Wasted Again: What Can We Do With All of That Garbage?

As summer heats up, our thoughts return to garbage–specifically New York City’s garbage. As I’ve mentioned before, it would be

As summer heats up, our thoughts return to garbage–specifically New York City’s garbage. As I’ve mentioned before, it would be hard to invent a more environmentally damaging, or more expensive system of waste management, than the one we use. To reiterate–in New York City we collect the garbage that residents place on the curb and then dump it on the floor of huge warehouses that tend to be located in low-income neighborhoods. We then scoop it up and load it on to trailer trucks and ship it far away–mostly to landfills (dumps), or waste-to-energy plants (incinerators). In the old days, when we had more vacant land in the city, we dumped the garbage in our own landfills. When I was a kid we had the Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue landfills in Brooklyn–which some of us called the Brooklyn Alps as the dump grew higher and higher. Of course, Staten Island had its incredible Freshkills Landfill. The story is told that there are two human made objects visible from outer space: The Great Wall of China and the Freshkills Landfill. Ah, the good old days.

Still, not every city has the ability to cart their trash to a landfill in Pennsylvania, so what do other cities do with their waste? In 2005, some of the students in Columbia’s Masters in Environmental Science and Policy Program explored alternative waste management practices around the world and identified a number of alternatives to land-filling.

My colleague Dr. Nicholas Themelis of Columbia’s Engineering School has also been exploring technological options to land-filling for well over a decade. He has been particularly interested in the technological developments in waste-to-energy, particularly how to reduce emissions from garbage incineration. As my students and Dr. Themelis have observed, there are many interesting examples of sophisticated waste management outside of the United States.

A terrific example is waste management in Barcelona, Spain. In 2001, Barcelona’s Metropolitan Environmental Agency initiated construction on two new integrated waste treatment facilities to manage the city’s waste. The facilities, called Ecopark 1 and Ecopark 2, now process more than 40% of the waste they receive into biogas and compost, and recover an additional 5% for recycling. Ecopark 2 alone processes almost 20% of Barcelona’s waste, in part by using anaerobic digestion, a system which processes biodegradable waste without oxygen. The biogas and methane produced by anaerobic digestion are used to generate electricity, a portion of which the facility uses for its own operations.

Prior to building the Ecopark facilities, Barcelona’s waste agency launched an aggressive campaign to involve the community and build support for the facilities. This campaign involved everything from designing the buildings to reflect the region’s legacy of world-class architects such as Antonio Gaudi to door-to-door visits to give residents kits for separating kitchen waste.

Barcelona’s waste facilities are now a destination for school field trips, and the Metropolitan Environmental Agency has organized conferences, training, and other events to promote education around waste treatment. After the Ecoparks were successfully up and running the city ran a TV commercial thanking Barcelona’s residents for separating their waste.

Japan is a crowded island where land is simply to valuable to use for garbage dumps. Their scarcity of land has led them to using ever-advancing technology to deal with their waste. They rely heavily on waste incineration and intensive recycling. Though recycling policies vary throughout the country, most Japanese families separate their waste into at least six recycling categories. The town of Kamikatsu in Japan has implemented a "zero waste" policy which requires residents to do their own composting. The town has a "zero waste" recycling center where residents sort their waste into 34 categories, which include categories for Styrofoam, razors, and bottle caps. The town implemented this strategy after realizing it was much cheaper than incineration. Though a recent poll showed that 40% of residents were not happy with the program, the mayor is undeterred given the good it does for the environment.

Though a portion of New York City’s waste stream does get recycled, we could be diverting almost half of what we currently send to landfills without the stringent measures taken in Kamikatsu, Japan. Fifteen percent of what’s put into our trash bags is actually recyclable paper which just needs to be correctly sorted. The biggest component of waste that we currently send to landfills is "organics", a category including food and yard waste, which comprises nearly half (47%) of what we send to landfills.

Large scale composting of organics is not just a foreign concept-cities and towns in the United States are doing it, and New York City has been investigating the possibility. After pilot programs asking residents and institutions to separate their food waste for curbside pick up were unsuccessful, the City began investigating municipal solid waste composting. With municipal solid waste composting, rather than having residents separate out organic waste, solid waste is transported to a central facility where the degradable portion is recovered and composted, and the non-degradable portion is separated for recycling and for disposal. This process can be combined with the type of curbside recycling program we currently have. New York City undertook a study about municipal waste composting in 2004 which involved actually sending some waste to a composting facility in Massachusetts, and developing a theoretical pilot facility for New York City.

Another study was published in 2004 for New York City which looked at a variety of waste management and recycling technologies, including the anaerobic technologies like those used in Barcelona

While the city tries to figure it out, some individuals and businesses have taken things into their own hands. More than 300 New York City restaurants have food waste picked up by a company called Action Carting Environmental for composting.

The Lower East Side Ecology Center accepts household food scraps at various Greenmarket locations. They compost 60 tons of organic materials a year using a unique closed-container composting system. The organization then sells the finished compost, which it calls "New York pay dirt".

Is any of this realistic? Can the people living in this fast-paced place do a better job of disposing their waste? Can a city struggling with a financial crisis invest in the infrastructure to do a better job of handling our waste? The real question is can we afford not to. According to a May 2007 report of the Independent Budget Office, New York City’s Department of Sanitation spending for waste disposal grew from $78.88 a ton in 2005 to $92.59 in 2008. Spending for waste disposal grew from $258 million to nearly $300 million during that span of time. While the cost of recycling also went up from $29 to $40 dollars a ton, recycling still costs less than half as much as disposal. Every ton of garbage we recycle instead of dumping saves the city over $50 bucks. Additional recycling can save the city money and could actually help contribute to solving the fiscal crisis.

It makes sense that if we figure out how to reuse the stuff we would otherwise throw out, we can save money. When you give your old winter coat to Goodwill instead of tossing it in the garbage, the city saves the cost of land filling the coat and someone gets a low-cost piece of essential clothing. This may be an oversimplification, but there is no question that reducing waste reduces costs.

Click here for more information on composting in NYC.
Wasted Again: What Can We Do With All of That Garbage?