By MIREYA NAVARRO
Dozens of smaller cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have adopted rules that mandate recycling of food waste from homes, but sanitation officials in New York had long considered the city too dense and vertically structured for such a policy to succeed.
Recent pilot programs in the city, though, have shown an unexpectedly high level of participation, officials said. As a result, the Bloomberg administration is rolling out an ambitious plan to begin collecting food scraps across the city, according to Caswell F. Holloway IV, a deputy mayor.
The administration plans to announce shortly that it is hiring a composting plant to handle 100,000 tons of food scraps a year. That amount would represent about 10 percent of the city’s residential food waste.
Anticipating sharp growth in food recycling, the administration will also seek proposals within the next 12 months for a company to build a plant in the New York region to process residents’ food waste into biogas, which would be used to generate electricity.
“This is going to be really transformative,” Mr. Holloway said. “You want to get on a trajectory where you’re not sending anything to landfills.”
The residential program will initially work on a voluntary basis, but officials predict that within a few years, it will be mandatory. New Yorkers who do not separate their food scraps could be subject to fines, just as they are currently if they do not recycle plastic, paper or metal.
Mr. Bloomberg, an independent, leaves office at the end of the year, and his successor could scale back or cancel the program. But in interviews, two leading Democratic candidates for mayor, Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, expressed strong support for the program — including the plan to eventually make it mandatory.
Sanitation officials said 150,000 single-family homes would be on board voluntarily by next year, in addition to more than 100 high-rise buildings — more than 5 percent of the households in the city. More than 600 schools will take part as well.
The program should expand to the entire city by 2015 or 2016, the sanitation officials said.
Under the program, residents collect food waste — like stale bread, chicken bones and potato peels — in containers the size of picnic baskets in their homes. The contents are then deposited in larger brown bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation trucks.
Residents of apartment buildings dump pails of food scraps at central collection points, most likely in the same places they put recyclable material.
It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will embrace the program, given that some may cringe at keeping a container of potentially malodorous waste in a typically cramped urban kitchen, even if it is supposed to be emptied regularly.
The city has historically had a relatively mediocre record in recycling, diverting only about 15 percent of its total residential waste away from landfills.
In the latest 12-month period recorded, the Sanitation Department issued 75,216 summonses to home and building owners for failing to recycle. Officials expected that more summonses will be issued in the current fiscal year, because the department has redeployed personnel to recycling enforcement.
Still, the residential food-waste program would represent the biggest expansion of recycling efforts since the city began separating paper, metal and glass in 1989.
“It’s revolutionary for New York,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group. “If successful, pretty soon there’ll be very little trash left for homeowners to put in their old garbage cans.”
The city spent $336 million last year disposing of residential trash, exporting most of it to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
Food waste and other organic materials account for almost a third of all residential trash, and the city could save about $100 million a year by diverting it from landfills, said Ron Gonen, who was hired last year as deputy sanitation commissioner for recycling and sustainability, a new job at the department.
Experts have long criticized recycling as a weak spot in Mr. Bloomberg’s environmental record. But he appears to want to close out his tenure with a push to improve the program.
In his State of the City address in February, Mr. Bloomberg called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.”