The Solution to NYC’s Composting Woes? Just Pickle It

An enormous amount of space will be needed to expand the city's compost program—unless this start-up can solve that problem.
Fresh Kills Landfill, Staten Island, New York. (Photo: Ray Pfortner/Getty Images)
May 24, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Most people pitching a business idea to well-heeled investors don’t proclaim a willingness to dive elbow-deep into garbage—but waste looks different when you grow up next to the Fresh Kills Landfill, Staten Island’s now-closed 2,200-acre facility, famously visible from space.

“Food waste is not the sexiest thing. I just bought an apron. Right now I’m putting on goggles and putting on gloves,” Amanda Prinzo said breezily. But Prinzo isn’t just ready to jump in—she’s already plunged in.

She and cofounder Brett Van Aalsburg are behind Brooklyn-based Industrial/Organic, a sort of supercharged, large-scale composting system in which food scraps are stored in brewery-like tanks rather than piled in open-air mounds. It could help alleviate New York City’s composting woes—which, as any storage-challenged apartment dweller can tell you, mainly have to do with a lack of space.

“We really want to be the solution to that,” Prinzo said.

The city is likely eager to solve the problem. Since the inception of its composting program in 2013, New York has picked up 25,000 tons of organic material from residences through neighborhood pilot programs and voluntary food scrap collection. The city plans to triple its compost program by next year, reaching 1 million residents. But the biggest composting facility on the East Coast closed in 2014 because it “placed an undue burden on the quality of life of residents” living nearby—which is to say, it stank. To expand municipal composting to every household, the city would require 900 percent more composting capacity than it had in 2015, Crain’s estimated.

One possible workaround is to change the focus. Instead of everyone composting, what if only the worst offenders—hotels, stadiums, and large-volume food manufacturers and wholesalers—had to divert their waste from a landfill? Following a “Zero Waste Challenge” issued in February, more than 30 businesses agreed to cut the trash they send to landfills in half by June as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goal to reduce the city’s waste output by 90 percent by 2030.

Now some city council members are saying it’s too much too soon. Where’s it all going to go?

Some of it, Prinzo thinks, stands to be fermented. Lurking on permaculture forums, she stumbled across bokashi, a method of composting in which microorganisms ferment food waste in an acidic environment. If we were talking about cucumbers instead of food scraps, it would be called pickling. Unlike traditional composting, it doesn’t stink, making it ideal for a city-bound solution, and it’s not as energy intensive as anaerobic digesters.

“This type of composting is popular in permaculture and with homesteaders, but it’s very low-tech. We’ve made it high-tech, borrowing principles and technologies from brewing and alcohol production,” Prinzo said.

Industrial/Organic is working on its second pilot in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood; the project will feature a system that can process a ton of food waste per day. “The one-ton machine we’re building now is very similar to a type of machine that you’d see in winemaking,” Prinzo explained, “except we’re using it to ferment something else.” Not cabernet—apple cores. Food waste goes through an accelerated fermentation for 24 hours and is then put in a standing tank for another three days before the process is completely finished.

Industrial/Organic wants to reduce that to a one- to two-day process that starts with trash and ends with processed, shelf-stable biomass pellets that can enrich agricultural soil or, down the line, be used as feedstock for bioplastics. “Imagine if a brewery married a plastics recycling facility married a food packaging plant. That’s what we’re doing,” Prinzo said.

The next step will be to raise money to open the company’s first permanent facility, where the hope is to scale up to processing 100 tons per day over two years. Striving to process more scraps is the only option for someone who knows just what massive waste can look like.

“Most people are trained that they put something in the garbage can and it’s gone—it disappears. They don’t think about it,” Prinzo said. “The reason I’m doing this is because I can’t throw anything away without seeing that—I can’t throw anything away without seeing a giant landfill.”