Wasted: New York City’s Giant Garbage Problem

New York City’s 8 million residents and millions of businesses, construction projects and visitors generate as much as 36,200 tons

New York City’s 8 million residents and millions of businesses, construction projects and visitors generate as much as 36,200 tons of garbage every day.

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The city’s Department of Sanitation handles nearly 13,000 tons per day of waste generated by residents, public agencies and non-profit corporations; private carting companies handle the remainder.

During the twentieth century, the City relied on a number of landfills for garbage disposal. Then, in December 2001, the city’s last garbage dump, Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, closed. In response, we adopted a 20-year plan for exporting waste.

The city’s annual bill for collecting and disposing residential trash jumped from about $658 million in 2000 and to about one and a quarter billion dollars in 2008. The cost of disposal has grown from $300 million in 2005 to about $400 million today. While some of that is inflation, most of it is due to the higher cost of transporting and landfilling garbage out of state. The City’s long-term plan is to reduce costs by recycling more, reducing waste and building a waterfront waste transfer system less dependent on trucks and able to use containers to ship garbage by barge and train further away to cheaper dumpsites.

It is hard to imagine a more environmentally damaging waste-management system than the one we have in New York. Actually, it’s not so hard to imagine, if you look back and remember the time when we dumped our garbage into the ocean, or used incinerators in the basements of apartment buildings to burn garbage at night.

Today, we collect garbage with trucks that use high-polluting diesel fuel and then dump that garbage onto the floor of waste transfer stations that are typically located in poor neighborhoods. We then scoop the garbage up off the floor and load it onto large trucks that also burn high-polluting diesel fuel and ship it to landfills and waste to energy incinerators located away from New York City.

While we own our entire water system, our waste system leaves us at the mercy of the private marketplace and the whims of Congress and other states. The current system of waste export leaves the city vulnerable over the long run. It is harder to site landfills in this region than it used to be. Political opposition to landfilling is growing in many dump site communities. Bills are regularly brought before Congress that would authorize local governments, state governments, and governors to restrict or prohibit the receipt of out-of-state waste.

Though the passage of such bills is far from certain, the possibility of passage over the next twenty years is substantial enough to warrant concern. Similarly, stricter regulations on new landfills by federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies could increase the cost of new landfills and limit future landfill capacity. Finally, landfill operators will certainly raise prices over time, and state and municipal governments will likely enact taxes on waste disposal.

Why do New Yorkers create so much garbage? Well there are a lot of us and New Yorkers are busy people— we toss garbage causally and we don’t like to sort our garbage. We prefer not to think about garbage or where it will end up. I think we have this fantasy that those green plastic mounds of garbage bags on the street are magically transported to some mythical solid waste heaven.

New York’s elected leaders know that waste is a no-win issue. As long as the cost increases of exporting waste are gradual, it is unlikely that enough political noise will be generated to induce a sitting mayor to rethink waste export. No Mayor in his or her right mind will try to build a waste incinerator or landfill in or near the city.

Still, the technology of waste incineration has advanced dramatically since we stopped using those horrible apartment incinerators in the 1960’s. In Japan, 70 percent of all waste is burned and generates electricity in the process. While incineration pollutes the air, it is less polluting than transporting waste in diesel-fueled trucks to leaking out-of-state-landfills.

What is the solution? In 2003 I proposed barging our garbage to waste-to-energy plants located in some of the economically distressed cities along the Hudson River. This could provide jobs and cheaper power to towns that could really use them. While I still like that idea, no one else did.

The next idea I’d like to propose is to develop community-based waste-management facilities. Perhaps smaller scale waste to energy plants coupled with recycling facilities and anaerobic digesters (a form of automated compost facility) could be located in all 59 community board districts in the city. Of course, we would lose economy of scale in managing these small facilities, and some neighborhoods would have trouble finding a place to put them. Still, it may be a good time to develop the technology to make smaller, cost-effective waste facilities. If everyone had to manage their own garbage, maybe we’d figure out a way to make less of it.

Wasted: New York City’s Giant Garbage Problem