Greening Brooklyn: Why Aren’t All BK Restaurants Composting?


When Greenpoint-based bakery Ovenly audited their garbage, they found that of the 70 pounds of garbage they produce daily, 60 pounds was organic waste. Co-founder Agatha Kulaga was not okay with sending that out to a landfill.

“In addition to creating joy through the baked goods we make, Ovenly also has social impact and sustainability goals,” Kulaga said. “The amount of waste we create as a business plays a huge part in this.”

Right now, the city exports 21,000 tons of garbage every day to landfills as far away as South Carolina. A third of that is organic material, which doesn’t become soil as it sits there. Instead, it breaks down in an anaerobic environment and emits methane gas, which heats the atmosphere 30 times more than carbon dioxide.

Diverting that waste into compost isn’t a simple matter. Even though New York City is distributing brown bins to let all residents compost by 2018, commercial waste is a trickier thing to tackle. Only a handful of commercial garbage haulers are equipped with special trucks and storage containers to collect compost, and there aren’t enough composting facilities to accommodate all of the city’s waste. So, while fertile soil is valuable, composting is not yet the profitable business it could be. And because some haulers charge for compost by the 64-gallon bin instead of by pound, smaller places that don’t fill those bins wind up paying for air-space.

Still, several Brooklyn restaurants have found that with some adjustments, they can spend the same or even less than they were before sorting out their organics. With the help of consulting company Common Ground Compost and North Brooklyn’s Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, Ovenly found a hauler appropriate for its scale.  And even smaller businesses can hire micro-haulers, such as BK Rot, which picks up smaller containers by bicycle and processes it in Bushwick.

Then there’s the matter of training staff not to throw everything into big black bags. “I definitely spent a good deal of time digging through the trash in the beginning!” Kulaga said. “But now we are now paying less than what we did prior to starting composting.”

Common Ground’s operations director Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli said misinformation is her biggest obstacle to getting restaurants onboard. “A lot of the restaurants we talk to are like, ‘We are not going to compost, it smells, it takes up so much space, it’s the worst,’ ” she said. On the contrary, she said, separating out compost helps restaurants identify where they may be wasting ingredients. Then, by putting compost in locked containers, the regular garbage becomes less of a sloppy mess that rats can rip into.

“Another issue is that sometimes the owners or managers think, ‘I care but no one else does,’ ” she said. “But when I get in front of everybody for a training, they’re all there and they all care.”

Whether restaurants care or not, they could soon have to compost by law. As of this year, arenas with 15,000 or more seats, hotels with 150 or more rooms, and wholesale food manufacturers and distributors are required to compost. In July, the sanitation department announced its proposal to add food service establishments larger than 7,000 feet, chains with more than 50 restaurants in the city, and large grocery and big-box stores to the list.

That law will likely spawn more composting businesses, since they’ve got a guaranteed clientele, which should lower the cost to restaurants.

“For now,” Danberg-Ficarelli said, “the incentive is about caring for the earth, being a steward for the environment, and proving to your clientele that you are thinking about these things.”