New York’s First Food Waste Recycling Facility Is Turning Scraps into Energy in Bushwick

Cailley LaPara

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The last thing New Yorkers want to think about is where their trash goes. But with the mayor’s pledge to send zero waste to landfills by 2030, creative new solutions to waste are being tested and they are, dare we say, fascinating.

One of these creative solutions, thriving in North Brooklyn, is Waste Management’s (WM) Certified Organics Recycling, more commonly known as CORe.

CORe deals with New York’s food waste, which accounts for about 34 percent of New York’s waste stream. That’s thousands of tons of food getting thrown away every day. “With food waste, sending it to landfills is costly, energy-consuming and it’s just bad for emissions and from all angles,” Aycan Kaptaner, WM’s Community and Government Relations Manager, told the Bushwick Daily.

There are several approaches to tackling the food waste problem, and no one tactic will solve it completely. Reducing food waste starts by lowering the amount of surplus food produced and ensuring that everyone gets fed. But there will always be food scraps and spinach we forgot to eat. And what are we supposed to do with greasy pizza boxes? “Stop eating pizza” is not part of the mayor’s zero-waste plan.

Waste at the CORe.

It’s this part of the process—the smelly, unappetizing part—that CORe is taking on. Basically, it is a food waste recycling program, turning unusable, moldy scraps into something much more useful: energy.

Each day, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) and third-party haulers drop off anywhere from 150 to 275 tons of food waste at Waste Management’s Varick Street Transfer station. The food waste is residential and commercial, some of it coming from organics collection bins throughout Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.

Bushwick has not yet received organics collection pick-up, and it is still unclear when the organics collection program, which was halted last year, will expand to more neighborhoods throughout the city. The good news is CORe has the capacity to process several times more food waste than it is currently doing, so it is ready for when brown bins hit Bushwick’s sidewalks.

Once the food waste has made its way into the food waste pile at the transfer station—separate from the significantly larger pile of regular waste just a few yards away—it gets dumped, bit by bit, into a lethal-looking hopper, which shreds the waste and sorts out contaminants like plastic packaging.  

Feeding the hopper at CORe.

Unlike other food waste diversion programs like composting, CORe accepts waste that comes in plastic, dairy, meat, and food-soiled paper (pizza boxes!), making it easier on the consumer to toss everything food-related into one bin. “It’s a bigger scope, so we can get a lot more people, maybe more participation,” said WM’s Senior District Manager Peter Deluca.

CORe also holds an advantage over composting specifically in urban areas. “Composting demands a lot of land and sometimes in cities that land isn’t available,” said Kaptaner. “So CORe gives us that option or solution to process food waste in a more industrial way.”

Putting this waste to industrial use is the final step in the CORe process. The food scraps get mixed with the liquid equivalent to food waste—restaurant grease trap water, for instance—and the mixture is transformed into Engineered Bioslurry (EBS).

Engineered Bioslurry pipeline at CORe.

EBS then gets pumped into tanker trucks and driven about three miles away to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility, where it is added to the facility’s anaerobic digesters—those huge egg-shaped structures that add some whimsy to North Brooklyn’s industrial cityscape.

In the digesters, microorganisms happily eat away at wastewater sludge and, since 2015, EBS. This produces biogas—methane—which is used to power the wastewater facility. EBS can help speed up anaerobic digestion, which produces more methane.

So what is the city doing with all this methane? By the end of this year, the gas will be introduced to the city’s power grid, allowing residents in the “immediate vicinity of the Newtown Creek plant,” to heat their homes and light their stoves with 100 percent renewable energy, according to Ted Timbers, Communications Manager at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

EBS being loaded into transportation truck.

This is an exciting program for New York City. The Varick Street CORe is the only facility in the city turning food waste into EBS for energy, and it will continue to expand, as it has done so rapidly since its pilot program began in 2015.

But the larger food waste problem is still a long way from being solved, and CORe can only process a fraction of the city’s food scraps. WM’s staff are optimistic though, acknowledging that slowly is the only way progress can be made.

“Remember when recycling was unheard of, years ago?” said Deluca. “Now you wouldn’t imagine throwing bottles and cans in the garbage, right? So it’s really the same principle. And it’s following kind of that slow timeline. It’s getting there.”

All images courtesy of Mark Davis for Bushwick Daily.

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