go poorly. People expect that services like snow plowing or garbage pick-up are just going to happen and tend to only notice this when that service is interrupted. Right now in Chicago there seems to be game of political hot-potato over the number of people trapped overnight on Tuesday on Lake Shore Drive. Who exactly is responsible – should Mayor Daley have to answer for this? Shouldn’t someone have had some plan in place? More broadly, do most cities sit and think about worst-case scenarios so that they have at least thought about some of these issues?

This may not be a fair process on the part of the public: the leader can’t control everything. But when something goes wrong, the public also expects that the leader is ultimately responsible and is responsive to the needs of the citizenry. If not, if those basic services don’t come through, the blame often goes right to the top.