Gotham Gazette

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How Trash Became a Top-of-the-Heap City Budget Issue

Council Member Chi Ossé on a sanitation tour of his district (photo: John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit)

Trash has become among the most prominent issues in this year’s New York City budget negotiations, as well as the focus of larger policy debates about how the city handles its garbage and recycling.

The infamous mountains of black bags that clutter sidewalks, the overflowing waste baskets at street corners, and the litter on city streets have all been the subject of significant attention from Mayor Eric Adams, Comptroller Brad Lander, and many members of the New York City Council, including several newly-elected representatives who have taken action in their first months on the job to improve sanitation services in their districts.

The issues are an indicator of quality of life in the city and its recovery from the pandemic. They’re a matter of equity and environmental justice, health and safety. And they are a crucial front in the fight against the climate crisis.

But thus far, the new mayor and City Council have offered somewhat different visions for funding the Department of Sanitation and on related policy-making, though negotiations are ongoing ahead of the June 30 deadline for a new city budget.

In 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a pledge that the city would send zero residential waste to landfills by 2030. But the city has made virtually no progress on achieving that goal. De Blasio made significant but limited efforts to fix the city’s trash system. During his tenure, the city passed a waste equity law to limit the amount of waste handled by waste transfer facilities in certain overburdened communities. The city also established commercial waste zones to reduce the number of garbage trucks crisscrossing the city, which promises to cut air pollution and create a more efficient pickup system — but implementation on the waste zones and other measures has been slow or non-existent.

For example, the limited containerization pilot program was originally announced two years ago. The commercial waste zones have yet to be implemented. The city’s composting program stalled and even regular recycling has not improved – the city’s recycling diversion rate is only about 17%. De Blasio then exacerbated conditions during the pandemic by making a $106 million cut to the Department of Sanitation that led to 400 fewer sanitation workers and 464 fewer weekly corner basket pickups.

At the time, de Blasio’s moves helped prompt the resignation of his longtime crisis fixer and sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, who then ran in the Democratic primary for mayor and came in second. “This budget crisis is incredibly severe but I am disappointed to see so much of the work we have done over the last six years being walked back,” Garcia wrote in her resignation letter. “If, as is often said, budgets are a statement of values, my values require me to resign in the face of these cuts, which will harm New Yorkers.”

De Blasio did eventually restore some of the funding he cut and Mayor Adams has also  added funding for the sanitation department, which has a proposed expense budget of more than $1.8 billion for next fiscal year. In April, the mayor announced $11 million in funding for street cleanings and, as of July 5, full restoration of alternate side parking, which had been curtailed by de Blasio during the pandemic (while that restoration will help with street cleanliness it raises other environmental questions given the increased car movement it requires).

Adams also launched the $1.3 million “Clean Curbs” trash containerization pilot program in Times Square, which de Blasio had put in motion, and expanded it to all five boroughs with the expressed intention of scaling it further. He also allocated $17.9 million in his executive budget towards an expansion of the city’s curbside organics collection program. That program, key to a widespread city adoption of composting, is among the most pivotal trash-related debates ongoing in the city, with tie-ins to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual city spending to haul waste outside the five boroughs, efforts to combat climate change, creation of green jobs, and more.

For Adams and many City Council members, trash is being seen more as the multifaceted problem it is, from how it affects local constituents to how it impacts the planet. Adams and other officials have also repeatedly emphasized that a clean city is instrumental to the city’s economic recovery, in restoring the city’s attraction to businesses, commuters, and tourists. “Clean streets are vital to our neighborhoods, to ensure the vitality exists in our city,” the mayor said at the Clean Curbs announcement.

“Cleaner streets of course mean safe streets for pedestrians, shoppers, tourists, everyday New Yorkers, and it means a better commercial environment from our small business owners throughout the five boroughs,” said Deputy Mayor for Economic and Workforce Development Maria Torres-Springer at the announcement.

Though the mayor’s latest budget proposal increased the sanitation department’s budget by about $50 million over his February preliminary budget plan, it still reflects a $10 million cut from the budget that was adopted last year.

“New Yorkers have been, really over the last few years just seeing an explosion of litter, growth in rat sightings and incidents…A lot of this has to do with the cuts that were made to sanitation during the onset of the pandemic, and now again, we're facing cuts,” said Brooklyn Council Member Sandy Nurse, chair of the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, after a rally on the steps of City Hall last week where Nurse and her colleagues announced a package of zero waste legislation.

The package includes the Community Organics and Recycling Empowerment (CORE) Act, two bills introduced by Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers that would require easily accessible drop-off sites for organics in all community districts and allow for the collection of recyclable materials like electronics, textiles, and other materials which cannot be disposed of into the general waste stream. Another bill, from Nurse, would require the sanitation department to report on the city’s progress toward sending zero waste to landfills and mandate that the administration meet the zero waste goal for 2030. And finally, a bill introduced by Brooklyn Council Member Shahana Hanif would mandate universal residential composting by the end of 2023 for almost every building in the city.

Comptroller Lander also joined the Council members at the rally to urge support for the bills. As Lander noted, the city will spend well more than $100 million to export organics waste to landfills, out of a total $448 million budget for waste export in the current fiscal year.

“I don't know what more is like being that frog that stays in the pot while the water gets hotter and hotter and hotter,” he said at the rally. “To say that we can't afford to set up the system of universal composting, when we know it would save us that $100 million instead of shipping it into landfills, we can stay stuck in the past and we will fail to rise to the climate crisis.”

Organic waste that isn’t collected for composting ends up decomposing in landfills and emitting methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 25 times more potent as carbon dioxide in warming the globe. Composting, on the other hand, improves carbon sequestration in soil, prevents methane emissions and produces nutrient rich soil for fertilizer in the process.

On May 3, Lander also kicked off a month-long series of in-person and virtual town halls focused on sanitation and the city’s property tax system, along with an online survey on sanitation services.

For the Council, the focus is on both legislation and funding. Nurse and her colleagues have been calling on the mayor to increase the sanitation department’s budget with several specific demands, including a $22 million allocation to increase corner basket pick-ups.

Though Nurse did praise the mayor for heeding some of those calls, she insisted that there’s more work to be done. “I would say that there have been good steps,” she said. “I think we have a little more negotiating to do to get to the place where this Council feels that we're actually putting the resources behind the messaging that clean streets is a priority for covid recovery.”

In March, Nurse rallied outside Brooklyn Borough Hall with several elected officials including Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, Comptroller Brad Lander, State Senator Brad Hoylman, and Council Members Bottcher, Chi Ossé, Julie Menin, and Alexa Avilés, calling on the mayor to “Get Sanitation Done,” a play on Adams’ “Get Stuff Done” mantra. The officials advocated for a full restoration of the sanitation department budget and pushed back against  cuts to the organic waste collection program, demands that were reflected in the Council’s official preliminary budget response and later in the mayor’s executive budget.

In the NYC Speaks survey of roughly 43,500 New Yorkers, conducted by HR&A Advisors in partnership with Adams administration, when asked about infrastructure investments to improve their neighborhoods, better sidewalk and street conditions (10,594) and trash collection (9,509) were among the top answers.

Data from 311, the city’s helpline, bears out people’s concerns about trash. In 2020, there were 76,742 calls made related to the sanitation department. That number leapt to 202,943 in 2021, and has already reached 77,383 this year so far.

“It's important to bringing people back to the office, to bringing tourists back to the city, and psychologically, I think it's an important issue for restoration of confidence in local government and in the general quality of life in the city,” said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group, in an interview.

“Trash is one of the issues that intersects with people's day-to-day lives,” said Council Member Erik Bottcher of Manhattan, after last week’s City Hall rally. “They see it on the corner, on the sidewalk, and they're tired of living this way. In the budget, we have an opportunity to address those concerns.”

Bottcher is one of the new Council members who came into office with a significant focus on sanitation issues. In his first month in office, he released a detailed sanitation plan for the entire borough and with sweeping citywide proposals as well including universal organic waste collection, containerization, piloting pneumatic tube technology, and sanitation “Strike teams” to respond to 311 calls in real time, among other ideas. And he was among the officials celebrating the containerization pilot launch with Adams in Times Square, which is partially in his district.

More than just an unsightly problem, the city’s trash is a major environmental issue. Loose litter clogs storm drains and leads to flooding. The waste that doesn’t get recycled must be trucked out of the city to landfills. And there’s the added greenhouse gas emissions from the lack of organics recycling.

“As a New Yorker, as an individual, the amount of trash on the streets really upsets me,” said Bottcher. “As an environmentalist, it enrages me, because we are slouching towards an environmental disaster and we're moving way too slow to address it.”

“When people talk about why they don't want to come back to New York City, trash is one of the first things they mention. So why are we cutting the sanitation budget? It doesn't make sense,” he added.

During the pandemic, the other boroughs saw an increase in trash production compared to Manhattan, where residents were more likely to have left the city and business districts remained largely empty as many people worked from home. 

“This is one of the unifying issues that New Yorkers feel deeply about and care deeply about,” said Council Member Hanif, after the rally, “whether it's like literally picking up the black bags, from our sidewalks to rat mitigation to adding more litter baskets.”

The piles of bags on the sidewalks, at times falling into the streets, have long been the focus of people who decry not only their unsightliness and smelliness, but their contributions to the city’s rat problem, as well as their impediments to pedestrians, especially those with impairments, strollers, or other mobility circumstances. Calls for containerization, as is often seen in European cities, largely fell on deaf ears until de Blasio eventually offered a small pilot program largely reliant on private actors like business associations. While that program has been broadly praised, there are challenges to scaling it at a citywide level.

“It's not a one-size-fits-all, that's for sure, and it never is in New York City,” said Council Member Nurse, in an interview on the Max Politics podcast in February, during a wide-ranging interview on her perspective as sanitation committee chair. “[C]ontainerized waste I think would make our streets safer, more aesthetically pleasing. I think it will encourage better behavior. And I think it will make collections and servicing more efficient. So as a concept, I think it's the right direction. The way it gets brought down to the ground, I think is challenging,” she said. But Nurse said putting trash into containers is a key part of the future of how New York City must modernize its approach to garbage, recycling, public space, and more.

As Hanif noted, districts in Queens and Brooklyn that were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and saw some of the worst health outcomes are also the districts that have historically been burdened by environmental injustices. Those districts tend to host polluting infrastructure like waste transfer stations and are also the last to be considered for programs such as the composting initiative.

Hanif introduced the bill last week that would create a universal composting program, something that she said is desperately needed if the city wants to meet its zero waste goals. “I think the delay in making this real continues to put us in investing in landfills and incinerators and that continues to push us back from achieving real environmental justice in the city,” she said.

[LISTEN: Max Politics Podcast: The Future of NYC Trash, with City Council Sanitation Chair Sandy Nurse]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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