Getting to Zero: New York + Waste

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Where do things go when you throw them away in New York City? And more importantly, where is “away”?

By some estimates, New York produces 12,000 tons of garbage every day, which is removed and processed by one of the largest and most complex waste management systems in the world. As long as that system works properly–which it mostly does, year in and year out–few of us spend much time thinking about the amount of waste we generate or where it goes after it leaves our hands. Though there is a vast physical infrastructure of waste processing all around us–from waterfront transfer stations to recycling and reuse facilities to sanitation garages–the buildings and spaces in which the city manages its waste, and the systems that keep it operating, have been designed in large part to be as invisible to us as possible.

Open House New York announces the launch of Getting to Zero: New York + Waste, a yearlong series of tours, lectures, and other public programs that will explore the waste system of New York to consider how the contemporary city has been shaped and reshaped over time by how we manage our garbage. Throughout 2017, Getting to Zero will open up spaces and places across the five boroughs of New York City to look back at the different ways that New York has processed its garbage over the years, and look forward to exciting new initiatives that may remake the city in the years ahead. Bringing together architects and designers, environmentalists, sanitation experts, historians, and others, the series will speculate on how a radical transformation in waste–what kinds we generate, how much of it, and the ways it is processed–might lead to new forms of architecture, infrastructure, and urbanism. And it will ask important questions about what we consume and how we make decisions about what to throw “away” and what to keep.

Map by Egbert Viele, 1874, showing the expanding shoreline of Lower Manhattan.

From its earliest days, garbage has exerted a powerful force on the physical form of New York, giving rise to new building types and even creating new land from what were once swamps and rivers. 17th– and 18th-century New Yorkers were directed to throw their household trash into the East River to provide fill for building lots that were at that time still located several feet underwater, dramatically reshaping the shoreline of Lower Manhattan. (An estimated 33% of Lower Manhattan is built on fill composed largely of rubbish, and even today, archaeologists are uncovering 18th-century trash on 21st-century construction sites.) Much later, under Robert Moses, the city filled in swampy wetlands throughout the five boroughs with waste from municipal dumpsites to create new land for parks, fairgrounds, and airports, such as at Flushing Meadows Corona Park (built as the fairgrounds for the 1939 World’s Fair) or the city’s first municipal airfield at Floyd Bennett Field. Other landfills and garbage dumps were also once operational throughout the city, including most famously Fresh Kills, which opened in 1947 as a temporary site but which grew to 2,200 acres and was once the largest landfill in the world (and which is now being transformed into the largest park developed in the city in over a hundred years). The first trash incinerator in the United States opened on Governors Island in 1885, and as late as the 1960s, there were eleven operating incinerators burning the city’s garbage. When all other options failed, the city dumped its trash into the Atlantic–through the late 19th century, 75% of New York’s waste was dumped into the ocean–or simply left it to rot on the street, leading to disease and epidemic.

“Before problems of rubbish and street cleaning were solved, much of New York was infamously filthy,” writes anthropologist Robin Nagle in Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. “Thousands upon thousands of people who had no choice but to endure streets shin-deep in all manner of debris…died in extravagant numbers of diseases that even back then were largely preventable.”

Left: Varick Street, Manhattan, 1893. Right: Early New York City incinerator.

In 1881 the city created its first independent sanitation agency, the Department of Street Cleaning, which would later become what we know today as the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Beginning in 1895, under the leadership of George E. Waring, Jr., the city introduced innovations that were later copied by cities around the world and helped make New York one of the leaders in waste management, including comprehensive street sweeping, a uniformed cleaning and collection force, and mandated recycling. In many ways, Waring’s 19th-century sanitation revolution is directly responsible for the contemporary city we inhabit today. Reducing the filth and disease attributable to untreated and uncollected waste was the necessary first step to New York becoming a world capital, enabling its citizens to lead healthy and productive lives, protecting and escalating its property values, and ultimately fueling a thriving metropolis. As The New York Times eulogized shortly after Waring’s death in 1898, “There is not a man or a woman or a child in New York who does not owe [Waring] gratitude for making New York, in every part, so much more fit to live than it was when he undertook the cleaning of the streets.”

Manhattan 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage, Dattner Architects with WXY architecture + urban design. Photo: Field Condition.

Today, the average New Yorker generates nearly 25 pounds of waste every week, adding up to approximately 6 million tons residential and commercial garbage. Responsibility for this waste is split between a public system, managed by DSNY, that serves residential, government, and non-profit sites, and a private system, made up of more than 250 private carting firms that remove non-industrial and non-construction materials. DSNY alone manages a force of nearly 10,000 uniformed and civilian workers, operating more than 5,000 collection trucks and other specialized vehicles, in 59 sanitation districts. Between the two, New York spends more than $2.3 billion on garbage every year, with DSNY spending about twice as much to collect trash as to dispose of it. And as the Citizens Budget Commission outlines in its 2014 report 12 Things New Yorkers Should Know About Their Garbage, New York pays a considerably higher per-ton rate for trash collection than other large American cities, and that ours is one of only a few large cities in the country that pays for trash collection entirely out of general tax revenue, as opposed to a “pay-as-you-throw” system, in which residents are charged for bags, bins, or by the pound.

The mounting social, environmental, and economic costs of garbage in New York have prompted a new wave of awareness and action. With the April 2015 release of the de Blasio Administration’s OneNYC Plan, the city itself has set an ambitious goal: to reduce to zero the amount of waste that New York sends to landfill by the year 2030. Branded as the 0X30 campaign, the initiative builds on municipal efforts of the past quarter century to set goals to expand sorting and processing capacity for organics in the city and nearby region; increase community composting opportunities in all five boroughs; create and expand markets for recycled materials; reduce the use of plastic bags and non-compostable waste; and make all schools zero waste. These city initiatives are in turn strengthened and enhanced by non-profit organizations that are leading efforts to expand programs and education on issues like e-waste, composting, and recycling, and by artists, craftspeople, and tinkerers, who are helping New Yorkers to reimagine their discards not as waste but as resource.

In Gone Tomorrow, Heather Rogers writes that “if people saw what happened to their waste, lived with the stench, witnessed the scale of destruction, they might start asking difficult questions.” Through Getting to Zero, Open House New York will make visible the monumental network of spaces that exists throughout the five boroughs to manage the things we no longer want, a network that ranges from recycling and processing facilities, to thrift shops and composting centers. Throughout the 2017, our hope is that the series will deepen public understanding about urban waste systems; the profound, if invisible, role they have had in shaping our day to day experience of the city; and the possibilities for how we might remake these systems–and our own activities–for a healthier, more sustainable future.

We invite you to join us as we launch Getting to Zero with a special lecture by Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner, New York City Department of Sanitation. Click here for more information.

Want to know more? Check our Resources page for suggested reading.

Getting to Zero: New York + Waste is made possible with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.