Every day on Staten Island, city sanitation workers fire up a fearsome machine. 20 feet tall and armed with a gnarled metal drum that spins at a blistering speed, the Scarab looks like it was made for the battlefield. In reality, its purpose couldn't be more benign: it mixes up long rows of reusable compost. As it slowly rolls along, tilling and aerating the brown mulch, the Scarab's most dangerous feature is kicking up a smelly mess on windy days.
Aerating-via-giant-farm-machine is one of the final steps in the Department of Sanitation's composting process—a system that's gradually keeping more and more reusable organic material—grass clippings, disused Christmas trees, dead leaves, food—out of landfills. Composting is a crucial part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's OneNYC initiative, which mandates that New York City send zero waste to landfills by 2030.
"Organics represent the largest portion by weight that we haven't yet pulled out of the waste stream," Louise Bruce, a DSNY Staff Analyst, said at the Staten Island facility last week. "Food scraps, yard waste, and food-soiled waste make up about a third of the residential waste in New York City."
Every ounce of city-collected compost on Staten Island ends up at the borough's Sanitation Transfer Station. The sprawling facility sits on the site of the now-closed Staten Island Freshkills landfill, which in the past collected all of the city's solid waste. The 2,200 acre landfill was closed down by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani in March 2001, only to be briefly reopened after 9/11 and used as a sorting ground for World Trade Center rubble. "It's a very sensitive spot for a lot of us who were here, then," DSNY Director of Solid Waste Management Thomas Killeen said. "We even have a memorial up here that we built ourselves."
Today, New York City's solid waste streams have diversified, and only Staten Island's garbage is brought to the Freshkills transfer station. Still, that means between 800 and 900 tons of trash is processed every 24 hours. Killeen shrugged at the figure: "It's not as much as we do in the other boroughs."
After trucks collect refuse from bags and dumpsters across Staten Island, their contents are dropped onto a large "tipping floor," where bulldozer shovels load after load of stuffed bags, broken chairs, disused boxes, mattresses, and everything else we throw out onto a conveyor belt that leads to a compactor. When ready, the facility's compactors crush the trash into dense, 18-ton chunks that are then loaded onto rail cars, shipped to Bishopville, South Carolina, and dumped into a landfill. It's a 1,300 mile round trip that can take up to 14 days.
Compared to the brisk efficiency of the landfilling process, the DSNY's composting operation is still in a kind of brainstorming infancy. City-collected organic compost bins have been spreading across the city for residential use, but there's still sizable ground to cover in order to reach de Blasio's goal of citywide compost collection by 2018 (the Department plans to use both curbside collection and neighborhood compost drop-off sites).
"Even though people think this program is crazy, we get yard waste, we get food waste, and we don't landfill our plastics here. We run them over to an incinerator in Jersey...We're always thinking of what we can do not to landfill things."
Although they provide a convenient vessel for compost waste, plastic bags are still one of the biggest problems for the DSNY.
"We're all creatures of habit, and the best thing is trying to make compostable bags doable," Brian Fleury said. Fleury is the Senior Vice President of WeCare, a private firm that manages the Sanitation Department's three compost facilities at Rikers Island, Soundview, and Freshkills. "But we do allow liners, and we realize that keeping the bin clean is very important."
The current solution is another giant machine named after an animal: the Tiger. Essentially a large blue box with a hopper and chute attached, the Tiger is able to ingest compostable waste wrapped in plastic bags, and through a process of intense shredding and turbine-powered fans, separate the light plastic from the heaver organic stuff. "The Tiger pulls out a majority of the plastic that might be left," Fleury said. "We get about 99 percent of contamination that would come in to the facility."
"The goal is for everything to become compostable at some point. Plastics, everything. But we're years from getting there, and so for now we have to have equipment like the Tiger Machine."
Once the compostable organic has been collected, piled, chopped, and aerated, it eventually makes its way back into the earth. The DSNY works with city parks officials, private landscapers, and community groups to distribute prepared compost. There are even plans to sell the rich organic stuff to wine vineyards upstate.
"A lot of it's just banging heads together and throwing ideas against the walls to see if they stick," Killeen said.