NYC Sustainability in the Covid-19 Era

Jeremy Lehrer

In the wake of Covid-19, millions of New Yorkers adopted new rituals to stop the virus’ spread: wearing disposable masks and gloves, ordering takeout instead of dining at restaurants and avoiding mass transit, among them. These habits, developed out of concern for personal safety, often seem at odds with the City’s pioneering progress in sustainability. But the threat from climate change remains real, and its potential impacts also represent a major public health crisis.

As director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Mark Chambers has been shepherding the policy, legislation and behavioral changes that have made NYC the US capital of urban sustainability. He suggests that the City’s innovative response to the pandemic provides a model for action. “The last six months have showed us that we are capable of enduring, adapting, regrouping, coordinating and resurging,” he says. “The lessons we learn in this temporary but devastating Covid response are invaluable in how we can and must work together to redouble our efforts to decarbonize our built environment, energy, food and transportation systems to protect our future.”

NYC sustainability leaders are meeting the challenges of the moment with strategies that demonstrate resilience and determination. The experts we spoke with for this article offered advice to help visitors and residents navigate concerns about public health while supporting the NYC we love and our planet. See below for a mix of practical tips and big-picture perspectives in the categories of dining, events, accommodations and more. As Chambers says, an essential component of this phase of NYC sustainability is our recognition of the connections between well-being and justice: “The pandemic and the protests against systemic racism that followed have underscored the fact that social justice and climate justice are intertwined. If we’re not effectively working toward making the lives of all New Yorkers better, safer and free from discrimination, then we’re going to be climbing up a larger hill of obstacles as we resist a changing planet.”

Restaurants and Takeout

Takeout, delivery and outdoor dining are currently the only options for enjoying the varied cuisines of NYC restaurants. New Yorkers can support sustainability by choosing eateries that use local ingredients and are reducing their footprint by composting and limiting food waste. Christina Grace, whose consultancy, Foodprint, guides companies to divert at least 90 percent of their refuse from landfill or incineration, suggests eateries such as Lighthouse, Sweetgreen, Just Salad, Huertas and Breads Bakery (one of her clients). As she notes, “People in food inherently don’t like waste, because it means you’re buying something that you’re throwing away.”

In suitable weather, alfresco dining offers a lower impact than takeout, not to mention an appealing ambiance. Julie Raskin, executive director of the waste-reduction nonprofit Sanitation Foundation, recommends bringing reusable utensils, since some restaurants have been turning to plastic utensils and containers. (Those with an eye for style may enjoy this set, designed by Pharrell Williams.)

In the takeout realm, choose low-footprint options through innovative programs like DeliverZero, a service that partners with restaurants to deliver food in reusable containers that can be returned to the eatery, where they are sanitized. Canteen by Dig is another zero-waste option, available by app through two of Dig’s Manhattan locations, that serves meals in reusable containers that customers return to drop-off points.

When ordering in, tell restaurants and delivery services you don’t want utensils. Uber Eats makes that process easier, since its default delivery option doesn’t include cutlery, whereas services such as Grubhub and Seamless require you to opt out to avoid it.

And don’t believe the hype that reusables—bags, water bottles, silverware, dishware—aren’t coronavirus safe. Scientists have been emphatic that they are hygienic and better for the environment.

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1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. Courtesy, 1 Hotels

Hotels

Hotels around NYC have responded to the pandemic with heightened regimens for cleaning. 1 Hotels, a chain with a sustainability mission and locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, is demonstrating how to protect visitors, employees and the planet. “The health and safety of our team and guests is of the utmost importance,” says Arash Azarbarzin, president of parent company SH Hotels & Resorts. “When forming our Covid protocols, we made sure that all were in line with our mission of sustainability.”

Those protocols include scanning guests’ temperatures when they enter the location and appointing a director of environmental health and safety at each location to act as a liaison with guests and oversee cleaning procedures. The hotels’ staff clean rooms, common areas and refillable soap dispensers with a combination of environmentally responsible, hospital-grade and CDC-approved cleaners; an activated oxygen cleaning spray; and a UV wand, all of which destroys any viral load. Azarbarzin points out that the company chose cleaning products made by Ecolab; it was already using water-efficient systems and eliminating as many single-use plastics as possible. Other examples of its blend of sustainability and safety: 1 Hotels staff wear reusable masks made by NYC-based Tilit, and rooms are sealed with a sticker that confirms they were cleaned and no one has entered.

Events

To mitigate the impact of coronavirus, NYC’s major venues—among them conference centers and stadiums—have canceled their events through the end of 2020. As sustainability manager (Americas) at the events company Informa, Bryan Lazzaro has made sure that the large-scale events he organizes have an increasingly smaller footprint. Now he’s considering how this goal intersects with health concerns—and what conferences will look like when they return.

“Safety and health are always going to come first,” Lazzaro says. With that priority established, he is determining “the lowest environmental impact we can have while still maintaining a safe environment for all our event stakeholders.” Informa is accomplishing that by following two complementary protocols. One, titled Informa AllSecure, establishes best practices to protect attendees’ health throughout the numerous touchpoints and shared environments at an event. The second, named The Fundamentals, is a sustainability assessment system that details 12 objectives ranging from reducing the impact of food and beverage to motivating attendees and industry partners to adopt more sustainable practices throughout their own businesses.

In the Covid-19 era, Informa is considering hosting events in halls without added carpeting, since a bare concrete floor can be far more easily cleaned. That could result in a waste-reduction win, since one event at a convention hall can require hundreds of thousands of square feet of temporary carpet.

Concerns about transmission are accelerating the shift to digital platforms for registration, event guides and badges as well. Instead of donor-sponsored swag, Lazzaro is advising companies to shift budgets to gift cards, Headspace memberships and donations for local organizations as part of social responsibility efforts. Elsewhere, he is aiming to reduce waste by developing signage, to convey social distancing and hygienic policies, that could be shared across multiple events.

Because of health risks, food at events will be individually packaged; while this results in increased packaging waste, it also means that unused food can be donated to local organizations that can distribute it without concerns for contamination.

Despite the challenges , Informa has committed to ambitious sustainability initiatives. “We don't want to lose momentum on this,” says Lazzaro. “We see that the future of the events industry depends on its sustainability.”

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Green roof, Javits Center. Photo: Julienne Schaer

The Javits Center

That perspective has long been a central operating principle at the Javits Center, a pioneering voice in NYC’s sustainability universe. Even with the current precautions, the venue is pushing the envelope. “We are focused on adapting our operations to meet health and safety requirements without sacrificing any aspect of our sustainability program,” says energy and sustainability manager Jacqueline Tran.

The Javits Center’s rigorous sanitization regimen features cleaners that are effective against the virus and meet green cleaning specifications. And while it continues existing initiatives to increase energy efficiency, reduce waste and increase recycling, the venue is moving forward with other eco projects, like the installation of a 7,000-panel, 3.29-megawatt rooftop solar-power system that will have 2 megawatts of battery storage—to be Manhattan’s largest such system when completed in fall 2021.

The Javits Center played a vital role during the onset of the pandemic as home to a temporary field hospital for over 1,000 patients. That led to improvements—like 100 newly installed HEPA-grade air filters—that will benefit future event attendees.

Tran sees the health crisis as spurring innovation: “This is a perfect time to consider how to enhance the sustainability of your events while adhering to new safety protocols related to Covid-19,” she says. The Javits Center itself is building out a café for contactless purchases. Another creative solution: “water drop” stations that dispense compostable containers with still, sparkling or flavored water.

Tips on Preventing Waste

“Compostables account for almost a third of what trash ends up in landfills in New York City,” says Julie Raskin, “so it’s a big deal when our efforts to divert the food waste are hampered.” Even though the City’s residential organics collection program has been cut, restored funding has allowed some drop-off points to return. Plus, a number of entrepreneurs and compost activists are filling in other gaps. The sustainability advocate Belinda Chiu created an online guide you can use to find compost drop-off locations throughout the City.

Along with the coronavirus came an upsurge of personal protective equipment that is now making its way into NYC’s trash, streets, parks and waterways. Residents can wear reusable cloth masks—or make their own—to limit waste and save money. In that same vein, check out the Sanitation Foundation’s ongoing series of practical zero waste workshops as well as its community cleanup opportunities.

To recycle latex gloves, the upcycling specialist Terracycle has collection boxes at Staples’ NYC locations to collect latex, vinyl and nitrile gloves.

Finally, in the midst of navigating the coronavirus crisis and sustainability, don’t forget to allow some time for rejuvenation in NYC’s green spaces. “Take a long walk in a City park if you can,” says Mark Chambers. “Go on a hike, bike ride and be in nature. And then get back out there and fight for the changes we need.”

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In this regard, Christina Grace observes that the pandemic has revealed gaps and opportunities. “It’s shedding light on what things work that we need to do more of and what things need to be very different,” she says. “It’s showing where sustainable practices can help a business save money, and it’s an opportunity to talk about the interconnection of so many of these issues.”


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