Green Trash Haulers Tangled In Red Tape

For most people, talk of garbage in New York City conjures images of sidewalks piled with trash bags, monster trucks that leak God knows what, and convoys that carry the rotting residue of more than 8 million people to out-of-state landfills.

Greg Todd says there’s an environmentally friendly alternative to the smelly status quo.  Todd, a real estate broker in Brooklyn, wants to start a new kind of waste hauling service he says can protect the planet and create  jobs.

Todd has a plan to deploy a fleet of trailer-equipped tricycles to pick up food waste from coffee shops in the city’s Crown Heights section.  The cyclists would pedal the residue to neighborhood collection bins, where a company Todd hopes to form would compost the refuse for sale as fertilizer.

There’s one problem.  People on bikes, it turns out, can qualify as commercial waste haulers, just like the companies whose 25-ton carting trucks rumble through New York collecting restaurant refuse today.

Todd says the expense makes zero financial sense for his startup. “I can’t get a carting license because of this application,” he told his local community board in February.The city requires any business that wants to collect trade waste to obtain a license, which requires filling out a 25-page application and paying a nonrefundable $5,000 fee, along with $600 per employee for background checks.

Like Todd, a growing number of entrepreneurs see green in the garbage but find their plans ensnared in red tape.  Across America, a bevy of trash talkers aim to tap the potential of our food scraps, and encounter a series of obstacles in the process.

In Northampton, Mass., a pedal-powered hauling service wants to add restaurant customers to its routes.  A group in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, would convert restaurant waste to agricultural fertilizer. This spring, a group that backs community gardens plans to begin commercial waste pickup in the Twin Cities.

But the haulers face hurdles. In some locales, the rules reflect fears that the garbage industry, once controlled by the mob, could revert any day. In others, community gardens cannot accept commercial waste.  State and local laws also regulate the processing and storage of compost in urban areas.

“It’s extremely complicated for something so seemingly simple as taking food from a food cooperative,” says Kirsten Saylor, executive director of Gardening Matters, a nonprofit group in Minneapolis.

Americans send more than 33 million tons of food – nearly 14 percent of everything we throw out – to landfills or incinerators annually, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Composting the waste locally can cut pollution from exhaust-belching trucks and the greenhouse gasses that rotting food produces.

Rosalie Hackett, a manager at New York’s bustling Breukelen Coffee House, says her shop would like to use a hauler like the one Todd proposes.

Pedal People, a worker-owned trash collection service that serves about 500 residential customers in Northampton, considered picking up food residue from restaurants and coffee shops in that college town.

But state law prohibits the transfer of food waste from one vehicle to another except at a licensed transfer station.  The result: Cyclists must pedal water-laden restaurant waste, which weighs significantly more than household trash, up to two miles – a distance that renders the pickup impractical.

“Bikes can make a lot of little stops. Trucks can go a long distance,” says Alex Jarrett, one of Pedal People’s co-founders. “If we could optimize where a truck could pick up, that would be ideal for everyone involved, but the regulations prohibit it.”

In many places, carting rules reflect an era when cities sought to prevent illegal agreements among haulers, who formed associations to protect one another from competition. “You need a method of enforcement, and a wise guy gets introduced at the next meeting of the association,” says Howard Abadinsky, a criminal justice professor at St. John’s University.

Even today, a former mob prosecutor heads the New York City agency that licenses commercial carters.  Abadinsky says the licensing rules make sense generally, though not in the particular instance of an entrepreneur on a bicycle.

“The industry is regulated to the teeth,” says Adam Gordon, a partner in New York Compost, a startup that hopes to persuade the city to let it haul restaurant waste via bicycle to small composting centers that Gordon and his partners propose to build.

Pedal Coop, a nonprofit service in Philadelphia, hauls food waste from five coffee shops to local community gardens, where the co-op helps the gardeners turn the residue into compost.New York Compost has experimented with several business plans, including setting up composting centers at farms that supply the city’s farmers markets, and selling organic eggs from compost-fed chickens.  “A lot of small businesses, restaurants and coffee shops want to do the right thing but don’t have the ability to,” Gordon added.

“It’s not indoor, large-scale production, it’s very local,” says Amy Wilson, the co-op’s executive director.  Wilson says the food residue fertilizes gardens in low-income neighborhoods where “in a lot of cases, people aren’t able to access fresh food.”

Wilson says Philadelphia does not require human-powered haulers to hold a license, though she hears that may change.  “We may be able to explain that we’re noiseless,” she added.

Compostadores, the composting offshoot of Gardening Matters, has partnered with the City of Minneapolis on a pilot program to haul organic waste from food pantries and coffee shops to four nearby community gardens.

Saylor says the group hopes to “demonstrate the safety of larger-scale composting in an urban environment.”

Compostadores first hauled waste in a volunteer’s station wagon until “the seats oozed with coffee grounds,” recalled Rebecca Harnik, the group’s project coordinator.  For the pilot, Compostadores will replace its compostmobile with three bicycles that can haul 300 pounds apiece.

The city will fund the pilot completely for the first year, during which Compostadores hopes to learn how to develop a financially sustainable business.  “Our tag line is ‘keep nutrients in the neighborhood,’” Harnik says.  “We’re raring to go here.”