Unlike most New Yorkers, Carl Van Putten and Lilian Garcia pay attention
to garbage after it is thrown away. They have little choice: their
neighborhood, Hunts Point, is home to many of the city's "waste transfer
stations" - sheds where garbage trucks dump trash so that larger trucks
can pick it up and carry it out of state.
"The minute I came to Hunts Point my son developed chronic asthma," said
On any given morning, as many as ten garbage trucks stand idling within
a block of Van Putten's home on Hunts Point Avenue, where the breeze sends the smell directly towards him.
"I don't have polite words for it," he said. "You can call it a
fragrance, aroma, or odor, but it's still a stink. It's heavy."
That is why they were happy to learn of
Mayor Michael Bloomberg's
solid waste management plan (pdf format),
which would move most of the 50,000 tons of trash the city produces each day by rail or barge, instead of
by truck. [For more about the plan's effect on the South Bronx, read Dumping Ground No Longer?in the Community Gazettes for the South Bronx].
To do this, Bloomberg proposes to reopen four city-owned marine transfer
stations, piers where trucks can dump trash onto barges, to handle the
city's residential waste. The proposal is the third in a waste management plan that the mayor has rolled out over the last month:
- Recycling - The city signed a 20 year contract with Hugo Neu, a
recycling company that will build a recyling station on the Brooklyn side of the East River.
- Commercial - A transfer station on 59th Street on Manhattan's West Side,
is to be reopened to handle the city's commercial waste.
- Residential - Four transfer stations are to be reopened for residential garbage, one
on Manhattan's Upper East Side, one in College Point, Queens, and two in
Brooklyn (one in Red Hook and one in Gravesend).
The stations that the mayor wants to reopen were closed when the city stopped using Fresh Kills
landfill on Staten Island in 2001. Whether these stations handle
commercial waste or residential waste doesn't matter much to those
people who live near the stations; some don't see why the burden should
now be placed on them.
"I know that the garbage has to go someplace," said Sandy Whitlock, who
lives near the transfer station on the Upper East Side. "But it
shouldn't have to impact a residential community." [For more, read
The Garbage Returns to the Upper East Side in the Community Gazette].
Aside from complaints on the neighborhood level, some say the plan
doesn't do enough to address the citywide trash problem. The prices the
city pays to move its trash have risen substantially since Fresh Kills
closed. Some out-of-state landfills that the city uses are nearing
capacity, and the states where these landfills are located are often not
much more interested in receiving the city's trash than are residents of
the South Bronx.
Despite this, what the mayor describes as his comprehensive waste
management policy stops at city limits, a shortcoming that experts like
Benjamin Miller, former director of policy planning for the Department
of Sanitation and author of the book
Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York the Last 200 Years, see as its major flaw. [Read Miller's analysis, "The Waste Management Plan: Approve It, But Improve It"].
"The most important thing is where this stuff goes," Miller said, "and there's been no
talk of that."
BURYING IT, BURNING IT, DUMPING IT
The challenge of dealing with garbage is not a new one to New York City.
The city has long searched for an effective way to manage its waste -
piling it onto islands, carting it to far-off lands, selling it to
entrepreneurs, feeding it to hogs, burning it, or simply dumping it into
the sea. Trash has been used as the foundation for airports, parks, and
beaches. People trying to keep it from being shipped to their
communities have proposed legislation and gotten into fistfights at City
Hall to further their cases.
Many ambitious plans to manage the city's waste have not become anything
more than words on paper. One supposedly temporary one, though, ended up
turning into the largest manmade object on the planet.
When Fresh Kills landfill opened in 1947, it was slated to close within
three years. Instead, it became the center of a citywide system that
lasted until 2001. Sanitation Department trucks that collected
residential waste and privately owned trucks that collected commercial
waste would travel to one of eight marine transfer stations, where they
would be emptied onto barges headed for Fresh Kills.
In the mid-1980s, the city raised the price of using these piers, and
private companies built their own smaller truck
transfer stations in places like the South Bronx and Northern Brooklyn.
Trucks carting commercial waste transferred garbage to others headed out
of state at dozens of these facilities. The city's residential waste,
meanwhile, continued to go by barge to Fresh Kills.
In 1996, however, Mayor Giuliani pleased the Staten Islanders who made
up an essential part of his political base by announcing that he would
close down Fresh Kills. Consequently, the city-run marine transfer
stations essential for the barge system were closed.
But by ending the Fresh Kills era without planning for the next,
Giuliani left the city's own trucks with nowhere to go.
AFTER FRESH KILLS
The Sanitation Department began sending its trucks to the private
transfer stations, where the trash they carried was dumped - or "tipped" - and reloaded,
sometimes onto a train but usually onto a truck, and shipped out of
Private companies built these facilities based on their own business
decisions, and the burden fell disproportionately on several
neighborhoods. In a recent report (in pdf format),
Environmental Defense, a
national environmental group, found that 80 percent of the waste handled
by private waste transfer stations goes to four of the city's 59
community board districts. "You have right now these stations located in
neighborhoods where probably the land value was lower and the zoning was
different. When [private companies] looked to set up those stations,
[they] looked for those things," said Ramon Cruz of Environmental
Defense. "Is that fair? No, but it's a function of the market."
The hundreds of trucks moving through these neighborhoods every day were
not just smelly. Their weight took its toll on the roads, and their exhaust
polluted the air. Asthma rates skyrocketed in areas where the stations were concentrated, a health effect linked directly to the garbage truck traffic.
Nor was this system particularly healthy for the city's economy.
Shipping trash to landfills in Virginia or Pennsylvania was much more
expensive than floating it to Staten Island. The per-ton contract for
shipping garbage rose from $54 in 1997 to its present price of $74, a 40
percent increase over seven years. (If increased gas and labor prices are
factored in, the increase is even larger.) The Department of Sanitation
budget ballooned. Private companies saw their prices rise 50 percent
over the same period.
Additionally, other states have resisted the city's garbage by imposing
surcharges on out-of-state waste, and have passed laws to limit
importation of trash. Federal legislation with the
same goal has been introduced several times; there is currently
legislation pending in both the House of Representatives and Senate.
To date, these laws have been overturned or rejected because they
violate interstate commerce regulations, but they indicate the city's
continuing vulnerability to events that are out of its control.
These problems are not secrets. But largely because any change in
garbage policy alienates one political constituency or another, the city
has faltered without a plan for years.
THE MAYOR'S PLAN
Over the last several weeks, Mayor Bloomberg has announced several
proposals that, he says, add up to a comprehensive plan for dealing with
garbage. The common element of his three plans is to shift from using
trucks towards using barges and rail to move garbage out of the city.
To do this, the mayor intends to reopen four of the marine transfer
stations that were closed along with Fresh Kills to haul the city's
residential waste. Another station will handle the city's commercial
The city's recycling will also be shipped via barge. The city will
reopen a station at Gansevoort Street in Manhattan's meatpacking
district, from which the recyclables will sail to a facility being
constructed by scrap-metal company Hugo Neu in Brooklyn. The city also
hopes to increase the proportion of its waste that gets recycled, to 25
percent of residential garbage by 2007 and then to 70 percent of both
residential and commercial garbage by 2015.
The mayor has calculated that his plan to reopen the marine transfer
stations for residential garbage will reduce truck traffic in the city
by almost three million miles a year. This will have an obvious benefit
for the city's roads; it will also reduce gas and labor costs and ease
the environmental burden of waste management.
The city can count on its own trucks bringing residential waste where it
would like. It cannot, however, simply force private companies to do the
same with commercial waste. The Economic Development Corporation and the
mayor's office are in the beginning stages of developing a system of
incentives and regulations that will make its transfer station more
attractive, while also raising the costs of running private transfer
Under the mayor's plan, each area of the city hauls its residential waste to a different transfer station, where it can be prepared to be taken to its final destination. The different colors represent the areas served by the various stations.
If the city can significantly reduce the use of private transfer
stations, the negative effects of moving trash out of the city will be
spread much more evenly, and the overall impact on the environment will
be reduced. Community organizations and environmental groups that have
long been calling for such changes are reacting positively to the idea.
Rare is the garbage plan that does not create resistance from those
areas that will receive a larger burden, however, and this plan is no
exception. Residents and local officials from the Upper East Side,
represented by the mayor's chief political rival, Council Speaker Gifford Miller,
object to the reopening of a station in their neighborhood. They say
that the station's proximity to such a dense residential neighborhood is
reason to keep it closed.
Miller makes a familiar argument: what is unhealthy in one neighborhood
shouldn't be allowed in another. The Bronx and Brooklyn have used the
same argument in their calls for Manhattan to handle it own trash;
Staten Island periodically threatened to secede for decades, its
residents' aspiration to become a separate city inspired largely by the
feeling that the rest of New York was dumping its trash on their
Bloomberg is unconvinced that the Upper East Side will suffer unfairly.
"Every single part of this city has to participate in solving a very
difficult problem," he said in response to Miller's objection, adding
that the East Side produces a fair amount of residential trash and the
facility already exists. "Nobody wants to have solid waste near them,
but somebody's going to have to ... [Y]ou are limited to where you can
While the mayor insists that politics did not fit into his decision to
open this particular station, he does seem to have set up a political
confrontation that could work to his advantage - hardly a rare move for
politicians dealing with New York City's garbage.
An Expensive Plan With Dubious Economic Benefits
Bloomberg estimates that opening the marine transfer stations will cost
$340 million, $85 million each. The total investment is actually larger,
since the price of revamping the station for commercial waste or the
operating expenses of these facilities are not included in this figure.
(The recycling plant, on the other hand, is being built by Hugo Neu at
no cost to the city; the contract by which it will handle the city's
recycling is estimated to save $20 million annually).
The proponents of the plan are not promising a miraculous reduction in
"It's not going to get cheaper; let's not kid ourselves," Sanitation
Commissioner John Doherty said at the press conference where the details
of the plan were announced. "What [this plan] is going to do is
stabilize the costs."
But critics question whether it will even do that. A few large companies
already run the waste management industry. According to the city
Comptroller's office, 91 percent of the trash headed for landfills is
controlled by one of three companies. Since a limited number of
facilities can accept trash from barge or rail, the city may be making
itself even more vulnerable to an uncompetitive market by relying solely
on these two forms of transportation.
This problem underscores what critics say is a major weakness in the
city's new plan: a failure to figure out where the garbage will go after it is shipped out of the city.
WHERE OUR GARBAGE GOES
The plan in its current form carefully itemizes how trash from each
borough will leave the city. But the most distant destination it mentions
is the Essex County Resource Recovery Facility, an incinerator in Newark
New Jersey that converts a good portion of Manhattan's waste into
energy. Newark is about 12 miles from midtown. But almost half of the 15
million tons of waste the city generates each year is sent to landfills
in either Virginia or Pennsylvania, with some trucks driving as much as
1,300 miles roundtrip.
These trips are expensive, and are bound to get more so as gas prices
rise, the landfills in other states fill up, and states continue to look
for ways to keep New York City garbage out.
The effort of other states "is not slamming the door completely, but
it's making the doors smaller, and it's making the price higher," said
Benjamin Miller. "That's going to keep happening forever, and the only
way to solve that problem â€¦ [is] to have a landfill in New York State."
The city comptroller's office agrees. In a report published this month
(in pdf format), it advocated an in-state landfill. Although communities
often don't want landfills, dumps do bring economic benefit, the report
argued, and it makes sense to have that economic benefit go to New York
State. In addition, a landfill in New York State that the city itself
controlls would shield it from the anti-importation regulations in
other states, and might even curb the enthusiasm to pass such laws.
For their part, the mayor's office and the Sanitation Department say
that they sent a query (in pdf format) to upstate communities earlier this year asking
them to consider a landfill for New York City waste and received no
responses. Critics say the lack of interest is a result of a request so
vague that it was impossible to take seriously.
WILL THE LATEST PLAN BE IMPLEMENTED?
Even under the best of conditions - if the City Council approves the plan, and the revamping of the now-closed stations goes according to schedule, and the commercial carters agree to use the city's facilities instead of their own - the new system will not be in place until 2007.
But plans dealing with garbage in New York City rarely enjoy the best of
conditions. Big ideas tend to emerge, meet public resistance, fade away, and then sometimes re-emerge years or even decades later. Mayor Bloomberg himself announced a plan to reopen all eight marine transfer stations two years ago that quickly disappeared; Mayor Giuliani's comprehensive plan for garbage similarly vanished. Burning garbage used to be commonplace, but after spending a good deal of the 1990s planning for an incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, city officials now consider such facilities unspeakably bad ideas.
One big reason for this inability to latch onto a permanent solution, some say, is the public attitude. New Yorkers do not want to take responsibility for their own garbage. This helps explain, anthropologist Robin Nagle has pointed out, why sanitation workers might as well be invisible. They know more about any city neighborhood "than the most sophisticated sociologist just by observing what it discards," Nagle wrote in a recent online diary about her experiences working alongside NYC sanitation workers, "but no one [cares] about their insights. In fact, no one [cares] much about them at all."
The comments section is provided as a free service to our readers. Gotham Gazette's editors reserve the right to delete any comments. Some reasons why comments might get deleted: inappropriate or offensive content, off-topic remarks or spam.