When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration revealed this week that he was rolling out a plan to make New York City residents separate their food scraps for composting, chefs and restaurateurs with an interest in sustainability welcomed the news. Composting can help the city manage its huge trash output, and a growing number of restaurants already separate their scraps for organic-waste pickup.
But many others, even some who are committed to recycling, say that finding ways to fit more bins, more staff time and more expense into their daily routines will be a struggle.
While the mayor’s initiative will apply to residences and schools, and will be voluntary, at least at first, the administration says restaurants and other food businesses will also be required to compost eventually. Food waste makes up more than 30 percent of the city’s daily trash, according to the mayor’s office, and restaurants account for 70 percent of that produced by businesses. Some chefs will be well prepared for the change: in April, the mayor announced that 100 restaurants, including Chipotle and Momofuku, had signed up for a pilot composting program.
Other cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, already require that restaurants compost their wastes. San Francisco passed its composting ordinance in 2009, and the chef Danny Bowien recalls the green bins dedicated to organic waste popping up everywhere, from fine-dining kitchens to tiny taquerias. “After a while it just becomes second nature,” said Mr. Bowien, who made composting part of the kitchen’s routine as soon as he opened Mission Chinese Food on the Lower East Side last year.
There is no time frame for making composting mandatory in New York City restaurants. “For now we’re just focused on the pilot program, so we don’t have a date for that,” said a representative for the mayor’s office. But some restaurants have been composting for several years.
In 2007, Michael Anthony changed the carting contracts at Gramercy Tavern to work with a waste-management company with dedicated compost trucks. For years, the restaurant has filled a bin each day with about 30 pounds of vegetable and meat scraps. Mr. Anthony also has the luxury of tucking the stuff out of the way before service begins, in the restaurant’s own garbage room, a space that makes composting on a larger scale viable. He calls having such a space “a dream.”
The team at Le Bernardin has been separating food scraps from other garbage since last summer, filling up about five of their nine plastic bins each day with fish bones, vegetable peels and any food that can’t be saved to cook the staff’s meal or wrapped up for City Harvest. These biodegradable bags are put away after prep, before service, and picked up daily around 2 a.m. The chef and co-owner, Eric Ripert, said that it took some time to train his team to separate scraps, but that the young cooks are already “so sensitive to sustainability,” and so disciplined, that the sorting quickly became a part of their process. Because pickups are frequent and the food waste is so fresh, Mr. Ripert says, “there’s absolutely no smell at all.”
Other professional kitchens have tried composting and have run into setbacks. Blue Hill at Stone Barns, in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., has a robust food-recycling system (some goes to the farm’s compost bed, while some is set aside to feed the pigs and chickens). But Dan Barber, the executive chef, said Blue Hill’s sister restaurant in Manhattan hasn’t been able to find a satisfying, lasting solution. In the past, a company has picked up bags of scraps, or the waste has been driven directly to the well-kept compost beds at Stone Barns. But with construction under way in the city restaurant’s basement, the scraps are being tossed out with the regular garbage at the moment, because there’s nowhere to put them.
Kelly Geary, who runs a meal-delivery service called Sweet Deliverance from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was so committed to composting that she made a habit of shuttling food waste herself from her workplace to the trio of 30-gallon bins in her own backyard, at least until her small business could afford a pickup service. When work slowed down, Ms. Geary cut back on the extra expense of the pickup service, and the chef is now reluctantly throwing away more than 50 gallons of organic waste each week.
In New York kitchens, space may be the biggest challenge to composting. The trimmings at the vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy would be ideal for recycling, but the chef, Amanda Cohen, says her minuscule East Village kitchen is too tiny for a bin.
Storage isn’t the only concern among chefs; Sara Jenkins, the chef and owner of Porchetta and Porsena, also in the East Village, says she cares about reducing waste on a larger scale, but her fear (shared by many New Yorkers, if social media are any indication) is that the decomposing food will attract rats. Others who compost say that has not been a problem.
Chefs with composting programs say that frequent pickups from a reliable carting company make recycling far less messy than it sounds, and that proper containers with tightly fitted plastic lids contain smells and protect the waste from pests better than plastic bags. The chef Ginger Pierce and her husband and co-chef, Preston Madson, have a 60-gallon compost bin in each of their three kitchens — at Isa, Freemans and Peels — and fill the bins with scraps one to three times a day. “If you’re going to shop at the market, and you’re supporting farmers, composting seems like an obvious next step,” Ms. Pierce said, “and it just becomes part of your routine.”
Jean Adamson of Vinegar Hill House in Dumbo, Brooklyn, says composting is not just about being eco-friendly — she’s still looking for a good method — but it also has the potential to be cost-effective. (Most restaurants pay waste management companies by the pound for what goes into landfills anyway.)
But Joe Burke, director of sales at Action Environmental Services, a waste management company, said it costs more to pick up organic waste because the process, from pickup to dump, is much slower.
He said the idea that composting will save a restaurant money is something of a myth. “We offer the service because our customers are dedicated and they demand it,” he said. Action has 300 restaurant clients signed up to recycle organics, along with Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.
Not all restaurants in New York have the space for bins, let alone separate rooms to store their scraps.
“Garbage is one of the biggest challenges that we have in the restaurant business,” said Alex Raij, chef and owner of the Spanish restaurants La Vara, El Quinto Pino and Txikito, where she has the trash carted away seven days a week. Ms. Raij, like many chefs trying to figure out how to recycle organics, said she would welcome the challenge if the city’s new push for composting extends to restaurants. Finding a way might be complicated, she said, but maybe it’s time for kitchens that take the farm-to-table maxim seriously to extend it to their garbage bags, too. “The way we buy and cook food is so responsible,” she said. “But the way we discard food? It’s not.”
It’s refreshing to see this topic written about… cities have their concerns, and New York City is no exception.
I see the usual worries in the article, with the main being the fear that compost attracts vermin. One thing to remember, is that the exact same waste is at the curbside right now, it just has other crap mixed in with it.
If businesses were required to compost outside in the alley, that might be a different story…but it would all be going offsite.
My first thought is where would they truck it all to? Wilmington is pretty far, what else of that facility’s size (Wilmington Organic Recycling Center) is nearby? Maybe there’s one in the works…
My first candidates for getting it rolling in New York would be the pizza shops and coffee shops. They have the simplest waste streams with the highest percentage compostable materials. By my own findings, pizza shop waste is nearly 90% compostable by weight.
Of course, the waste hauler has the confusing point of view: where is he hauling his organics to? Are they limiting his daily amounts he can give them? I don’t see how he’s charging more for time reasons… it’s more expensive for the customer if they have to buy proper compostable liners, and the per ton rate for organics recycling is absolutely lower than it is for landfilling…and hopefully it stays that way.