What’s Happening to New York City’s Garbage?

While New York City’s inadequate waste management system is one of my constant themes or perhaps obsessions, at the end

While New York City’s inadequate waste management system is one of my constant themes or perhaps obsessions, at the end of December, the New York Post published a wonderful "man bites dog:" story: The amount of garbage we are producing is going down! David Seifman, one of the Post’s terrific political journalists reported that in New York City:

"Household refuse collections dropped 5.5 percent, from 54,205 to 51,250 tons per week, between fiscal 2005 and 2008. Recycling pickups fell 7.1 percent during that period, from 11,983 to 11,133 tons a week. Some of the decrease can be explained by the switch from glass to lighter plastics, by reductions in packaging materials, and by the decline in discarded newspapers and magazines."  

As the piece indicates, this is happening while the city’s population has been growing by 30,000 to 50,000 people per year. Seifman indicates that; "Nationally, residential waste collections increased from 250.4 million tons in 2005 to 254.2 million tons in 2006, before dropping slightly to 254.1 million tons in 2007."

Another way to analyze our waste issue is to measure the amount of garbage produced by each person per year. In 1960, the entire country produced about 88.1 million tons of waste. By 1980 this had grown to 151.6 million tons and by 2000 it had grown to 239 million tons of waste produced each year. At the same time, our population was growing.  When John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960 we were a nation of about 180 million people.  The America that elected Ronald Reagan President in 1980 had 227 million people, and the country that handed the keys over to George W. Bush in 2000 was up to 281 million garbage producing humans. Our population is now a little over 300 million. 

While the American population keeps growing, in recent years, we have managed to reduce the amount of garbage each of us individually tosses away. In 1960, on average, each of us threw out 2.5 pounds of garbage per day. That grew to 3 pounds by 1970 and peaked at 3¼ ponds a day in 1980. By 2000, the amount of garbage we tossed went down to 2.6 pounds per day and in 2007 we returned to the 1960 level of waste at 2.5 pounds per day.  All of these data come from EPA’s "Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2007 Facts and Figures". I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the 2008 version to come out.

What does all of this mean? We are getting more efficient and relatively less wasteful. We are still the most wasteful society in the world, producing more waste per person than any other place on the planet. But we are getting a little better at paying attention to this critical determinant of sustainability.

Here in New York City, the cost of waste disposal is growing. As Seifman indicates in his story, we are now up to $100 dollars a ton. As I have written before, this is not a cost that is going to come down.  In April, 2008, I described our waste system this way:

"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."  

In July of 2008 I posted a piece on some alternatives waste management technologies that my students had researched and have long been studied and advocated by my Columbia colleague, Professor Nicholas Themelis.  Garbage is inevitable, and we need to do a better job of discarding it.  The technology of waste management is improving and New York City’s government is much better at managing complicated facilities than it once was. We should burn garbage as a fuel and we should learn to use the waste that remains after burning as a construction material. But we should also reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place.

It’s clear that we have started to do this already, even if we’re not sure how we’ve managed to do it.  My guess about what is going on is that we are benefiting from greater consciousness about waste. Fifty years ago our garbage was completely invisible. Today it is just mostly invisible-but some people notice it. When manufacturers look to cut costs, they look at packaging to see if they could do more with less.  When people go to the store, they reject bags if they have something else to carry their stuff with.  People carry their own water containers and bit by bit we are making progress.

Public policy can help and should be developed to reduce waste. Food waste should be separated from other waste for either composting or it’s urban version- anaerobic digestion (a mechanical facility that processes food waste for reuse). More and more goods should be sold with recycling deposits.  All beverage containers, not just carbonated ones, should require deposits. We require deposits on tires, we could do it with laptops, ipods, TVs and cell phones. The tax code should be used to provide incentives for corporations to manufacture items that can be easily remanufactured after their useful life is over. While charging people by the garbage can for pickup is difficult in a city dominated by apartments, some type of financial incentive or penalty is needed to encourage waste reduction and recycling by individual New Yorkers.  Let’s be creative and invent a way to do this.

In the long run, a truly sustainable economy requires what industrial ecologists call "closed systems". Every input into the system must be put to use. Like the way my grandparents cooked a chicken-every part of that bird had to be used for something-nothing was wasted. While I do not think that zero waste will ever be realistic, we could probably do a lot better than tossing away 250 million tons of garbage every year. What’s Happening to New York City’s Garbage?