After launching a test program recently in 3,500 Staten Island homes and some Manhattan apartment buildings, city officials said Monday they planned to expand it to 100,000 houses and high-rise apartments in all five boroughs this fall. The initiative would be voluntary for now, but officials aim to make it mandatory citywide in a few years.
New York wouldn't be the first to try it: San Francisco and Seattle already require compost collection for at least some residents, and more than 100 communities nationwide offer or mandate composting, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. But ushering composting into America's biggest city stands to amplify a cause environmentalists view as the next wave in recycling.
"New York City, because of its density, faces logistical challenges on many fronts, and so when the city concludes that food waste composting is workable and economically and environmentally sound, that's a decision that other municipalities will give weight to," said Eric Goldstein, an NRDC lawyer who works on waste issues.
While some New Yorkers and landlords are open to the idea, it may face some challenges in a city known for tight living quarters and a perennial fight to keep rats and bugs at bay.
Bloomberg called composting the city's "final recycling frontier" in his State of the City speech this winter, touting both environmental and economic benefits.
Taxpayers shell out about $100 million to deposit 1.2 million tons of food waste a year in landfills, city officials said. They expect to save money by turning it instead into compost, which can be used for fertilizer, or converting it into biogas - fuel derived from decomposition, under plans first reported by The New York Times.
Bloomberg's nearly 12-year tenure has featured environmental initiatives ranging from planting 1 million trees to seeking to ban plastic foam takeout containers. He has set a goal of doubling the city's residential recycling rate to 30 percent of all household trash by 2017.
"Under this plan, we're really taking an aggressive step into recycling food waste," Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway said at an unrelated news conference Monday.
The city already collects compostable material at about 90 schools and plans to expand it to 600 next year. Bloomberg announced last month that more than 100 restaurants agreed to use composting and other techniques to halve the waste they dispatch to landfills. Forty-three percent of homes in the Staten Island test program's target area have signed up since last month, Holloway said.
In Manhattan, a 600-apartment tower called the Helena began collecting composting material in April and now amasses 1,000 pounds of it a day, said Helena Durst, vice president of the Durst Organization, the building's owner. At least some residents on every floor participate, she said.
Several New Yorkers interviewed Monday praised the idea, if with some reservations about the possibility of fines if it becomes mandatory.
"It's about time. We're long overdue recycling food," said Mary Mastro, 55, a building porter. But she thought the initiative should start with commercial food waste and wanted to know how big fines might be.
Property manager Paul Brensilber said many residents think green in the 40 buildings his company oversees. But some buildings may struggle to find space for yet another bin alongside containers for trash, paper recyclables and metal and plastic recyclables, and the pickups will need to be frequent enough to allay concerns about vermin, he said.
"I think the concept is great. ... Clearly, it has to be thought out," said Brensilber, the president of Jordan Cooper & Associates Inc. "Is somebody going to give up their bike room for composting? The answer to that is probably no."
So far, the city hasn't gotten complaints about pests or smells in the composting test program, Holloway said, noting that the containers seal tightly.
With Bloomberg leaving office at the end of the year, it will be up to the next mayor whether to expand the composting effort and make it mandatory.
Several candidates Monday embraced the idea Monday, including Democratic front-runner Christine Quinn and fellow Democrats Bill de Blasio and Sal Albanese.
"It's a big step forward," Albanese, a former city councilman, said in a statement.
But Republican front-runner Joe Lhota said that while reducing waste is important, "New York City living poses unique challenges, and the mayor shouldn't impose this program in an uncompromising way."
As for whether Bloomberg himself is trying it yet, the billionaire mayor and frequent restaurant-goer said there's not much to try.
"We don't cook at home," he said.