Food waste has taken center stage in New York City’s sustainability efforts, and for good reason. Food makes up a major portion of NYC’s waste, contributing significantly to landfill emissions. But there’s better, more sustainable ways for New Yorkers to consume and dispose of food.

In honor of curbside composting coming to all of Brooklyn this month, we’re doing a two-part series on food waste reduction in NYC. Follow along to learn more about how you can do your part! Read Part 2: How to Get Started Composting in NYC here.

Is food waste a problem in NYC?

In a city as densely populated as ours, there are lots of things that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. But you may be surprised to learn that food waste is a major contributor, making up 20% of the city’s emissions. That makes it the third largest contributor, behind buildings and transportation.

When food and other organic waste is sent to landfills, it emits methane as it breaks down. Not only that, but black trash bags full of food on our sidewalks provide nourishment for the city’s rampant rat population. Food waste is a big problem, but it’s one that can easily be turned into a sustainable solution. 

Composition of NYC's residential waste
A major portion of NYC’s residential waste is made up of organic materials, meaning there’s a big opportunity for landfill diversion. Credit

Environmental Consequences of Food Waste

Food waste is a problem that has a number of consequences for the climate, environment, and public health.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Globally, the food supply chain generates a significant amount of GHG emissions. The production, processing, storing, and transportation of food makes up about a third of the world’s emissions. Of these emissions, about half are attributed to waste.

When food and other organic material is sent to landfills, it decomposes over time. The byproduct of the decomposition process is methane, which is a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide. It traps a lot of heat in the atmosphere and contributes to the warming of the planet.

Resource Depletion

Producing food requires lots of natural resources, namely water and energy. When food is wasted, we waste the resources that went into producing it. 

Research shows that wasted food accounts for a quarter of the agriculture industry’s water supply. At a time when many areas of the world, including parts of the U.S., have been facing severe droughts and water shortages, water conservation should be a priority.

NYC Department of Sanitation's "Send Rats Packing" campaign poster
In April 2023, DSNY changed garbage set out times in an attempt to alleviate the city’s growing rat population.

Public Health

Since the pandemic, rat populations in cities have been booming. The main reason is garbage: where there’s food, there will be rats. As any New Yorker knows, walking down the sidewalk on trash night means you might stumble upon one (or a few). Leaving trash bags full of food waste outside multiple times a week gives rats plenty of opportunity to feast. 

The NYC Department of Sanitation has implemented several policies aimed at decreasing the rat population, including mandated trash containerization, limited hours for putting trash out, and curbside composting. Reducing and diverting food waste is a solution to a major public health issue.

7 Ways NYC Homeowners Can Reduce Food Waste

Food waste is a big problem for New York City, but it’s a problem that can largely be mitigated when individuals make simple lifestyle changes.

1. Plan Meals and Shop Intentionally

One of the best ways to reduce food waste within your household is to only buy what you are actually going to eat. Planning your meals and portion sizes and making a list ahead of your grocery run takes just a few extra minutes, and it’ll save you from picking up items that you may not eat. This not only prevents you from creating waste, but it saves you time and money too.

2. Store Food Properly

Using airtight containers to store fresh food in your refrigerator and freezer can help it last longer. You can organize your refrigerator and cupboards so that older food is in the front and newer food is in the back. Add date labels to refrigerated and frozen items to help keep track of how old each item is. This is a food storage practice called First in, First Out (FIFO) – the oldest food (first in) should be the next to be used (first out).

3. Understand Expiry Dates

There is a difference between “Best Before” and “Use By” dates on food. Foods with “best before” dates may still be safe to eat after that date, whereas “use by” dates indicate that the item is no longer safe to eat. Double check before you discard it!

4. Embrace Leftovers

If you cook or order too much food for dinner, refrigerate or freeze it to eat at a later date. Same for ingredients: if you only need half an onion for a recipe, save the other half and repurpose it the next time you cook – just make sure to store it properly!

5. Reduce Portion Sizes

It’s important to only cook or order as much food as you plan to eat. When your portion sizes are too large, you’ll likely have leftovers – and if you’re not keen on eating leftovers, you’ll likely create waste.

6. Donate Surplus Food

If you have a surplus of non-perishables sitting in your cupboards, you can find a food pantry or soup kitchen near you and donate them. If you’re in Park Slope or Gowanus, our friends at CHiPS are always accepting donations. 

7. Compost Your Food Scraps

Let’s face it: even if you practice all of the tips above, you’re still going to create some waste. But rather than throwing your food in the garbage, you can make a meaningful impact by composting it instead. 

Generally, you can compost all food, anything that grows in the dirt, food-soiled paper products, and yard scraps through the city’s curbside composting program. However, some community drop-off sites may not want things like meat, bones, or dairy – double check this before you drop off.

Composting is a food waste solution that provides all sorts of benefits:

  • Diverts organic waste from landfills and incinerators, therefore reducing GHG emissions
  • Prevents soil degradation and improves soil health
  • Promotes healthy plant growth and biodiversity
  • Aids in stormwater management
  • Enhances carbon sequestration

If you’re a resident of Brooklyn or Queens, curbside composting is now available to you. If you live in Manhattan, the Bronx, or Staten Island, you may have food scrap drop-off sites, smart compost bins, or community gardens near you. Learn more from the NYC Compost Project.

NYC's smart compost bins
NYC Smart Compost Bins Credit

Do NYC residents have to compost food scraps?

In June 2023, the city council passed the Zero Waste Act, making composting mandatory for all NYC residents beginning in October 2024 – when Manhattan will become the last of the boroughs to get curbside composting. 

This law requires all New Yorkers to place all of their food and yard waste into compost bins, which will be picked up by DSNY along with their recycling. Fines for non-compliance will not begin until around six months after the program goes into effect, but you can expect enforcement to be similar to recycling.

Make a Positive Impact with Food Waste in NYC

Food waste is a major contributor to climate change, and it’s a problem for the health of our city too. However, it’s a problem that’s relatively easy for individuals to tackle. By making simple changes to the way we consume and dispose of food, we can make a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions in our city.

If you’re a homeowner who’s interested in other ways to reduce your carbon footprint, clean energy could be another great option for you. Schedule a free consultation to learn more.

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