Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple’s Food Waste

February 16, 2017

At NRDC, we believe in taking care of home, and we have been working to cut waste in our home base of New York City since the 1980s. For example, we helped secure the passage of the landmark 1989 recycling law (and protected it over the years), fought for waste equity, and pushed for aggressive waste-reduction goals.

In the last decade, we have focused our advocacy on composting and other forms of recycling food and yard waste. Organic matter accounts for more than 25 percent of waste hauled away by the New York City Sanitation Department—representing the city’s single-largest waste stream. NRDC has worked closely with sanitation department and the city council to make New York a leader on food-waste recycling. So far, the city has made great strides.

In 2013, thanks to NRDC and our partners’ advocacy, as well as great leadership from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city council, New York passed two bills that jump-started residential and commercial composting. The first established a residential curbside food-waste collection pilot that now serves more than one million people, the largest program of its kind in the country. The second law requires that the city’s 350 largest food-waste generators route their tons of organic waste to compost or anaerobic digestion instead of sending it to landfills or incinerators. This includes hotels with 150 or more rooms, arenas and stadiums with at least 15,000 seats, and large-volume food manufacturers and food wholesalers. And we continue to push for further expansion of and investment in residential composting.

We also work closely with New York City's public schools (and five other large districts across the country) to shift from polystyrene trays to compostable plates—greatly reducing pollution from polystyrene and aiding the development of the NYC composting program.

As we encourage the city to further its commitment on organics recycling, we are already advocating for stronger leadership on food-waste prevention and recovery. 

Two of the best food waste prevention tools are measurement and education. With that in mind, in 2016, NRDC launched a food waste study in New York City to assess food waste at residences and businesses. (Rockefeller Foundation supported this effort and a similar study in Denver; we also conducted a similar study in Nashville with support from multiple funders.) This study analyzes the quantities and types of food wasted, as well as some of the causes of that waste, and should provide insights that will help cities determine the best policies and programs to address the problem. Our public education campaign, Save the Food, is also being rolled out in New York City to increase awareness and arm people with the tools to reduce waste.

We also work closely with our partners in the hunger community to help get more fresh food to New Yorkers in need. With more than 150 other organizations, we are advocating for a state-level farm-to-food bank bill that would take more fresh food from farms into the emergency food system. Each year, more than 100 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables go unharvested in New York. Much of this produce is perfectly good but cannot be marketed at retail value due to aesthetic imperfections or other market considerations. At the same time, more than 13 percent of New Yorkers struggle for consistent access to healthy food. This bill would ultimately help cover the steep costs associated with harvesting, processing, and transporting crops. It would make donations a viable option for New York farmers—and get more fresh food to hungry residents.

Though there is still much work to be done, NRDC is helping to transform New York City into a food-waste leader and model for other cities around the country.