NYC Book Club Conversation With Benjamin Miller On April 1, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with Benjamin Miller,
author of Fat of the Land, Garbage of New York, the Past Two Hundred
How did you become interested in
I came to garbage by a strange
route, although all routes into garbage may be strange. I started out in
anthropology: urban, ecological anthropology. I was interested in the
planning process, and what it tells us about the way our society
functions. I wanted to find a dissertation topic that would allow me to
get inside a case study of an infrastructural planning decision -- and I
ended up working for the Sanitation Department.
Once I started working in garbage, I found, as an anthropologist,
that it was especially fertile ground because of our cultural blinders.
It's something that we don't care to think about or examine closely, so
it was at once something that hadn't been looked at before. In fact,
when I spent years doing archival research, poring through old ledgers
showing how much garbage had been picked up and where it had been taken,
and things like that, I was quite certain that no one had ever opened
those documents before. Because people don't pay much attention to it,
the municipal processes that it reveals are that much cruder, more
But once I got my hands dirty, so to speak, I turned, as
anthropologists say, native-- rather than academic anthropology, my
primary focus was on the problems that I was working to solve, and as
far as the writing part went, I became at once interested in a broader
audience and a broader range of issues. I decided it would be a great
way to write a book that at least would be amusing for me to write, and
which would allow me to pull together lots of threads from New York
history that I found fascinating.
You sort of blended
together just now your decision to make a career in the Sanitation
department and your decision to write a book. Were they one and the same
Is there anything
unique about New York City's garbage, as opposed to garbage from other
No major differences. One thing, of course,
is that we have less yard waste. We didn't have in-sink food disposals
until recently. And the space limits of apartments lead to less waste
generation, the evidence seems to show.
Yorkers produce less waste per capita than other places?
People may think differently--judging by the amount of waste
generated overall in NYC. But that waste comes from a very large
commuting, tourist, etc. influx as well as residents. We do know, from a
1990 waste composition/generation study that high-density areas
correlated with somewhat lesser volumes of waste.
Approximately how much garbage does New York City produce in a day?
I'm not sure what the current figure is--and the
numbers vary depending on where you get them. But something in the order
of 11,000 tons of municipally collected waste. That is, from residences
and non-profits, etc. And perhaps up to twice that--or in that order of
magnitude from commercial generators whose waste is picked up by private
carters. That number increases, of course, if you include
construction/demolition debris, and other things that aren't normally
considered "municipal solid waste."
What are some of
the watershed moments in the history of garbage in New York City?
In NYC we see a cyclical pattern with regard to waste
management -- continuity through decades of inertia is interspersed with
sudden, unhappy disruptions, all of which is due to the fundamental
difficulty of siting waste-management facilities-- and once a facility
is sited, inertia takes over and it continues there for decades.We've
had a particularly bad experience when we've been in a private phase of
these cycles, because given the siting difficulties, it's an inherently
noncompetitive situation and prices have gone straight up over time.
I'd say that the first watershed was the invention of the modern
business model for waste-management, which occurred during that 1849
cholera epidemic, when Inspector White took charge-- an event that led
directly, by 1852, to the beginning of that complex of garbage factories
on Barren Island-- factories which operated through 1916 and lingered on
into the 30s.
The only other REAL watershed we've had after that, and
of course it just perpetuates the business model White and his crooked
colleagues developed, was the decision to close the Fresh Kills landfill
so that NYC, for the first time in its history, had absolutely no
control over its waste-disposal destiny. From now on it will be utterly
dependent on the kindness of strangers.
posted on the book club message board: "I enjoyed this book a lot - and
it raises lots of questions about garbage in NY's future as well as
covering them in NY's past. One of the biggest is - what are we going to
do without the Fresh Kills landfill. Mayor Giuliani has kind of left
this for future administrations to deal with."
Mr. Miller, what do you
think the city should do?
We need to reduce the
amount of waste we generate in the first place by instituting--as we
finally did in the case of water--a metering system to give people an
economic incentive to reduce waste. We need more effective recycling to
that end, the recent news about the Hugo Neu company offering to process
plastics at a rate much less than the waste-disposal firms were charging
is welcome. There is clear evidence for instance, in the Environmental Protection Agency emissions
results published last summer that waste-to-energy facilities produce
fewer emissions of concern than landfilling, so we should consider
developing waste-to-energy facilities either in the city or outside it
either publicly or privately run and we should consider developing
access to a regional New York State landfill--as Commissioner Doherty
I also think we need to do more composting. On
that front there are a couple of welcome recent developments-- a
proposal for an in-vessel facility for Hunts Point market waste and
recent Environmental Protection Agency and New York State Energy
Research and Development Authority funding for the Earth Pledge
Foundation which proposes to develop a few small-scale anaerobic
digestors, in locations such as high schools and community facilities.
These would be the first anaerobic digesters for municipal solid waste
Hi, Ben -- Fat is a fabulous book. I have
a question about landfills. The commissioner of sanitation recently
endorsed the idea of an upstate landfill that would be owned and used by
NYC. As long as we have to rely on them, it seems like a good idea. What
needs to happen for that to come about?
I think the
governor, for one thing, will have to show some leadership on this
issue. I think it unconscionable for the governor of New York State not
to assume any responsibility for 40 percent of the garbage generated in
his state. We will also need to have a good system for transporting
waste to a landfill, to minimize environmental and economic costs. To
that end, I think the decision announced last summer by Commissioner
Doherty and Mayor Bloomberg to retrofit marine transfer stations for
containerized waste that could be put on barges or rails an important
step in the right direction.
When then Mayor Rudy
Giuliani decided in 1996 to close Fresh Kills, you suggested that the
landfill should remain open. What was your reasoning and do you still
feel the same way?
I said then that Fresh Kills had
decades of remaining capacity and was, objectively speaking, one of the
best-controlled landfills in the country with regard to environmental
emissions. So that the decision to close it was an optional one which,
given the structure of the private waste-management industry to which we
would thus become utterly vulnerable would be VERY expensive over time.
After 9-11, with a budget crisis then predictable, and municipal
lay-offs, perhaps, about to arrive this optional decision appears
ever-more unconscionable. If we merely threatened to re-open it--a
threat that, to be credible, would have to be backed up by a
gubernatorial executive--I think we could save money by negotiating
reductions in our current and future export costs. And re-opening the
landfill, if necessary, by my estimate could cut our per-ton costs, for
the stuff we put at Fresh Kills, approximately in half. Since I'm not
suggesting that we put ALL our waste there, I think this could save us
about $75m a year.
What is the practical possibility
of the landfill reopening, considering how adamant public officials are?
I wouldn't give it a good shot.
Residents of Staten Island say that they have lived with the dump, and
its environmental hazards, for long enough. Shouldn't they get a break?
Anyone could understand their position. My only point
is that this is an optional decision which is costing the city a great
deal of money and that, given the $300 million that has been spent there
within the last decade to develop environmental controls which make it a
well-operated landfill, I don't think Staten Islanders would actually
perceive the effects of putting, say, half our garbage there for a
period of time. I would also think that there would be some sympathy on
Staten Island for the benefits of not laying of police, firemen, etc. I
also think that we could PAY Staten Islanders, as we pay residents of,
say, Virginia, as a partial compensation for any annoyances there might
We witnessed one public official getting red in
the face and screaming at you. Why do you make some officials so angry?
Sorry about that!
book made clear, the disposal of garbage is always only about money and
politics. So, do you think it would ever be possible to acknowledge
that ALL solutions are expensive? And that we might move on to thinking
what might be more socially responsible ways to deal with waste, what
might be the ways that would involve individuals in the solution to the
Sounds good to me! If you are asking how to
move individuals--I'd start with some kind of pay-as-you-throw system. In
the 6,000 US cities where such systems are in effect waste-disposal
volumes have been reduced by an average of 17 percent.
What US cities have effective trash policies, and what can we learn
Most cities have done some plannning in
advance for their waste-disposal needs rather than, as we just did,
jumping off the cliff first and planning later. Los Angeles, for
example, also must use remote landfills for its waste. But rather than
place itself in a situation over which it has no control it has bought
landfills from the private sector and is planning rail facilities to get
Rhode Island and Delaware are examples of states who have had enough
foresight to realize that the only way to control prices is to have
publicly controlled facilities. Accordingly they have developed
statewide waste-management authorities that effectively control costs.
Connecticut has a similar arrangement. But sadly, they made a deal with
Enron that was costly.
What actually is happening now
to NYC's garbage? We don't hear about it much.
understand it the stuff we dispose of goes to Pennsylvania, Virginia,
Ohio, and New Jersey in that volume order. We also recycle some waste,
Many New Yorkers are confused about
whether they will be recycling again soon. Can you give us an update on
what is happening with recycling in the city? What do you think about
I'm not sure that I am the best
source for current plans but my understanding is that the Hugo Neu
recycling company intends to begin accepting plastics sometime this year
--this is in addition to metals, and to the paper that other processors
work with-- glass, I think, will be delayed longer.
I was not delighted to see the interruption in the recycling system,
because I think the "front-end" --the people involved in putting out
recyclables-- is more difficult to manage than the "back-end"--the
collection, processing etc .,that the City handles. Starting and
stopping is tough on the system-- which depends on so many New Yorkers,
speaking different languages, and so on. Hopefully, once we get it
re-engineered and started back up we won't change it on the FRONT-end
again for a very long time.
April 5, there's an all-day conference put on by the Northern Manhattan
Environmental Justice Coalition. My neighborhood is very concerned with
increased waste coming in. Will we be seeing a neighborhod vs.
neighborhood situation as marine transfer stations like ours are
retrofitted to accept more garbage?
Nothing is ideal.
But at least the marine transfer stations, as presently located, are
relatively well-dispersed throughout the city so that the miles
travelled by white garbage trucks are minimized to a fairly great
Historically, of course--and I'm not talking very many years in the
past--those facilities were open and received waste volumes that were
larger than the present ones. There are no ideal solutions, but the
Marine Transfer Station system is certainly better than a lot of
alternatives including the present haphazard one of private transfer
stations and the proposed (now dead) alternative of Linden, New Jersey.
Environmental justice activists say that transfer
stations are dispersed primarily in communities of color and low-income
That's right. The city took virtually
no role in siting them. Just let the private market do what it
wanted--for the most part. Since these areas were easiest to locate in
since they were industrially zoned, etc. that's what happened. I think
the city has to exert its responsibility to make planning decisions such
as where transfer facilities are located, in order to minimize
environmental and economic costs. That's a pretty basic public function,
it seems to me.
There's a myth that colonial New
Yorkers allowed pigs to roam freely in the streets to eat the rotting
garbage that city residents had thrown to the curb. Is this true?
Not a myth. Gospel.
Robert Moses used
garbage to fill in parts of New York City and create places like Orchard
Beach in the Bronx and much of Riverside Park on Manhattan's west side.
How much of the city and what other important places were built on top
In 1934 alone Moses, as parks
commissioner, was putting garbage, as fill, in, I believe, 94
parks/landfills. 25 percent of Manhattan is fill. A lot of that--but by
no means all--was what we would now call municipal solid waste. If you
look around the shorelines of the city from Orchard Beach in the north,
all the way around the Bronx shore (well, much of the way) to Hunts
Point, you'll find landfills. Northern Queens. LaGuardia Airport. Corona
Meadows. In Brooklyn, everything along the southern shore. Coney Island
was once actually an island, you know.
Is there any
danger in building on top of garbage? On page 186, you quote from Moses'
memoirs about LaGuardia Airport, built on a pile of garbage covering the
old North Beach amusement park:
"We were intrigued to see a sixteen-foot lamppost sink slowly into
the sand, ooze and garbage and to spot rats large enough to wear saddles
leaping out of the crevasses."
It's certainly not an
ideal building material! Moses, as I say in the book, sited Fresh Kills
because he wanted to acquire land for and build the West Shore
Expressway. So that's the first strip of land his muchachos got their
hands on. They filled it with garbage. Then had to dig it back out,
because his engineers couldn't build the road on it. That's one of the
reasons it will be very hard ever to build on the filled parts of Fresh
Kills, real built structures. LaGuardia, I was told by one of the
engineers in charge of its reconstruction, is still settling as we
That said, since a lot of the city actually IS built on that
stuff--think of some of the housing projects in southern Brooklyn--in
the old days it was somewhat different--more coal ash, and firmer stuff.
Maybe not the nicest materials, from an environmental management
perspective but at least more stable than the really putrescible stuff
of which much of our present waste volumes are composed.
It is curious that the same Guiliani administration
both began and ended an excellent composting program. I refer to the
Master Composter training in all the boroughs. It was a pretty 1970s
sort of idea for that administration and I wonder what inspired its
beginning. Its end was, for many of us, along with the end of
recycling, morally reprehensible. It had cost so much money and
influenced so much behavior in a positive, community responsible way!
I'm sorry--I just don't know anything about that.
Much of the discussion today has been about present-day
garbage. Is there a reason why you made your book basically the history
I think that it is critical to an
understanding of our current situation to understand how we got here.
After he was elected, Bloomberg came up with a
garbage plan that sought to spread the burden around the city. What is
the status of this plan and what do you think of it?
I am very impressed with the fresh tack this administration seems to be
taking on a number of garbage fronts. My understanding is that there are
still plenty of things being decided, which need to be studied, etc., so
I'm not sure how far along toward implementation many elements are. But
the move to retrofit Marine Transfer Stations is better than the Linden
alternative--not to say that there were not other good options--such as
the proposed Port Ivory transfer station on Staten Island, which we may
yet see word of again. I'm impressed that somehow Hugo Neu, the
recycling company, is now involved.
But we clearly still have a VERY
long way to go before we get things properly planned and implemented.
The Task Force report released last week, showed by its slimness how far
the planning still has to go, but nonetheless I think the approaches
suggested are good ones.
Who has the largest say in
what happens to garbage in New York City?
moment? I presume that City Hall, in some fashion, is calling some of
the fundamental plays. But unfortunately, given the vulnerable position
that the last administration left us in, the private waste-disposal
market is-- and no doubt will, for many years to come-- be calling most
of the shots.
Are you working on another book?
Yes. It's a history of freight transportation planning in
the region, from the Erie Canal up to the present. Again, as in Fat, I
find that an understanding of how we got here is critical for figuring
out where we should be going. Not to mention that I find that history
absolutely fascinating! For example, a central theme is the proposed
cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, which, as we speak, is moving at least
fitfully ahead and may actually be built. That tunnel was first
proposed, publicly, in 1888. And, since then, it's gone through some
Are you glad to be rid of
I must say that I don't altogether
mind--except that I AM still involved, to some extent. I'm working with
a group at Columbia University, the Earth Engineering Center, which I
think is generating some very useful policy recommendations and