What a Waste

garbagebarge What a WasteEarlier this week, New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer filed an excellent story on San Francisco’s successful waste management strategy.

The story discussed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s zeal for keeping garbage out of landfills. Currently, his city keeps 70 percent of its disposable garbage out of landfills.

You might think that would be enough, but it’s not. He is about to propose legislation to mandate recycling of cans, bottles, paper, yard waste and food scraps. If you don’t recycle, the city won’t pick up the rest of your garbage.

How much of New York City’s waste is kept out of landfills? About 30 percent. Of course, that puts us ahead of Boston at 16 percent and Houston at less than 3 percent.

For some reason people on the West Coast are more serious about waste management. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s forward looking PlaNYC 2030, New York’s waste policy is to get the garbage out of here to some place else as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Waste management was excluded from PlaNYC 2030 because the city already had a comprehensive waste management plan. That plan was proposed in 2006 and enacted in 2007. The city’s waste plan is to build marine waste transfer stations and barge the garbage to any place that will take it. Water-borne and train transport of our garbage will reduce pollution from trucks and is better than our current system. Currently we dump the garbage onto the floor of huge warehouses and then scoop it up and truck it out of state.

But whether its trains or barges or trucks, our policy is to pray that our garbage goes to solid waste heaven. More likely its toxic components will leak out of landfills into groundwater in rural Pennsylvannia.

PlaNYC 2030 focuses on land, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change. It’s a terrific and important initiative, but it leaves out waste. Why are we so ashamed of our garbage? Why no consultant-driven, PowerPoint-laden, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff-produced multimedia show in the park for waste management? Why isn’t waste reduction, recycling and enhanced waste management part of the city’s high-visibility sustainability plan? Is garbage just too negative a subject to get excited about?

Mayor Bloomberg has taken on traffic, smoking, crime and countless other challenges facing the city. The city’s waste management plan is an improvement over current practices and so the people who developed it deserve credit for a job well done. Still, it lacks the boldness and vision of many of the mayor’s other initiatives? Why?

One wants to find a psychological explanation in our unwillingness to deal with this issue. Tokyo burns most of its garbage in clean-burning incinerators that generate electricity. Barcelona has a facility that does that and also sorts garbage for recycling and creates compost. San Francisco is heading toward a 75 percent rate of landfill waste diversion. I guess New York is the city that’s too busy to manage its waste.

In the long run, we will need to do something different. Just like we own our water system and control that vital resource, we will also need to control the place we put our garbage. The price of disposal is only going to increase over the next few decades.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that as the planet’s population grows, and finite natural resources become more scarce, the economics of recycling will continue to improve. When we develop low-cost renewable energy, one of the main cost factors in recycling will be reduced.

Today’s garbage will be tomorrow’s raw materials for manufacturing. New York City’s population density will make the city an excellent place for “mining” waste.

Maybe it’s too late for this administration to develop a vision for our garbage. The clock in the City Hall bullpen is fast counting down to zero. Just like the failed congestion pricing program was a missed opportunity of historic proportions, so too has been the failure to focus attention on the city’s waste. What a waste.