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NYC’s Chance to Become a World-Class Leader in Urban Sustainability

Despite all of the cleantech innovation that’s occurring daily in the Big Apple and the progress that has been made under the Bloomberg administration in implementing New York City’s sustainability program, PlaNYC, two large, dark, seemingly unrelated clouds continue to loom over the City’s path toward sustainability: 1) the number of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles on our roads (many of which are old diesels), and 2) the volume and management of NYC’s vast waste streams. No number of electric taxis, bike lanes or building retrofits can address these issues, but a somewhat unlikely hero within the City may just emerge with a solution that helps to solve both problems simultaneously: The New York City Department of Sanitation. 

The New York City Department of Sanitation, or DSNY, manages and hauls the five borough’s residential, institutional and public waste/recyclables, which all told is in excess of 12,000 tons per day, or more than 4 million tons per year. To achieve this epic task, DSNY has somewhere around 2,200 refuse trucks, 450 street sweepers, untold other vehicles, more than 7,000 employees and an annual budget well in excess of $2 Billion. Excluding the MTA’s massive transit fleet, DSNY operates the largest fleet in the City, public or private (and the second largest refuse fleet in the country, after Waste Management), and consequently consumes the most fuel – each refuse truck guzzles somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 gallons of diesel per year. How then, you might ask, can this massive agency play a leading role in the City’s push toward sustainability? Well, as it so happens, they already have.   

The volume and destination of NYC’s waste has been a hotly debated topic for decades, whether it was a push to build incinerators in and around the city in the 70’s and 80’s, the public outcry over the massive Fresh Kills landfill, which was ultimately closed in 1991, or more local battles over waste transfer stations. The one constant: everyone produces waste, but nobody wants it coursing through their neighborhoods or destined for a nearby facility. So although most could agree that there must be other/better alternatives to exporting all of this waste to distant landfills and waste processing facilities, little progress was made. That is, until very recently. 

Nearing the end of his third term, perhaps realizing the one blemish on his mayoral record was a general lack of progress in addressing the city’s solid waste problem, Michael Bloomberg created a new position in the Sanitation Department and appointed Recyclebank co-founder and former CEO Ron Gonen as Deputy Commissioner of Recycling. Although traditional materials recycling is a big focus and top priority for Gonen and DSNY, the organic fraction of the waste DSNY handles – or approximately 1.2 million tons per year – is the real focus. At close to $90/ton in “tipping fees” to have this heavy, wet organic waste exported to distant landfills and other processing facilities, that’s more than $100 million a year flowing out of NYC’s budget to dispose of an energy rich feedstock. The challenge is how to separate the “recyclable” organic component from the actual garbage. 

Realizing all of this, Gonen and DSNY Commissioner John Doherty have made immense progress in just over a year by offering separate collection pilots in various neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. The short-term goal appears to be the separate collection and composting of about 10% of the organics, or about 150,000 tons a year, which is still a massive amount of organic waste and an ambitious undertaking, with a longer view toward collection and processing of the majority of these organics. The big question that remains, however, is how and where will this organic material be processed, and three main options exist: 1) composting, 2) anaerobic digestion for heat/power generation, and 3) anaerobic digestion to renewable natural gas vehicle fuel. Each has its merits and challenges, but only one can realistically address NYC’s second hurdle on the path toward sustainability, heavy-duty vehicle emissions.

Composting is the least capital-intensive option, by far, but requires the most space and may cause significant odor problems when dealing with heavy, wet food waste. Moreover, composting is an aerobic process (when practiced correctly) such that the energy content of the organics cannot be captured/utilized. Options two and three are no different until the decision of how best to utilize the biogas being generated is made – they both require a large anaerobic digester facility and a steady stream of organic waste. But option three opens the door for true “closed-loop” urban sustainability. By converting just a portion of the 1.2 million tons of organics DSNY handles each year into vehicle fuel, they could power a significant number of their 2,200 refuse trucks using locally produced, low-carbon*, nearly pollution-free RNG. 

While other U.S. cities may be years ahead of New York when it comes to separate collection of organics, only a handful have begun to utilize the resultant biogas for heat/power applications or vehicle fuel, and none to the scale that DSNY could. (Pierce County Transit in Washington State recently made the shift from fossil natural gas to renewable natural gas in 143 of its 155 buses; Sacramento-based Atlas Disposal is powering 17 of their refuse trucks using RNG produced from organics they collect and process.) Although any organics-to-fuel project in NYC is far from fruition, if the past year is any indication of Bloomberg and DSNY’s will to put the City’s organics to “beneficial use,” it may be sooner than later that refuse trucks are propelled by the same organics that they’re hauling. Let’s just hope that NYC’s next mayor is as interested and keeps the ball rolling in the right direction – that is, toward sustainability in both transportation and waste management.


*The production and use of RNG as a vehicle fuel via anaerobic digestion of food waste is a carbon-negative process on a lifecycle basis according to the California Air Resources Board:‎



Simon Sylvester-Chaudhuri's picture

Thank Simon for the Post!

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