Resource Recycling News

Going the distance

This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Resource Recycling.

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Experienced recycling coordinators know that incorporating new elements into a local program, such as collection of organics or bulky materials, requires far more than just another set of curbside carts.

The cost associated with collecting a new type of material and moving it to appropriate processing sites is dependent on a number of fluctuating factors, and at the outset, putting an exact price on an overall initiative can be daunting. Yet recycling departments continue to feel pressure from elected officials and the public to broaden programs while staying within tightly constrained budgets.

Among the most critical components in materials diversion cost efficiency is the distance that collected material travels. Understanding distance can itself get complicated quickly, however. Demographics, regulations, contracting and generator behavior are just some of the factors that cause transportation costs to go up and down.

To help out on this front, this article will explore the subtle elements of distance in a materials recovery program. We’ll also take a look at how the complex task of adding food diversion has played out in New York City, a municipality where the cost complexities associated with waste management and distance to processing sites are legendary.

Vexed by variables

The cost of collection is made up on the one hand by investments made in equipment and personnel to maintain the system’s daily operation – these costs are fixed, regardless of what is set out for collection. On the other hand are the variable costs of collection that are largely determined by two factors: distance and efficiency of each load collected.

Distance refers both to the number of miles that a truck must travel to service its designated area and, once the route is completed, the distance it must travel to a disposal or recovery facility to dump the load and return to the garage. Increasing the service by increasing the number of stops or increasing the distance to the disposal/recovery location increases cost by inhibiting the ability of a collection vehicle to complete a full route, tip and return on-shift. For a public or a private hauling company, each additional mile increases the cost and makes an impact on the economic efficiency of a disposal or diversion program.

Load efficiency, meanwhile, generally refers to the number of tons per load. In short, a full truck is an efficient truck. Efficiency is generally sacrificed as programs target smaller and smaller segments of the solid waste stream for separate collection service. Collection vehicles are forced to cover a greater route distance to collect an adequate load amount. In fact, vehicles on recycling routes targeting individual components of the solid waste stream can often be required to cover three to four times the distance required for basic municipal solid waste (MSW) collection.

At the start of a new source-separation collection program, distance and load efficiency both pose significant challenges when it comes to keeping costs reined in. When targeting any new recyclable, the initial amount captured at each site is likely to be only a portion of what may be expected after a number of years of program participation. Program participants need time to adjust to the behavioral changes required of them. Furthermore, if the program requires processing capacity that is not present locally, the program operators must look to facilities located farther from the point of collection than is operationally and economically desirable. As a result, it is not unusual during the first few years of a program’s implementation to see partially filled trucks forced to travel greater distances.

The interplay of these factors is most pronounced with the collection and recovery of food waste. Once collected, food waste must go either directly to a compost or conversion facility or, alternatively, to a putrescible waste transfer station. For direct delivery, the compost or conversion facility would have to be located in very close proximity to the source of generation in order to balance the high cost of collection vehicles that may be only partially filled.

Adding to the challenge of source separated collection of food waste is the fact putrescible waste attracts vermin and produces odors. Regulations at the federal, state and local level have been developed to ensure the proper handling and rapid disposal or recovery of the putrescible portion of the waste stream. Those regulations, all valid and developed to protect the public’s health and safety, were put in place when the assumption was that putrescible waste would find a final resting place in a landfill or incinerator. That regulatory framework now governs the way a residential food waste collection and recovery program must be designed, implemented and ultimately operated. For this reason, the design and operation of a residential food waste collection program must be as simple and efficient as waste disposal has become to be both successful and ultimately sustainable.

Critical lessons from the garbage realm

It’s helpful to take a quick look at how regulations, distance and efficiency concerns have played a role in what has occurred to food waste’s predecessor in kind: garbage.

Due to a variety of factors over the last 40 years, most townships, counties and cities stopped operating their own MSW landfills or incinerators. Some of the factors contributing to this change were stricter federal and state regulations that transformed what were formerly known as “dumps” into modern lined landfills with environmental controls for leachate, gas and groundwater management systems. Landfills required a level of investment and specialized expertise for their daily operation and management that was beyond the financial capacity of local government. Incinerators have also undergone a similar evolution in sophistication under stricter regulatory standards designed to control emissions and protect the public. These regulations have made incineration safer and at the same time more costly.

In addition, population growth has resulted in increased urban density and suburban sprawl. Real estate speculators and developers have found uses far more lucrative than solid waste facilities for open spaces at the edges of towns, counties and cities.

As the land within and around municipalities was developed and populated, the new occupants also found that they were living in uncomfortable proximity to what were perceived by them to be “noxious uses.” Historically, this situation meant that lower-income populations ended up living closest to disposal facilities. However, the modern environmental justice movement dictates that no resident anywhere should be forced to live in too close proximity to what are or may simply be perceived as noxious uses, and that understanding has had a great influence upon elected officials and policymakers.

All of these factors have combined to push the location of disposal sites that accept putrescible waste farther and farther from the source of generation, increasing both the distance collected items must travel and the cost to operate the collection and disposal system to feed them.

Food waste and other organics combined form a substantial portion of the MSW stream – up to 30 percent depending upon the location. Organics also represent the most highly putrescible portion of the MSW stream.

For that reason alone, any attempt to target food waste for source-separation, collection and processing must first consider the constraints that have been put into place over time to regulate the collection and management of putrescible waste. Such factors include the policies and laws from local health departments to regulate how food waste is handled within buildings as well as the policies and laws that federal and state environmental regulators and local officials have instituted to ensure the environmentally responsible handling of food waste.

Big challenge in the Big Apple

New York City is a prime example of how a number of swirling factors can work to add cost complexities to efforts to evolve MSW infrastructure – and how progress can only be made when the distance variable is thoroughly considered. The city has an uncommonly high population density, high real estate values and significant numbers of urban poor. Though New York has a number of former industrial areas that are zoned for light industry such as solid waste management, those spots are disappearing rapidly through general population growth, escalating real estate values and gentrification.

What’s more, the city has gone from being characterized 30 years ago as NIMBY (not in my backyard) to now feeling more like BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone). Residents in New York are often opposed to the presence of a garage facility that will house trucks to service their own neighborhood. And they are usually vehemently opposed to accepting a garage facility that will service anything beyond their community, even though the real estate realities of limited availability of land at a reasonable cost are well known to almost every New Yorker.

Regardless of these facts, some local leaders remain optimistic about the possibility of siting within city limits future facilities to accept and process food waste and other organics. This idea has been put forth by elected officials, policy analysts, sustainability gurus and others. They envision both decentralized on-site mechanical means of capturing and processing food waste in combination with direct curbside collection of food material. They also propose plans of using food waste locally to create energy through a variety of conversion processes. This myopic vision fails to properly consider the political obstacles that face the siting of any in-city facility. Such ideas also ignore the efficiency-eroding dimensions of instituting a variety of “solutions” that ultimately compete for the same food waste.

So that raises the following question: Is there actually a practical way to handle food waste diversion in a complicated operating environment like the Big Apple? The simplest answer may be to just start with what you already have. While New York has lost all of its in-city landfills and incinerators in the last three decades, it has gained a system of privately run MSW transfer stations, which were constructed to provide a means for aggregating putrescible waste and shipping it out of the city to locations willing to accept the waste.

The transfer station network was originally developed when the tip fee at the city’s only remaining landfill was raised beyond what the private carting industry would bear. The goal of aggregating putrescible waste was to amass cost-efficient quantities for long-haul transport. While the system as a whole is less than ideal, particularly in a changing city, it does provide a vital function for ensuring that the putrescible waste created each day finds its way to an appropriate disposal location.

Further complicating matters is the quality of what is collected. The typical set-out habits of both commercial and residential generators ensures that the material collected will require pre-processing to remove non-organic contaminants from the desired organics [for more on this topic, see the author’s article in the June 2016 edition of Resource Recycling]. Organics that are contaminated by non-organics require an infrastructure with substantial upfront sorting capacity. Presently, no such pre-
processing infrastructure exists in the Northeast region. There are, however, a number of composting facilities and wastewater treatment plants that could accept the organics, each in relatively limited quantities, but only after the non-organic contaminants have been successfully removed.

Advancing through contracting

Recently, as part of responsibilities at the New York City Department of Sanitation, I developed and put in place a set of contracts with a subset of the city’s private putrescible transfer station operators. The contractual terms require operators to accept the city’s residential curbside source-separated organics and to remove, through primarily mechanical means, a sufficient amount of the contaminants to ensure that the limited regional infrastructure for organics would accept the material and process it further under each facility’s existing permit.

The contracted services allow city collection vehicles to not have to travel beyond the city’s limits after the completion of a collection route and for the source-separated organics to be cleaned up or de-contaminated sufficiently to allow its acceptance at a permitted organics facility. Structured in this way, the contaminants remain at the putrescible transfer station and are later shipped out as MSW.

I would not characterize the above as a solution to meet the ambitious food waste goals expressed at the twilight of the Michael Bloomberg mayoral administration and later adopted and expanded upon by the city’s current administration in its OneNYC sustainability plan. Rather, this is an interim way to approach operationally a rather impossible situation for the Department of Sanitation. It ensures that the organics collected find a viable home and are put to beneficial use in an environment where the implementation of source-separated food waste programs have preceded proper planning and investment in infrastructure.

While the interim solution does address both the challenge that heavily contaminated source-separated organics and distance present, it can only work so long as food waste collections remain relatively small. At a certain point of both commercial and residential food waste collection expansion, the limited available infrastructure, even for clean organics, will be overwhelmed.

Reaching such a crisis point, of course, assumes adequate participation by program participants. Without that desired level of adequate participation, the program will fail for a different reason: insufficient collected material to justify the cost of continued collection.

In either instance, based upon the city’s current plans, a crisis point situation is most likely to occur within the next two to four years.


Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City’s recycling program and was director of the New York City Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. Prior to leaving city service, Lange was responsible for the Office of Beneficial Reuse Planning, Infrastructure Development & Management, within the Bureau of Solid Waste Management of the Department of Sanitation. He recently accepted a position as the commissioner of a solid waste authority on Long Island. He can be reached at

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