How Far Should Your Garbage Travel?

Many of us bag it, put it outside at night, and the next morning its simply GONE. Most people won’t spend more than a moment wondering where that garbage ends up after it leaves their block. A few years ago, during a bad snow storm, garbage pickup in my neighborhood took a backseat to snow removal, if only for a couple of days, and people seemed disgusted by what was left behind: their own garbage. When some of the sanitation trucks turned into snowplows to address the snow-covered streets, those black bags began to pile up on curbs throughout the city. I was suddenly reminded of just how much garbage this city produces (a lot) and that garbage is never simply “gone” – it actually goes somewhere. Somewhere that might surprise many New Yorkers.

Photo credit: DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Photo credit: DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

Oddly enough, most of the black bags that piled up following that snowstorm probably ended up in Pennsylvania. Or maybe in South Carolina. Weird, right? According to a recent Citizen’s Budget Commission(CBC) report, New York City ships much of our garbage to out-of-state landfills, and the decision to do so generates roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases per year as adding 133,000 cars to the roads. CBC’s report – “Taxes In, Garbage Out” – cites several other remarkable statistics: Roughly 75% of our NYC garbage goes to landfills, but hardly any of it stays close to home. According to the report, an incredible 98% (of the 75% shipped to landfills) is shipped to Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia. As the CBC’s 40-page study (and a recent City Limits article) notes, the extraordinary mileage being logged by New York’s garbage leads to serious economic as well as environmental costs.

Putting aside environmental issues (but just for a moment), it makes some financial sense to do this. Generally, it has actually been cheaper to ship our garbage – by truck or by railcar – to places like South Carolina and Virginia. In 2008, the national average landfill fee was $44 per ton – but it was $68 in New Jersey, $35 in South Carolina, and as low as $32 in Ohio. When shipping millions of tons of garbage every year, an otherwise small difference of $30 per ton becomes a huge factor in deciding how far to ship garbage. Still, while it may be cheaper to ship it to Virginia instead of New Jersey, the practice is not sustainable – or, frankly, very responsible – for the long term, regardless of the location. If we use nearby landfills we might cut down on truck emissions by shipping over shorter distances, but costs will go up and, eventually, space will be an issue. If we continue to use the cheapest landfills, we ignore the environmental impacts and use more and more trucks. Plus, there is no guarantee we can always use any or all of these landfills or that rates will remain low. They probably won’t. So, what else can be done?

One alternative attempts to simultaneously address issues of economic stability and some level of environmental sustainability and responsibility. The alternative – turning waste to energy (WTE) – appears rather straightforward. We keep garbage closer to home, lower costs, and reduce overall pollution by burning it. Perhaps the most visible proponent of this WTE approach is the current Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.

The Mayor’s PlaNYC – a self-proclaimed “bold” agenda to “meet challenges and build a greener, greater New York” – calls for the construction of a new WTE facility to burn garbage that cannot be recycled. The city is receiving private bids to build a pilot WTE facility and, under PlaNYC, this could save the city over $100 million per year while also cutting combined greenhouse gas emissions by roughly one third. Optimism should be tapered however. There are serious issues being ignored or trivialized, even as the city pushes ahead with this plan. Where would the first facility – and presumably additional facilities – be built? The Mayor’s plan states that the facility must be within the city (or within 80 miles of the city limits) but any final selection of a site will be a political decision – left to a task force of 11 members representing the Mayor, the City Council, and the five borough presidents.

A short-list of nine potential WTE sites was identified and many are in existing EJ neighborhoods. The only Manhattan site (Randall’s Island) was deemed “not acceptable” because the site is “not available” and being used by the FDNY for training purposes. Why it was even named as one of the nine potential sites then, remains unclear. Three Queens locations and two Staten Island locations were deemed “acceptable” and, most amazing to me, the former Fresh Kills Landfill area on Staten Island was considered “advantageous or highly advantageous,” as was another Brooklyn location. While existing zoning laws and other factors may have come into play, it is still alarming to see which communities would (and wouldn’t) likely face the burdens of a new WTE facility if and when the time comes.

The CBC report says that environmental justice activists are opposed to construction of WTE facilities due to two “myths” – WTE facilities will disincentivize recycling and WTE facilities will threaten the health of local residents due to air pollution they create. The report claims that modern WTE facilities pose no meaningful health risks – that technological advances should prevent people from worrying about thick black smoke pumping out of incinerators. That is an image of the past. It won’t be like that. Not this time. Regardless of the many technological advances that have been made over the years, this oversimplified view ignores serious issues facing any community about to be burdened with a WTE facility.

In addition to some financial savings, reducing the environmental impact of thousands of state-to-state truck trips is part of the reason some are looking to construction of WTE facilities here at home as an alternative. But what about all of the trucks that will still be transporting garbage to these WTE facilities? They will be logging less miles, but all of the miles they do log will be within a much smaller geographical area. The same trucks won’t suddenly have zero emissions. Instead, they will drive fewer miles but drive through (and idle in) the same neighborhoods day after day. Perhaps this strategy lowers overall truck emissions but communities burdened with a new WTE facility will also be forced to shoulder more than their fair share of truck pollution associated with transporting our garbage.

In the end, saving the city money is not worth knowingly polluting certain communities more than others. New York City needs to find better ways to dispose of our garbage – and maybe talk more about how we can accumulate less of it in the first place. Perhaps WTE can be a part of a solution, but no solution should burden certain communities more than others. We all fill up those black bags and we should all pay the same price for doing so – and shoulder the burdens associated with getting rid of them. More to come on this issue in a future blog post…