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The Waste Management Plan: Approve It, But Improve It

by Benjamin Miller, Oct 18, 2004
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Also:
The Mayor's New Garbage Plan

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Dumping Ground No Longer?
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The administration's new waste-management plan represents an important step in the right direction. It deserves to be approved. But it also deserves to be improved in a number of strategic ways that will make it truly cost-effective in the long run. Getting control of the facilities where our waste will ultimately be disposed of is the most critical of these strategic objectives.

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THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Since the Fresh Kills landfill closed in 2001, New York, for the first time in its history, has depended on facilities in other states for the disposal of most of the 50,000 tons of solid waste it produces every day. The quarter of this material that the city's Sanitation Department collects is handed off to a highly organized private waste-disposal industry, in which a handful of firms own most of the country's available landfill capacity.

The per-ton fee charged by these not-so-benevolent oligopolists has increased, since the city started shipping garbage out of town in 1997, from $54 to $75 per ton—40 percent in seven years--while the fees paid by private businesses have increased by 50 percent. This steady climb, which affects not just New Yorkers but all our neighbors on the eastern seaboard who share access to the same landfills we use, is projected to continue in the decades ahead. To keep up with increase in cost, the city would have to lay off 300 or so full-time municipal workers every year.

OTHER STATES

If the sellers' market we blindly walked into with the unplanned closure of Fresh Kills were not enough, the severely tried patience of government officials in other states—New York State exports more refuse to place in landfills out-of-state than it puts in those within its own capacious boundaries—will further decrease our options. In 2002, Pennsylvania (which accepts roughly half of our waste) imposed a $4 per ton tax on all waste entering its landfills; in 2004 Governor Edward Rendell proposed increasing that tax by another $5 per ton.

After the announcement of Fresh Kills' impending closure, Virginia passed a law forbidding the import of out-of-state waste. That law was promptly struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, as all such prior attempts had been, as a violation of the constitution's interstate commerce clause. But the failure of local initiatives does not preclude the eventual passage of some federal measure to limit the interstate shipment of waste, something that Congress in the last decades has seriously considered doing.

Moreover, there are perfectly legal means of excluding other states' waste—all that is required is having the public sector assume control over landfills, as Rhode Island and Delaware have done, or promulgating regulations that restrict the development of new landfill capacity, as South Carolina has. While it is not likely that New York's access to out-of-state landfills will be completely closed in the foreseeable future, it is inevitable that over time the export window will be narrowed. And equally inevitably, this will mean that disposal prices will increase even further.

NEW YORK'S OWN LANDFILL

The only viable long-term solution to this problem—as a compelling report (in pdf format) issued last week by City Comptroller Bill Thompson makes clear—is to develop or procure public waste disposal capacity, preferably in New York State, but wherever it is available on a cost-effective basis and easily accessible by the barges or railcars that impose much lower environmental and economic costs than trucks do.

And while some of this must be landfills (since there will always be some waste that cannot be managed in any other way), we also should use waste-to-energy facilities, which produce fewer adverse environmental impacts do landfills and are more cost-effective. (This is why the portion of the administration's recently released plan (in pdf format) that involves a long-term government-to-government contract for continued access to the Newark incinerator that already processes much of Manhattan's waste is a particularly good idea.)

OTHER ISSUES

While we are developing or procuring this publicly controlled waste-disposal capacity, there are other immediate steps we should be taking to reduce the volume of waste we must export and the cost of transporting it to its remote disposal locations.

One of these steps, as the comptroller's report makes clear, is using the city's contracting leverage to directly procure transportation services from the railroads. This is critically important for two reasons. First, if it does not do it, the city will inevitably pay much more—including a significant commission to the waste-industry middleman—than it would pay by negotiating a per-ton-mile transportation-services contract itself. Secondly, the logistical difficulties involved with contracting with the railroads represent a barrier that would exclude many smaller landfill operators, whose bids are essential if we are to enjoy a semblance of free-market competition.

The other thing we should do immediately is develop fair economic incentives for reducing the volume of waste that New Yorkers generate. (We should not try to reduce our waste volumes by using in-sink garbage disposals, either for residences or businesses, since this only increases public-sector costs and adverse environmental impacts.)

The single most effective way to do reduce garbage, as the experience of thousands of U.S. cities demonstrates, is by “metering” waste. Rather than having their waste-management costs buried within the city's general tax structure, New Yorkers would get an upfront deduction on their property-tax bills and would instead pay for having their waste removed by buying special bags or tags or paying on some other volume-based basis. Conscientious householders would thus save money relative to their current hidden tax payments and would no longer have to subsidize the wasteful habits of their neighbors.

Benjamin Miller, author of Fat of the Land: Garbage in New York, the Last Two Hundred Years (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000), is a senior fellow at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.


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