Food waste experts convene in New York City

BY and


Non-profit operators, entrepreneurs, city officials and individual food waste experts convened on Friday, September 27 at the Javits Center for Stop Food Waste NYC, a self-described “interactive teaching market,” in an effort to address the mounting crisis in our landfills.

Food scraps make up 21 percent of New York City’s waste stream, according to a City of New York Department of Sanitation Study. This unused and uneaten organic material contributes to climate change with greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that “if food wastage were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world.” To date, the city has mostly prioritized composting, despite advocates and experts pushing for other solutions.

According to attendees, alternative techniques—such as “upcycling,” excess food donations, and rethinking the way people cook and eat altogether—deserve more attention. Such efforts would eliminate organic material from the waste stream at a more rapid pace than composting does.

“Composting is the option of last resort in the waste hierarchy,” said Julie Raskin, Executive Director at The Foundation for New York’s Strongest, the non-profit for the DSNY.
Data from the DSNY shows increased participation in its voluntary curbside compost pickup service, with the number of households receiving collection nearly doubling between 2017 and 2018. Additionally, the department has more than 150 food scrap drop-off sites throughout the city, as well as programs designed to help commercial businesses and schools.

Despite these efforts, DSNY data reveals that composting has only led to marginal diversion of organic scraps from New York’s waste stream. “Main Sort” data from 2017—which categorizes the contents of New York landfills—shows that food scraps still make up about 21 percent of the city’s residential waste.

More than a third of all trash sent to a landfill each year is organic material suitable for composting: food scraps, yard waste, soiled paper, and other materials. This amounts to just over 1 million tons of compostable residential garbage per year, DSNY monthly tonnage reports reveal. These numbers have remained relatively flat for the past 10 years.

But data from 2018 shows that New Yorkers compost a fraction of what’s possible. Last year, the DSNY collected just over 43,000 tons of organic material from residents, drop-off sites and partnerships: just 3.97 percent of material that could have been composted.

Food scraps at a DSNY collection site on West  23rd & 8th Avenue on October 1.

These numbers present a challenge to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ambitious plan for “zero waste” landfills by 2030. But other companies at the event, such as Matriark Foods, prioritize saving food waste before it even reaches the compost bin through a process known as upcycling.

Upcycling follows the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy (see Figure 1), a reverse pyramid prioritizing reduction from the source itself rather than band-aid efforts to deal with the final trash pile.

Matriark Foods, one of 27 vendors at the event, makes broth concentrate using remnants of vegetables, such as carrots, onions and celery. According to company Founder and CEO Anna Hammond, maximizing food production means “looking at what’s grown and figuring out ways to use all of it.” One pound of her broth diverts one pound of vegetable waste from landfills and makes 45 servings. The concentrate’s packaging also has a two-year shelf life.

The company launched in March of 2018, but is already on track to make a difference in waste reduction. Based on projections from Hammond, Matriark will save approximately 98,000 pounds of vegetable remnants from landfills nationwide in the next 12 months. In three years, she projects that Matriark will salvage 400,000 pounds nationally, as a “conservative” estimate.

Hammond does not aim to single-handedly solve the problem of food waste. Rather, she believes that upcycling can meaningfully reduce the amount of food scraps in the waste stream by making use of rejected, “imperfect” produce.

Event attendee Jonathan Deutsch, Professor of Culinary Arts and Food Science at Drexel University and director of the Drexel Food Lab, helped Hammond develop her soup with scraps from another attendee—Baldor Foods—and is connecting her with a Pennsylvania-based healthy hospital culinary program. “From that event you sort of see how the ecosystem is supporting itself and each other,” Deutsch observes.

According to Stop Food Waste NYC spokesperson Jesse Hocker, 2,480 people attended the event, and it created over 4 million social media impressions. Deutsch was pleased with the buzz the event created . “When I started working on food waste just a few years ago, it really wasn’t a thing to structure an event around,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of the article stated that Matriark Foods freezes one of its food items. It does not.