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Gotham Gazette

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Measuring the Garbage Glut

by Courtney Gross, Jan 14, 2008
 
image of garbage truck

Going green has never been more in vogue. Whether it's concern over climate change or an affinity for organic, pesticide-free products, New Yorkers are eating up the now trendy socio-political movement with a recyclable spoon.

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And not surprisingly, our leaders are taking note. Almost every week brings an environmentally friendly announcement from the Bloomberg administration or the City Council. The council last week approved legislation requiring certain large stores and chains to recycle plastic bags - currently not recyclable under the city's system (see related story). Just a week earlier, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put on a green vest, literally, to encourage city dwellers to mulch their Christmas trees.

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But though New Yorkers -- private citizens and government officials alike -- can talk the talk, it is less apparent whether we can walk the walk.

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Talking About Recycling

When we began designing and researching our Garbage Game, we -- perhaps naively -- did not see the project solely as environmental journalism. In light of the city's long struggle to manage its solid waste, Gotham Gazette staff envisioned the game as a way to demonstrate the problems confronting our leaders as they balance difficult choices, such as saving cost versus reducing asthma.

Now that nearly 3,500 of you have played the Garbage Game, it's time to take a look at what you decided to do with the array of items we gave you and what those results mean. Did you recycle your plastic water bottle, or did you reuse it? Or did you do both?

Overwhelmingly, Garbage Game players took a more "eco-friendly approach," separating refuse from recyclables and minimizing mileage. When it was time for you to play sanitation commissioner, the vast majority of you followed Bloomberg's solid waste management plan -- essentially keeping your garbage local instead of trucking it to less affluent neighborhoods in the outer boroughs.

Sorting Your Trash

So now that you have managed the 64,000 tons of trash the city sees weekly, how do your choices compare to the policies the city has adopted and implemented.

About half of you decided to reduce waste. That is, you said you would not drink bottled water, you swore off disposable diapers or you chose to compost your apple cores in your own back yard -- for those of you who have back yards.

An even greater percentage decided to recycle. About 85 percent of Garbage Game players opted to recycle their junk mail. Interestingly, this compares with the 45 percent of paper that actually is recycled.

Though New York has not implemented its own e-waste legislation -- a bill is currently in the City Council that would require some manufacturers to take back electronics and recycle them -- more than 70 percent of you wanted to either donate your old cell phone to charity for reuse or drop it off at one of the occasional recycling events sponsored by the Department of Sanitation.

cell phone

Some 8,000 New Yorkers brought 311 tons of electronics to these drop off events in 2006.

Though it is not unusual for New Yorkers to identify recycling as a good practice -- one Department of Sanitation marketing study from the late 1990s shows that more than 95 percent of residents think recycling can make a difference in their neighborhood -- some environmental and solid waste management advocates say New Yorkers do not always put that thought into practice.

"I think that's probably the majority viewpoint," said Laura Haight of the York Public Interest Research Group. But, she added, "What (New Yorkers) actually do is different from what they know. It's not uncommon for people to (just) say they recycled."

The city has approximately a 17 percent diversion rate for recyclable materials out of a possible 36 percent. That means that more than half the materials that could be recycled - from plastic jugs to soup cans - instead are thrown out with the rest of the trash.

Some environmental advocates and experts attribute this disparity to education. David Hurd, the director of the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education at the city's Council on the Environment, said there is a genuine eagerness among New Yorkers to recycle, but there is also confusion over what should or shouldn't be included in bins at the curbside.

"What we're finding out from the neighborhoods we work with is there are common areas of confusion," said Hurd. "New York City only accepts plastic bottles and jugs. People can't get it through their head that a yogurt container is not a bottle or a jug."

bottles, not yogurt containers

Gotham Gazette recognizes, as do most advocates who commented on our game's results, that our particular subset of readers might not be representative of the New York City population as a whole. On solid waste, actions, opinions and awareness vary throughout the city. For instance, according to report by the Department of Sanitation, certain neighborhoods in the Bronx recycle only about 9 percent of their waste, while neighborhoods on the Upper East Side have a diversion rate of approxiamtely 31 percent.

Thus, our results in no way accurately reflect the whole city's stance on waste management -- just that of readers and players like you.

Playing Commissioner

Where Garbage Game players and the Bloomberg administration differ most drastically may be when it comes to the approximately 50 percent who chose to reduce the waste stream entirely. Bloomberg can't really give New Yorkers that option - imagine if the city banned Huggies. It might not go over well.

Where you seem to agree, however, is in the distribution and management of this nearly unimaginable amount of waste. About 73 percent of you decided to truck your garbage locally and keep it out of neighborhoods that were once overburdened by most of the city's trash - areas in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. Local waste management is a crucial element of the mayor's solid waste management plan, which was approved by the council in 2006 and is currently being implemented.

Instead of trucking garbage across the city -- blanketing neighborhoods with diesel fumes and garbage garages reeking of waste -- the city decided to make every borough responsible for its own trash, at least in theory (see related story). The plan also relies on other modes of transportation besides trucks. The Bloomberg administration and the environmental community agree that using rail or barges is a cleaner way to transport material.

After you decided to truck your garbage to a local transfer station, about 90 percent of you moved to then transport it to a larger citywide center via barge. About 70 percent of Garbage Game players also opted to locally process the city's recyclable materials , thus reducing the amount of carbon emissions from transporting materials long distances across the country or to Asia. As a runner-up, players picked transporting recyclable raw material via railroad.

Some environmental advocates saw our unscientific results as a boost to the mayor's plan, which was mired in controversy for two years and required a considerable amount of wheeling and dealing at City Hall. The plan, said New York League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Marcia Bystryn, is an example of utilitarianism: Though one neighborhood or one individual has to make sacrifices, it's for the greater good.

"What I find very appealing and reassuring is that people, once they familiarize themselves with the options of solid waste management, understand the wisdom of the solid waste management plan," said Bystryn. "A critical issue is air emissions: The current system is heavily reliant upon truck traffic. It's not good for our air. It's not good for the climate."

While many of you agreed about how our non-recyclable refuse should get to its final destination, it was a toss-up for what that final destination should be. We gave you the options of land filling or incineration - the two least popular choices despite the fact that is currently where the city sends our trash - as well as sending refuse to a waste to energy plant or a materials recovery facility.

Players were split between the latter two: About 43 percent opted for a materials recovery facility, while 45 percent chose a waste to energy plant. Neither of these options are under consideration by the current administration, though they have been debated in the past.

A materials recovery facility -- one is used with mixed results in Chicago -- would send refuse and recyclables to one location, where they would then be sorted. Supporters of such plants argue more recyclables would be diverted from the waste stream because professionals would sort the trash. Others argue by lumping all of the materials together, some recyclable materials will unavoidably be contaminated -- that newspaper would be soiled by a leaky carton of spoiled milk - thus making the material less valuable for resale in the recycling market.

A recycling station slated for Sunset Park -- part of the mayor's management plan -- is a materials recovery facility, city officials said. It would sort jumbled recyclable materials, though it would not receive other types of trash.

On the other hand, waste to energy plants have also had varied success across the country -- one on Long Island powers the community it serves and adjacent homes. Once thought dangerous and dirty, some advocates say the technology has been cleaned up and should again be considered a viable option.

One player wrote us the following after gaming with garbage: "Energy-from-waste needs to be further explored as new technology and increasingly stringent emissions guidelines have allowed the industry to gain positive acceptance worldwide, and yet the U.S. continues to rely heavily on land-based disposal, and the last time I checked, they weren't making more land."

Touché gamer, touché.

Counting Cost

One of our most consistent complaints from players and readers was that we didn't provide a measurement to compare your results against how the Department of Sanitation manages waste.

Given the options we offered -- such as obliterating water bottles from the waste stream entirely, forcing parched New Yorkers to the tap -- these figures are difficult to accurately and fairly compare. But, we will provide you with some examples.

When following the game's most popular choices, which included eliminating diapers, food scraps and water bottles completely from the waste stream, a player would design a garbage plan that cost the city approximately $104.6 million. That cost can be attributed to the vast reduction in the total amount of waste or recyclables.

Using figures from the Independent Budget Office on the cost of disposing refuse and recyclables as well as factoring in how much the city earns from selling this raw material, the city spends $268.9 million. That number inlcudes only the items in the game: water bottles, food waste, cell phones, etc..

Taking these figures into account, it becomes clear the cost of waste management decreases with the reduction of the waste stream. City Hall, though, cannot force New Yorkers to start using their junk mail as grocery lists nor can they make parents use cloth diapers (Some gamers were discouraged that we didn't include the option of not having children at all. "The most environmentally conscious thing I can do is not procreate," wrote one player.)

if you don't have kids, you won't need diapers

Beyond reduction, what is apparent, according to figures from the Department of Sanitation, is cleaner solid waste management is more costly. According to an economic analysis of the mayor's solid waste management plan, the old system - which used diesel trucks to transport recyclable and refuse materials across the city and country - cost the city about $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2005. The new system following complete implementation would increase to $1.45 billion.

Grinding Garbage

Our project tapped into the emotions and policy persuasions of some, who commented, on our site and elsewhere, on the seemingly impossible task of reducing and managing New York City's waste.

The most substantive criticism the game received came from the Neighborhood Retail Alliance blog which faulted us for offering composting as the only way to cut back on the amount of food waste going to landfills. Instead, the blog wrote, the game should have allowed players to opt for food waste disposals -- those machines that let you dump your garbage down the drain and cover your ears as it is ground up and sent to the city's sewage system.

The game did not include this option partly because of concern about whether disposals would overload the city's already overtaxed sewage system and because they seem just barely on the radar here.

But they are a choice. The city lifted the ban on the disposals in 1997. In a comment on the Wonkster posting on the grinder debate, Kendall Christiansen, a spokesman for a company that makes disposals, observed that the city's Department of Environmental Protection had determined that the grinders' "public benefits significantly outweighed their de minimus impacts (and that was before Fresh Kills closed)."

Whatever interest Christiansen has in the issue, some environmentalists have backed the use of disposals at least in conjunction with a recycling program. Like them or not, though, they remain rare. Even the Neighborhood Retail Alliance concedes residential disposals are few and far between. But, it continues, that is not due to their inherent shortcomings, but because their "use is optional and no one pays for their garbage removal. If folks paid a disposal fee, you can bet that this would change pretty quickly."

A Never-ending Pile

We have received ample criticism and praise for the Garbage Game, from Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty to readers like yourself. And just because some of you have demonstrated that you're environmentally well-versed, that doesn't mean the city will recycle more or that policy and political challenges will no longer be dumped in our laps.

Take one gamers account: "I am a retired sanitation superintendent and enjoyed the challenge of this game. We had the same problems in 1989... It is a never ending problem."

As the city continues to grapple with how to deal with the billions of pounds of trash generated here annually, we will continue to keep our eyes, and noses, on growing or shrinking policy options.

 


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