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New York City trash: where does it all go?

12,000 tons of residential waste are produced in New York City every day or about 3 pounds of garbage daily or 1,095 pounds a year for every New Yorker!  Ever wonder where all this trash goes?  That’s what I set out to investigate, and here’s what I found.

Since 1997, four of the boroughs (all but Queens) have sent their residential garbage, often by truck, to landfills as far away as Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia.  In 2000, Queens began sending residential garbage to transfer stations* in New Jersey. A transfer station is a solid waste management facility where waste is received for subsequent transfer to another facility for further processing, treating, transfer, or disposal.

This movement of NYC trash to such far-away places costs the city $300 million each year, and also releases tons of greenhouse gases in the process.

Waste ReductionIn an attempt to reduce these costs and also to decrease landfill dependency, Mayor Bloomberg announced the Waste Reduction Plan in January 2012.  The plan cuts the amount of waste in the city mostly by increasing recycling efforts and by converting non-recyclable waste to useful energy.  The figure below summarizes this plan.  Increasing efforts towards recycling is especially needed now:  NYC residents are currently recycling only about 15% of their waste production, and this number is actually decreasing rather than increasing.  A preliminary report released by the Department of Sanitation showed a general decrease in recycling in the city; this included a 5% decrease in recycling tons per truck-shift, 3% decrease in curbside recycling, and a 45% decrease in the number of recycling summonses issued.  This is unfortunate for many reasons, but also disappointing since this comes at a time when revenue from paper recycling is at an all-time high ($33 per ton).

Arguably the most contentious part of the Waste Reduction Plan is the creation of technologies that can convert waste into renewable sources of energy.  This is because many environmental organizations worry that this will cause more harm to the environment than good.  For instance, combustion has often been used as a large-scale solution for energy conversion, but combustion (which involves burning trash to produce heat) can produce many pollutants and decrease air quality.  Other organizations, such as the Citizens Budget Commission, support Bloomberg’s “waste-to-energy” plan as a step towards decreasing reliance on landfills, and believe that it is possible to break down waste safely.  Proposals to build and operate conversion facilities were accepted until June of this year, but nothing has been decided yet.

The city has previously evaluated some new conversion technologies such as anaerobic digestion, gasification, and hydrolysis.  In theory, these technologies provide a solution for converting waste to renewable energy in a safe, environmentally friendly way.  For example, hydrolysis uses acid to breakdown waste into sugars to produce ethanol, which can then be used either as fuel or for energy production.

However, there are concerns about the efficiency, eco-friendliness, and locations of these new waste-to-energy facilities in crowded NYC. Earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg proposed Fresh Kills in Staten Island as one potential site for a waste-to-energy facility, but this plan was withdrawn after much public outcry.  The Fresh Kills landfill was just closed in 2001, and many Staten Island residents were appalled at the idea of putting a waste-to-energy plant on an already environmentally burdened site.  Since then, no other potential sites have been mentioned, but the Bloomberg administration wants the conversion facilities to be located in New York City or within 80 miles of the city.  Many worry that the waste-to-energy plants will be placed in lower income neighborhoods causing increased pollution in these areas.

So while there is potentially great promise in these waste-to-energy technologies, extensive environmental impact reviews will be needed to ensure that they accomplish what they set out to do: efficiently create a cleaner and more environmentally friendly NYC for all.


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