NYC Takes the Garbage Out

New York City's leaders have run the numbers and understand that shipping garbage to distant landfills is not only bad for the planet; it's bad for the pocketbook.
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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's most recent State of the City address focused on education, but still managed to raise the sustainability issues that I believe will be the signature legacy of his three terms as mayor. In his annual address the Mayor observed that:

"... if we're going to be the most innovative city in the world, we also have to be the greenest, because that's how you attract the most forward-looking individuals and companies. So today, we're announcing the next phase in three key areas of our PlaNYC environmental and infrastructure agenda: recycling, clean energy and clean air. To begin, we'll double the amount of residential waste we divert from landfills by 2017. By taking steps like increasing recycling in schools and streets and expanding our plastics recycling program, we'll reduce our waste disposal costs by $50 million annually and help protect the environment."

In 2006, New York City adopted a long-term solid waste management plan that proposed exporting all of the city's garbage, but attempted to develop a less environmentally destructive and less expensive approach than simply trucking the garbage to landfills hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. The goal is to use barges and trains to carry the garbage away and to use waste reduction, recycling, composting and waste-to-energy plants to avoid sending garbage to landfills.

Today, about 32 percent of New York's waste is transported out of the city by rail, 23 percent by Sanitation Department collection truck, and 45 percent by long-haul truck. Once the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan is in place, New York City government estimates that 41 percent of the garbage will be exported by rail, 12 percent by city-collection truck, and 47 percent by barge. The plan will reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 192,000 tons and 58 million truck miles per year.

The goal set by the mayor in his address is to double residential and institutional waste diversion from landfills from 15 percent to 30 percent by 2017. Solid waste management has long been the weakest element of the City's sustainability initiative. In fact, the rate that waste was diverted from landfills was higher when Bloomberg took office in 2002 than it is today. A reshuffling and reduction of recycling early in his administration dropped the diversion rate from 20 percent in 2001 to a low of 11.5 percent in 2003. Since 2005 it has hovered around 15 percent.

It is heartening to see a renewed emphasis on developing alternatives to dumping garbage into a hole in the ground. Clearly, New York City's leaders have run the numbers and understand that shipping garbage to distant landfills is not only bad for the planet; it's bad for the pocketbook. Tipping fees and taxes at landfills continue to grow. The city estimates that reducing the waste New York sends to landfills will save over $100 million annually. Doubling landfill diversions will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from New York's garbage.

New York City's strategy for reducing its use of landfills has three elements: (1.) Invest capital in waste-related infrastructure; (2.) Make it easier for the public to recycle and reduce waste, and; (3.) Create incentives and engage the public in waste reduction and recycling.

Waste management has always been tough for New Yorkers. Our Mayors know they should improve the system, but the political costs always seem to outweigh the environmental benefits. The public may feel a little guilty about all the garbage they discard, but New Yorkers see city life as very fast-paced, without the time for the tidy housekeeping required for recycling and waste reduction. When you grab your morning bagel and coffee around here, it's not from a drive-in and doesn't end up in a cup holder and on the car seat next to you. It ends up in a bag you carry in the subway or walk a few blocks to the office. When the cashier asks if you want paper or plastic, you think of food landing on your new shoes and say: "both."

While a majority of the land in New York City sits under single family homes, most of the people in the city live in apartments. Space is scarce and often there is no garage to store recyclables and no garden to hold a compost heap. When you walk the streets of New York you will find waste baskets on many corners, but rarely see recycling bins. The new plan promises to increase the number of recycling bins in public places from 600 to 1000 -- both numbers seem pathetically small in a city of 8 million.

The diversion rate target is an excellent management device for forcing change and pushing improved waste management. As we often say in management class, if you can't measure something, you can't manage it. Without measures, you can't tell if management's actions are making the situation better or worse. The waste diversion rate is a simple, single measure; it captures a number of actions that lead us toward enhanced sustainability. Doubling the diversion rate in five years is a stretch goal, but it is achievable.

Garbage is the least glamorous sustainability issue. There is no neat and clean way of dealing with it. Whatever method you use to treat it, you end up causing some pollution. Ever since garbage incineration went high-tech, I've been a supporter of the construction of waste-to-energy plants. It is not that they are pollution-free, but they are better than many alternatives. Opponents of water front waste transfer facilities or waste-to-energy plants often cite the environmental impacts of the facilities without discussing alternatives. Fair enough, they do not want them in their backyard, but where do they expect all those mounds of garbage bags to go?

It could very well be that the high cost of land and the level of population density of New York City make a regional approach to waste management the most cost effective strategy now available. Someday I hope technology allows each neighborhood to deal with its own waste, but that day has not come. My view is that the best waste management policy should include these five elements: 1. Waste reduction. 2. Recycling. 3. Composting or anaerobic digestion. 4. Waste-to-energy. 5. Land filling whatever remains.

New York's waste management strategy is consistent with this approach. The actions taken by the Bloomberg Administration moves New York City closer to this policy ideal. Effective waste management can save money and make urban settlements more sustainable. It is obvious to me that the people running New York City get this idea and the goal of doubling landfill diversion rates is clear evidence of their understanding. This new waste diversion target is a significant step forward.

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