Glenda Alvarado-Ostrow moves discarded vegetables from a community farm into...

Glenda Alvarado-Ostrow moves discarded vegetables from a community farm into compost piles in Centereach in August 2021. Credit: Linda Rosier

This guest essay reflects the views of Beth Fiteni, co-director of the Long Island Organics Council.

Each time I chop vegetables, I put the cuttings in a container on my kitchen counter, and bring it out weekly to the backyard compost bin. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Food scraps comprise 17% of municipal solid waste in New York. Long Islanders generate about ½ pound or more per person per day. When these substances break down, they release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

To address this on a larger scale, New York State adopted a law starting in 2023 that institutions that generate more than 4,000 pounds of food scraps per week must either donate them or send them to a compost facility or anaerobic digester if they are within 25 miles of one. That was wise. There’s just one problem: Long Island has no such facilities.

Roughly 200 catering halls, theme parks, grocery stores, and other large food scrap generators in Nassau and Suffolk counties should be complying with the law. However, since there are no facilities within the 25-mile requirement, about 125 of those local businesses are carting their food scraps off Long Island to be processed, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The rest are unknowns; they are either filing waivers, not reporting, or not complying. For the sake of boosting our economy and soils and fighting climate change, we need to improve this.

Long Island's only registered commercial composting facility that accepted food scraps is shutting down for several reasons, including the lack of food scraps not contaminated by plastic and a lack of awareness about the importance and value of compost. It’s not just a nice thing for hippies. It’s actually a sensible way to retain nutrients that can enrich local soils. If Long Island processed its own food scraps, it would reduce the vehicle miles traveled by carters, resulting in less pollution and wear and tear on our roads. The processing and selling of local compost products would also create numerous jobs and a circular economy: Many East End farms purchase compost from out of state, sending local dollars elsewhere.

We can do this. One good step would be for some or all of the 30 or so yard-waste facilities on Long Island to start accepting food scraps, as has occurred upstate. The Town of Riverhead has successfully established Long Island’s first municipal food scrap drop-off site, recovering and composting about 10,000 pounds of what would have been waste since May 2023.

Anaerobic digesters are also an option. One has been in the works for several years now in Suffolk. These can accept compostable materials and produce energy from the methane.

State and local municipalities should be proactively fostering the development of composting facilities where appropriate, through education, financial assistance, and streamlining of permits.

In terms of siting, some proposed facilities have met with resistance because of the perception that they cause odors. Managed properly, that is not true. I have visited several composting facilities in New York City and upstate, and smelled nothing but a fresh earthy scent of new soil.

Public education is needed to inform communities about the reality and value of local processing of compost. There are numerous programs upstate and in other countries implementing curbside pickup the same way we recycle bottles and paper. Long Island needs to catch up and not miss this opportunity for a new economic sector.

Until then, I’ll keep putting my scraps in my backyard bin.

This guest essay reflects the views of Beth Fiteni, co-director of the Long Island Organics Council.


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