City Limits New York’s Garbage System Faces Mounting Challenges of Cost, Carbon and Equity by Cole Rosengren
Garbage is one of the only things that unites all New Yorkers. Everyone creates it—yet few people want to think about what happens next.
Since the Fresh Kills landfill closed on Staten Island in 2001, New York has shipped every single ton of refuse outside its borders to be buried or burned. The complicated process behind this has inspired debate among city officials, environmental activists, academics, business owners and local residents for years. Almost everyone agrees that the current system has become environmentally and financially unsustainable.
On April 22, Earth Day, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to change it.
"The whole notion of a society based on constantly increasing waste and then putting it into a truck or a barge or a train and sending it somewhere else – you dig a big hole in the ground, you put the waste in the ground – that is outrageous and is outdated and we're not going to be party to it," he said at a press conference in Hunts Point, one of the city's waste transfer station hubs.
The mayor pledged to send zero waste to landfills by 2030, a 90 percent reduction based on 2005 levels. This ambitious goal will require one of the most significant shifts in garbage policy that New York has ever seen.
A four-month City Limits investigation looked at all aspects of the city's solid waste management system and found steep challenges at every turn. While de Blasio's OneNYC proposals identify many of these same issues, his ideas also open up many questions.
How will New York City send zero waste to landfills without expanding the controversial use of incineration? How can the city ensure the separate stream of commercial waste is handled in a way that protects the environment and workers? How can equity be maintained among the neighborhoods that host different parts of the disposal infrastructure? And perhaps most importantly, how can producer and consumer behavior be changed to create less waste in the first place?
Waste—a leading NYC export
The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) collects more than 3 million tons of residential and institutional waste per year. Approximately 16 percent of that is diverted for recycling. About 12 percent is sent to a waste-to-energy facility in Newark, New Jersey. The remainder travels hundreds of miles to landfills in multiple states. This exporting process will cost the city an estimated $367,815,000 in Fiscal Year 2016. Even though the overall amount of waste produced by the city has slightly decreased since the closure of Fresh Kills, disposal costs have more than doubled due to the expense of exporting.
Estimates of commercial waste, collected from private businesses by private carting companies, range from 3 million to 5.5 million tons a year. This doesn't include construction and demolition debris. Because DSNY doesn't control commercial waste, estimates of recycling diversion rates vary widely. The commercial waste that isn't recycled also goes to landfills, though some is incinerated.
In 2014, residential and commercial waste traveled to landfills as far as 660 miles away in South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Many other cities also use landfills, but New York's waste travels farther than most at an accelerating cost with an equally harmful impact on the natural environment.
"The single worst thing we could possibly do with garbage is landfill," says Brendan Sexton, a former DSNY commissioner and current member of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board.
Sexton says that even with the latest landfill technology, water contamination and methane emissions are still an issue. Some of this methane is captured for reuse, but it's estimated that New York's waste is responsible for nearly 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
Even if recycling rates spiked overnight, reliance on landfills would still be hard to kick. The city is engaged in long-term contracts with waste-hauling and landfill companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. A representative from one of the country's largest industry trade associations says his members don't endorse change until a better option is available.
"People are looking every day at how to build that silver bullet. The day it is found, it's going to spread like wildfire," says Steven Changaris, Northeast regional manager of the National Waste & Recycling Association. He says his members are aware there is progress to be made, but also asked for more understanding. "I really want people to take the long view," he says. "We used to take waste and just dump it in the ocean. We used to take waste and just put it in a hole in the ground."
In New York's case, this is especially true. Deadly cholera and yellow fever outbreaks, due in part to unsanitary street conditions, were common until the mid-1800s. The city didn't stop dumping its waste in the ocean until a direct court order in 1934. New Jersey and surrounding communities were tired of dead animals and rotting refuse washing up on their shores.
The end of ocean dumping triggered a shift to local landfills and incinerators—most notably Fresh Kills on Staten Island—which dominated until the turn of the century. Engineered in part by divisive master-planner Robert Moses, many of these projects reshaped the coastline and plagued neighborhoods for decades. By 1955, Fresh Kills was the largest landfill in the world—in fact, one of the largest human-made structures on Earth—and was later rumored to be visible from space. By the 1960s, the city had 22 municipal incinerators and more than 17,000 apartment building incinerators. As political pressure and environmental concerns mounted, all of these sites were eventually closed.
By the time Fresh Kills was closed in 2001, it had taken in more than 150 million tons of garbage and become New York's last remaining option for handling its own waste.
In his book, "Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York - The Last Two Hundred Years," Benjamin Miller estimated that Fresh Kills had at least another 15 years of capacity left. Without a feasible contingency plan for what came next, the city's waste management system was thrown into chaos. "It would be impossible to do things worse than we have done them in recent decades," says Miller.
The SWMP solution
More than 14 years after the closure of Fresh Kills, the city's system for collecting and transporting trash is still adapting.
A large portion of residential and commercial waste is currently handled through land-based transfer stations where it is put into long-haul trucks bound for landfills. Three rail transfer stations also handle residential waste. Once a fourth rail transfer station opens this summer in Queens approximately 58 percent of the waste handled by DSNY will be exported via rail or barge.
DSNY's current guiding policy is the city's 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), a major legislative accomplishment by the Bloomberg administration that called for overhauling six defunct marine transfer stations (MTS) to begin shipping garbage via barges.
Nearly 10 years in, only one MTS is fully operational.
The North Shore MTS opened in College Point, Queens this year and will be at full capacity by summer. The Hamilton Avenue MTS near Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal is almost complete and expected to open next year. The 59th Street MTS in Manhattan is currently handling paper, but is scheduled to be shut down for a renovation so it can process construction and demolition debris. That can't happen until the Gansevoort MTS in Chelsea is built to process recyclables, though permits for that project have yet to be approved by the state government. The remaining two stations, Southwest Brooklyn in Gravesend and East 91st Street in Yorkville, are in the early stages of construction.
The final two have both inspired fierce opposition, but East 91st Street is by far the most contested. Residents have been fighting the station with lawsuits, protests and electoral efforts for years. They say that the station is in a more densely populated residential area than any of the others and will have a minimal effect on the overall distribution of city garbage processing.
The common argument behind the East 91st Street MTS is that Manhattan produces 40 percent of the city's waste but handles none of it. While this is true, a large percentage of that waste is commercial, which isn't guaranteed to come through the MTS because tipping fees will be higher than current transfer stations in other boroughs. Otherwise, the MTS will handle waste from four community districts whose trash is currently being trucked to New Jersey.
"What we're doing by shifting garbage is like shifting the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. We're not solving the problem here," says Kelly Nimmo-Guenther, president of MTS opposition group Pledge 2 Protect.
She argues that in light of the mayor's new waste reduction goals, the MTS is less necessary than ever. The Independent Budget Office estimates that by the time the station is open it will cost about three times more to tip garbage there than originally anticipated.
Despite all of this, construction is underway and the MTS is scheduled to be operational in 2017. A potential compromise over placement of the ramp is possible—which could alleviate concerns about pedestrian safety—but has raised new issues. Pledge 2 Protect supports the idea of moving the ramp, but still opposes the MTS. The Asphalt Green recreation center has moved on from trying to stop the MTS and is leading a campaign to move the ramp one block north to East 92nd Street.
"It's not under our control whether there's an MTS or not, but we can do something and speak up and let the mayor know this is such a good solution," says Maggy Siegel, executive director of Asphalt Green.
This would put the ramp one block closer to NYCHA's Stanley M. Isaacs Houses. Some residents fear that could divert traffic entering and exiting FDR Drive in a way that would create more congestion around their complex. They have since split off from the other groups to fight both the ramp and the MTS on their own. The area has some of the highest asthma rates in the city.
"Sometimes you have to swim by yourself," says Rose Bergin, president of the Stanley Isaacs Houses Tenant Association. "They're killing us quicker if they open this."
A decision about relocating the ramp is expected from the mayor's office soon.
Meanwhile, Gravesend residents are fighting the Southwest Brooklyn MTS with equal vigor, though less attention. That MTS is set to be built on the site of a former incinerator along the waterfront. Opponents of the plan are worried that residual contaminants from the incinerator—such as mercury and lead—may be disturbed during dredging for construction. The potential presence of munitions lost during a 1954 naval accident is also a concern. DSNY has acknowledged these issues but says they can be mitigated, and has received approval to proceed from the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.
"This is, in my opinion, one of the worst environmental decisions that has been made in New York City," says Council Member Mark Treyger, who represents a neighboring district.
Assemblyman William Colton filed a lawsuit to stop construction, which was dismissed. He has since filed an appeal. Colton, Treyger and other community members have held multiple protests. Treyger thinks their case is stronger now since the mayor's waste reduction goals were announced.
"I respectfully ask if that's the goal, why are we spending billions of dollars and building new waste transfer stations in residential neighborhoods?" he says.
Benjamin Miller says the idea of taking garbage to the shoreline dates back to the days when horse carts used to dump it directly into the water or onto barges. The city continued this practice for years by sending barges to Fresh Kills, but the process is no longer the most efficient option since the waste will still end up getting transported to landfills via rail or truck. "We could put it right on a rail car in every borough," he says.
Building state-of-the-art marine transfer stations, with the extra step of cranes putting containers onto barges, has become very expensive. The total construction cost for these stations is approaching $1 billion.
"The day the Solid Waste Management Plan was passed in 2006 it was already obsolete," says Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the neighborhoods around the 91st Street MTS.
He has joined a long line of local politicians that have taken up the cause. In a March 25 preliminary budget hearing at City Hall, he grilled DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia over rising construction costs. Her response was measured, but indicative of the plan's changing relevance in recent years.
"As I've testified before, the Solid Waste Management Plan is a very expensive choice. It's a choice that was made because of the fact that there were certain neighborhoods that historically had taken more refuse, and in order for there to be a vision of borough equity, there were very, very expensive decisions made and very expensive contracts signed for long durations. So the fact that it's very expensive is not surprising," she said.
Still battling over transfer stations
Yet for environmental justice advocates, even one less truck that goes to a transfer station in the South Bronx, northern Brooklyn or southeast Queens will make the SWMP worthwhile.
"It's pretty hard to see any other system that's as blatantly discriminatory as our solid waste system," says Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. "It's just night and day when you look at the disparity."
Pedestrian safety and illness related to diesel fumes are some of the greatest concerns around heavy truck traffic going to transfer stations. The South Bronx has been shown to have the highest pediatric asthma rates in the city.
Bautista has been fighting efforts to relegate waste transfer stations to these communities for nearly 20 years. He views Mayor de Blasio's OneNYC announcement as the halfway point of a very long campaign for environmental justice in waste management.
"It's now turned into a generational fight," he says.
One of his latest battles is to reduce the amount of land-based transfer stations in these three neighborhoods and put a cap on how many stations other neighborhoods can host in the future. Currently, the majority of commercial and a large portion of residential waste travels through these stations. The need for them will decrease once all of the marine and rail transfer stations are complete. Intro-495, a piece of legislation currently being negotiated in the City Council, would codify these changes. So far, resistance from the commercial waste industry has been strong.
Antonio Reynoso, chairman of the City Council's sanitation committee and one of the bill's primary sponsors, has tough words for those who don't want to cooperate.
"In sanitation everything is difficult. There's no win-win situations. There's just hard choices to be made for the greater good," he says. "This is one of those pieces of legislation that for some it's gonna be hard to swallow, but overall the city's gonna be better for it."
These siting battles over transfer stations have dominated the local waste debate for over a decade. As vital as they are to the neighborhoods they affect, they do not fully address the mounting problems facing the city's waste management system—cost, carbon emissions and equity—not just in New York, but also in the faraway towns the city dumps in.
"At a certain point the pain has got to kick in," says Benjamin Miller. "Do we really want to be dumping this in landfills in somebody else's backyard?"
With research assistance by Liridona Duraku.