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Trash Movement, Recycling, & Disposal

Last updated July 29, 2013


New Yorkers make a lot of garbage. And, that garbage has to go somewhere – whether it’s to recycling plants or landfills. In 2013, there is a bit of talk around town about furthering the city’s recycling efforts (for example, some are asking why the city doesn’t have recycling bins on street corners next to traditional garbage cans), but a major point of contention surrounds the proposed renewal of a waste management and transfer station on the upper east side of Manhattan, off of 91st Street and York Avenue. Residents nearby the proposed site have organized en masse and the issue has quickly become a hot button one in the mayoral and other races. In this debate, you’ll quickly become familiar with terms like “borough equity” and “environmental racism,” as well as the phrase “dump the dump,” often used by opponents of the 91st street waste transfer station.


Proponents of the plan to recreate a 91st street facility – the current structure of which has been closed since 1999 – including Mayor Bloomberg, mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn, and advocacy group Environmental Justice Alliance, argue that a new waste transfer station must open somewhere and that each borough and certain neighborhoods must bear their fair share of the burdens associated with housing a local station. Opponents, who include virtually every resident of the upper east side of Manhattan and their elected officials, and mayoral candidates candidates Bill Thompson and Joe Lhota, claim that the location is the wrong one because of how residential the area is and what the station would mean in terms of safety, traffic, and air quality.


The conflict over the 91st street waste management station is an offshoot of New York City’s deeper waste management issues. Currently, the City’s waste disposal system relies almost exclusively on transporting the garbage away. At its peak, the City’s Sanitation Department operated 22 waste incinerators and 89 landfills, gradually phasing them out as concerns over pollution and local quality of life mounted. There were no operational incinerators left in the City as of 1994, and the last major landfill – the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island – was closed in 2001. As a result, the City’s waste stream – amounting to 12,000 tons a day – is disposed of by private companies through short-term contracts with the City. The financial burden of this practice has only increased in recent years, as contractors charge more for shipment and local landfills and incinerators run low on capacity.


The Bloomberg administration sought to diversify the City’s waste disposal by releasing a Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan in 2006. The plan focused on three things, namely in-city recycling efforts, renegotiation of private contracts, and reexamination of commercial waste. The issues it sought to address are threefold: expanding in-city recycling efforts, by reducing the cost of existing efforts and inviting private companies to process recyclables; renegotiating contracts, making them long-term and sustainable; and addressing concerns over residential and commercial waste, making their collection and export more environmentally conscious and reducing their disproportionate impact on certain neighborhoods.


In the interests of diversifying how New York City handles its waste, the Bloomberg administration has also begun reevaluating the role of Waste-to-Energy programs. These programs would process garbage in a manner that creates usable energy for the City, for instance through incineration or anaerobic digestion. In 2012, Bloomberg announced a “Request For Proposals (RFP)” for a new Waste-to-Energy plant in the City. The hope is that with new, modern techniques, some form of in-city waste disposal can be reintroduced and reduce the need for waste export.


On July 29th 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced the expansion of the City’s pilot organic recycling program. The stated goal is to increase the City’s recycling rate to 30%, by diverting organic trash – food scraps, yard waste, etc – away from the garbage stream and into composting. After a test run in parts of Staten Island and several Manhattan high-rises, the program is now being expanded to include parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx – currently on a voluntary basis but with the potential to become mandatory. This expansion is coupled with a new “Recycle Everything” ad campaign, designed to make New Yorkers more aware of how much they can recycle. This expanded organic waste recycling program, coupled with an ad campaign to increase recycling of metals, hard plastics, glass, and paper, seeks to drastically increase the amount of waste that is recycled in the city rather than diverted to landfills.


Local concerns remain at the forefront of the issue of waste management. In addition to neighborhoods currently hosting waste management sites and transfer stations – and those that may soon host one, like the one being considered on 91st street – Staten Island has remained a vocal opponent of new systems on its land. The Fresh Kills Landfill, currently in the process of being converted into a park, remains a sore spot for many residents. The Bloomberg administration included an exemption for Fresh Kills in its “Request For Proposals” of 2012 after protests were staged there, by residents upset over Fresh Kills’ inclusion as a potential site. Current candidates Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn voiced their approval over this decision in their capacities as Public Advocate and Speaker, respectively.


Debate over issues of waste disposal continue to be discussed during this election cycle. Manhattan BP candidate Julie Menin has touted the importance of recycling and composting programs in a more intensive waste reduction system. Mayoral debates over the issue of waste disposal have shown considerable differences between the candidates. For instance Adolfo Carrion Jr. and Christine Quinn have both argued for more equitable borough distribution of waste transfer stations.


Key Questions to Consider:

  1. Will the new waste transfer station on the proposed site at East 91st Street and York Avenue be opened?
  2. How can the distribution of waste management and transfer stations be distributed to be more equitable and less harmful to certain neighborhoods?
  3. What role should the City, private companies, and local communities play in the management of the New York City’s waste?
  4. What else can New York City do to increase its recycling and solid waste management efforts?


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