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Feature: The Compost King of New York

Over the years, Vigliotti, who is 63, gradually evolved from a hauler of waste to a producer of fine fertilizers. And so he was well positioned when New York City contracted last year with six companies to transform the food waste it currently collects from the curbsides of almost a million residents. Four of those companies will send their scraps to traditional compost facilities. A fifth will truck its share to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, operated by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in north Brooklyn. There, chopped-up food will be stirred into giant tanks that already digest sewage, anaerobically, using microbes; the resulting biogas will be captured and used to power turbines on site or to heat nearby homes. Vigliotti’s contract, the second-largest, allows him to annually shunt more than 23,000 tons of city food waste into his soon-to-be-built Yaphank plant, where it will mingle with 155,000 tons of scraps from two counties outside the city. When it is up and running, American Organic Energy will have the largest anaerobic digester east of the Mississippi. “I’d like to say I had a vision of environmental responsibility,” Vigliotti told me, with a wink, about the origins of his new endeavor. “But I saw food composting as a business opportunity.”

Throughout the modern era of waste collection, New Yorkers, like other Americans, have been asked to pull all kinds of things from their kitchen trash cans for a supposedly higher purpose than burial at the dump. First it was paper, metal and plastic, then electronic goods and, in some places, textiles. Now we increasingly separate food waste. Sometimes we know where these recyclables will eventually alight — junk mail may be converted to printer paper, for example — but mostly we remain in the dark. There has always been an aura of mystery to these flows, in part because markets for recyclables continually change. For those who voluntarily set out food scraps for municipal collection — true believers, that is — the process provokes yet another layer of uncertainty. We assume our dregs are headed for a giant compost pile somewhere, but what happens to it next?

For a brief time, I could provide answers to such questions. As my own compost baron, I sorted and tipped my grapefruit rinds and eggshells into a front-yard composting bin; the resulting fertilizer fed my building’s crab-apple tree. But when I ran out of leaves to mix into the scraps, my “compost” grew extremely smelly. Odors, flies and quality control can bedevil even the most experienced food-waste recyclers, but I didn’t give up. Instead, a few years ago, I upgraded from a solo operation to something just a little bigger, joining the 200,000 other New Yorkers who weekly marched their organics to one of 74 drop-off sites — at farmers’ markets, subway stations, libraries — around New York City, collectively diverting 2.3 million pounds of food waste from the dump each year.

Lugging scraps to my farmers market was enormously satisfying. I liked returning my potato peels to the woman who grew my potatoes; I knew she’d make good use of them. The act also felt more immediately important than many other things I did to lessen my planetary impact, like driving less and line-drying more. When the Department of Sanitation’s curbside organics-collection program expanded to my Brooklyn neighborhood in 2015, I was grateful, but also a little wary. Placing my scraps on the curb in a securely latched, hard-sided bin was certainly convenient, but my compost cycle was starting to spiral, from small-batch to medium to — well, I wasn’t sure what. I had no idea where this centralized system deposited my scraps, or how — or if — they were transformed into something of value.

By 2018, the Department of Sanitation hopes to extend its curbside program — the largest residential-food-waste collection scheme in the country — citywide. But quantity doesn’t always equal quality, and already there is evidence that an industrial future may not match the integrity of the artisanal present. Longer supply chains mean burning more fuel to transport this resource, and recipients of scraps have little control over what New Yorkers throw into their bins. Because local composters, at urban farms, educate their suppliers, they don’t need to remove plastic bags, twist-ties and other detritus from their feedstock. But the anonymity of industrial-scale operations means that such contaminants can easily slide through.

When New York’s curbside program began several years ago, trucks trundled city scraps down the New Jersey Turnpike to the Peninsula Compost Company, a large facility in Wilmington, Del. But after Waste Management, the nation’s largest solid-waste handler, bought a controlling interest in the plant six years ago, its compost quality declined — it contained too many shards of glass and pieces of plastic — and neighbors began to complain that the yard smelled like the bottom of a garbage pail. Environmental regulators forced Peninsula to shut down in 2014.

Since then, the city has been carting food waste to several local transfer stations, one of which I visited in Jamaica, Queens. Inside a dreary industrial shed at a private company called Regal Recycling, a team of workers in rubber boots and face masks combed through a 10-foot-tall pile of organic waste collected from various schools. Using long-handled hoes and their gloved fingers, the men painstakingly extracted plastic baggies, milk boxes, Capri Sun pouches, sporks and balls of aluminum foil. (As the volume of curbside organics climbs, Regal and other city transfer stations will install mechanical preprocessing equipment.)

Michael Reali, Regal’s vice president, told me the city paid him about $80 a ton to receive this material, and then he paid truckers to transport the waste upstate and a permitted composter $35 per ton to receive it. Sometimes the load was clean, sometimes not. Reali pivoted away from the school waste and gestured toward a 20-foot mound shoved against the opposite wall. Collected from two fruit wholesalers, the pile was almost 100 percent mangoes and avocados, with very little extraneous material. (And it smelled great.) I was starting to understand that compost, like oil, has different grades. Pure commercial streams like this one were akin to West Texas light crude: clean and easy to process. School and residential streams were like tar sands: dirty and expensive to upgrade.

Reali’s decontaminated table scraps eventually made their way to McEnroe Organic Farm, which stretches over 1,100-acres of rolling pastureland and cultivated fields in the mid-Hudson Valley. There I watched as front-end loaders mixed the food with locally sourced wood shavings and straw. The woody materials provided more carbon to complement the food’s nitrogen and bulk up the compost. Thoroughly mingled, the compost was then laid in rows and covered by a fleece blanket to cook; heat killed any pathogens and weed seeds. Twice a week for a month, workers remove the blankets and spider a mechanical windrow turner over the top, fluffing and mixing. After resting for several more months, the compost is fed into a screening machine. About 60 percent of McEnroe’s 28,000 tons of finished material nourishes the farm, which raises organic vegetables, grains and pastured meat. The rest, selling for up to $100 a cubic yard, helps balance its books.

The nation’s industrialized compost operations bring in roughly $3 billion annually; American firms bought $21.2 billion of conventional fertilizers in 2016. I liked being part of this smaller economy, though. McEnroe’s adorable Angus calves and grain-filled silos made it easy to imagine that my waste was circling virtuously, even as I blocked out the miserable labors of the transfer station downstate. The system worked, I liked to think. Compost could scale up; food could return to being food.

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