A large white garbage truck parks next to a 20-foot-high mountain of trash in the South Bronx. The truck's rear hatch opens, and ten tons of waste pours out -- a heap of black plastic bags, brightly colored crushed toys, pieces of furniture.
This is Harlem River Yard, one of some 100 "transfer stations" in the city where some 1,100 such trucks deliver 11,000 tons of waste generated by residents, public agencies and non-profit corporations every day. Getting rid of it costs the city almost $3 million a day, nearly a 40 percent increase from five years ago. Private carters handle the garbage generated by businesses, including restaurants -- another 13,000 or so tons per day.
For years, city officials have wrestled with what to do with all of this trash. In the 1940s, the city opened Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Even thought Fresh Kills was supposed to be only temporary, most garbage went there for 53 years. But in May 1996, Governor George Pataki, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari announced a plan to close Fresh Kills.
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The Giuliani administration then proposed placing the garbage on barges and shipping it to Linden, New Jersey. From there, it would have been loaded on trains and shipped to out-of-state landfills. But the plan was sidelined by charges of corruption in Linden.
Since then the city has struggled, without much success to find an economical, environmentally sound alternative.
Today, city sanitation trucks take most garbage to one of the privately owned transfer stations such as the one in the South Bronx. There, inside a 60,000 square-foot warehouse, compacters -- heavy machines that resemble bulldozers -- ride over the garbage so that it takes up less room. As these machines work, mist drifts from the ceiling to keep the dust level down.
More than half the city's transfer stations are concentrated in a few low-income areas, such as Red Hook, Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Sunset Park in Brooklyn; Hunter's Point and South Jamaica in Queens; and the South Bronx. Truck traffic clogs the streets in those communities, and residents complain of pollution from diesel exhaust.
"These land-based transfer stations are poorly regulated," said Ramon Cruz of Environmental Defense, a non-profit organization. "And they are very close to residential areas where poor people and people of color live. This is the environmental justice issue within the city."
More than half the garbage processed in the Bronx -- some 3,300 tons -- comes from other boroughs, according to Jaime Rivera, director of South Bronx Clean Air Coalition. "We are not going to take it any more, not even one more pound," he said.
To reduce truck traffic and better distribute the transfer stations, Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year proposed hauling the trash to marine-transfer stations in each borough. These facilities used to load refuse on barges for shipment to Fresh Kills. In the post-Fresh Kills era, the garbage would be put in containers, placed on barges and later sent by ship or train to its final destination. But earlier this year, a Sanitation Department deputy commissioner told the City Council that opening the marine-transfer stations would cost about $400 million, much more than the original estimate of $240 million. The department also now says that rebuilding the transfer stations will take far longer that had been anticipated.
Despite all this, Bloomberg says he has not abandoned that idea. But earlier this month he admitted little progress had been made on his plan. And administration officials said they were seeking alternatives. A consultant will review a variety of schemes, the New York Times reports, including sending the trash to the Caribbean or using a new technology that burns the trash at an exceedingly high temperature to convert it into natural gas and a stone-like material.
Most environmentalists had supported the plan for using marine-transfer stations. “We think it is environmentally better because you are less dependant on heavy-duty trucks with diesel engines,” said Cruz at Environmental Defense. “Reopening of the marine system or rail, or a combination of both, would be much better [than the current system]. ”
For now, however, the city still depends on facilities such as the Harlem River Yard. There, heavy machines called wheel loaders push the compacted trash toward rail cars. Machines called grapples pick up the garbage and drop it into rail cars. Every day, a train of about 35 of these rail cars leaves the Harlem Yard, packed with garbage and heading to a landfill in Waverly, Virginia, about 400 miles away. Waste Management owns and operates the landfill, as well as four other transfer facilities in the city. Except for Harlem Yard, all the transfer stations ship waste by truck.
Of all the city trash, about 19 percent ends up being burned in incinerators that produce energy. The rest is destined for landfills, virtually all of them out of state. The private owner of the transfer station -- not the city -- decides where the garbage will go and pays the costs for shipping it there.
Fees for getting rid of the garbage -- so-called tipping fees -- rose sharply during the 1980s but have stabilized some since then. And they vary widely -- between $10 to almost $100 a ton -- depending upon the location and the method of disposal. Whatever the fees, the city has no choice but to pay.
New ideas and technologies are coming along, but the basis of solid waste management -- dump or burn -- remains unchanged. The city instituted recycling in the 1990s and then partly suspended the program in 2002 because of its fiscal crisis. This July, the city partly restored recycling, and it is now accepting proposals from private companies to resume a full recycling program next spring.
But this may not be enough, some experts say. "The city needs structural changes for waste management," said Benjamin Miller, author of the book, "Fat of the Land: The Garbage of New York -- The Last Two Hundred Years. "It's absolutely critical to have an overall plan. We cannot just keep on doing things, ad hoc, one step at a time."