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.
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
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.)
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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