Essential Info: Goodwill NYNJ + Big Reuse

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On April 12th, Open House New York hosted a tour of Big Reuse and Goodwill’s regional headquarters for the New York and New Jersey region. These two sprawling reuse centers stand just a block apart near the East River in Astoria, Queens. Goodwill NYNJ is part of a nationwide network of independent community-based nonprofit organizations, founded in 1902, that take in donations of clothing and household goods at thousands of thrift stores in communities across the country. The revenue generated through resale is used to support a host of social programs with an emphasis on helping persons with disabilities and other barriers achieve independence through employment. Big Reuse’s two locations, both within New York City, deal with construction and demolition waste, the millions of tons of doors, windows, beams, ceiling tiles, cabinets, floor coverings, fixtures, and other materials generated by the city’s voracious appetite for new construction.

Value: Both Goodwill and Big Reuse are mission-driven non-profit organizations. As such, they are highly incentivized to capture value in whatever material donations they receive; anything that goes to waste is a lost opportunity to generate much-needed funding. Goodwill, for instance, is always testing the market to find where supply and demand meet. As guides Martha Gotwals and Victoria Nikci explained, items that are donated to Goodwill’s many thrift stores around the region are listed at an initial “full” price determined by staff according to agency guidelines. If an item has have not sold within two or three weeks, depending on the store, the price is marked down by half for another week. Merchandise that still doesn’t sell after the markdown goes to Goodwill’s outlet store in Long Island City, where it is sold in bulk by the pound. Anything that does not sell there is then shipped to the central facility in Astoria, where it is baled and sold to salvagers. In total, Goodwill sells more than 280,000 pounds of textiles each week to salvagers—all of which would otherwise have wound up in a landfill. At Big Reuse, a color-coding system standardizes the rate at which prices are adjusted, based on when donations first come in, in order to keep materials moving through the warehouse as quickly as possible and generating funds that the organization uses to keep the lights on.

Flexibility: As consumer behavior shifts, so too do the types of goods that are donated to reuse centers and what they can take. “When I first got to Goodwill in California years ago,” Goodwill’s Mauricio Hernandez told the group, “there were fifteen people on staff repairing TVs, and thirty repairing toasters and blenders.” Now, with many electronics and appliances designed to break in shorter periods of time, repairs are no longer done. With new electronics laws, Goodwill is unable to accept tube TVs and can only take working flat screens. A large space in Goodwill’s warehouse is now dedicated to specialty goods sold online. At Big Reuse, director Justin Green noted that many of the New York City area’s old buildings were built using yellow pine harvested from the South. “That all used to be landfilled,” he explained, “but now people recognize that there’s value in that material.” As the demand for reclaimed lumber has gone up, Big Reuse has responded by working with companies that refurbish the thousands of water towers dotting New York City’s rooftops, taking in the weathered lumber and milling it at their Astoria location for resale.

Local Impact: Goodwill is perhaps best known across the country for its thrift stores, but the funds generated at stores go to support its primary mission of job training and educational programming for thousands of people every year. Goodwill’s Astoria location is located in the base of a tower that the organization developed in the 1960s to provide affordable housing for seniors. The base now contains classrooms, offices, and a cafeteria that support a wide range of social programs. Big Reuse also provides job-training services, and the net proceeds from its two reuse centers (they have a second location in Brooklyn, along the Gowanus Canal) go to support local environmental initiatives. Big Reuse is one of the Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) partners on the NYC Compost Project, and operates multiple, free drop-off locations for New Yorkers to deposit their food scraps for composting; Big Reuse then provides the resulting compost to community groups and municipal agencies free of charge.

Scale: Every year, Big Reuse’s two locations combined divert around 2,000 tons of construction and demolition debris from the waste stream. As impressive as this is, New York City construction and demolition crews generate around 19,000 tons of waste each day. Goodwill NYNJ, with more than forty stores across the New York City metro area and up the Hudson River Valley as far as Albany, diverts around 60,000 tons of material in a year While both organizations are rightly proud of the enormous quantity of material that they handle, they also acknowledge the fact that just a tiny percentage of reusable materials are diverted from landfills. Justin Green sees room for growth: “You could see how there could be sites like this in every neighborhood across the city.”

Motivation Gap: Given the way our waste system is set up, donating materials requires more effort than simply throwing them in the trash. Justin Green highlighted a particularly vexing issue in the way that construction and demolition waste is handled in the city: while manufacturers of things like ceiling tiles and carpeting are often willing to take those materials back and recycle them, there is no law compelling construction companies to separate these materials out and send them in for recycling. Indeed, even though construction and demolition waste composes more than half of the city’s waste stream, there is no law requiring recycling or reuse of any of these materials. Given that their job is often to clean out a space as quickly as possible, there is little incentive for demolition companies to worry about recycling, outside of any personal concern that they might have for the environment. While people who donate clothes and household goods to Goodwill are likely often motivated by empathy for the people that they know those goods will help, there is a sort of motivation gap when it comes to demolition waste, of which many citizens remain blissfully unaware.


Photos: David Mark Erickson for OHNY

The Future of Waste in New York City

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Getting to Zero kicked off on February 21st with a talk by Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Commissioner Garcia detailed the broad range of strategies and tactics that DSNY is implementing in order to achieve the goal, articulated in Mayor de Blasio’s OneNYC Plan, to eliminate waste sent to landfills by the city by the year 2030. “Every week,” according to the Commissioner, “the average New Yorker is throwing away fifteen pounds of garbage at home and another nine pounds of garbage in commercial establishments, which adds up to six million tons–or 80,000 very large whales–every year. I’m at the end of the line. What you bought today impacts what I collect tomorrow.”

When it was closed by the city in 2001, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island was the last remaining destination within the city for the more than 13,000 tons of garbage generated by New Yorkers on an average day. But there was not really a plan in place for where waste would go when Fresh Kills closed, and the city came to rely on a system of private transfer stations throughout the city. With an average truck able to carry about ten tons of waste, that 13,000 tons of daily trash that had once been sent to Fresh Kills became close to half a million truck trips to these private transfer stations. From there, loads were combined in tractor-trailers that could carry twenty tons each, and then trucked hundreds of miles to landfills as far away as Kentucky and South Carolina. This meant increased pollution in areas where transfer stations clustered, like the neighborhoods along Newtown Creek in North Brooklyn and in the South Bronx, as well as increased truck traffic on highways and city streets across the five boroughs.

As the Commissioner pointed out, the first edition of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, released in 2007, did not address solid waste. “Over time, obviously, that changed,” she said. “In the 2011 plan, it was included, and more recently, looking more holistically through the lens of both the environment…as well as environmental justice, OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City has really committed us to a path towards zero waste. We are now in the process of building a very resilient, sustainable waste management system.”

DSNY is currently in the process of building a network of four new marine transfer stations. The first, in Queens, is already operational, while two in Manhattan and southwestern Brooklyn are under construction, and the last, along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn will open later this year. These new, state-of-the art facilities are designed to be extremely clean to minimize the impact on surrounding neighborhoods, and to dramatically reduce the distance trucks travel, shifting the city toward an entirely barge- and rail-based system in transporting waste toward its final destination. In the near term, of course, that means landfills—but many other strategies are now being implemented with the goal of eventually eliminating the city’s reliance on shipping its waste to faraway dumpsites entirely.

“What does it take to really drive towards zero waste to landfills by 2030?” Garcia asked. “In some ways, we really break it down into the pie of what New Yorkers are producing. What do we see in the waste stream, and how do we design programs to deal with all of those different portions of the pie?”

Currently, that pie can be sliced into four primary categories. About 33% of the existing waste stream handled by DSNY is comprised of curbside recyclables, including paper, plastic, metal, and glass. 31% is made up of organic material, including food scraps and yard waste. 10% comes from other divertible materials, including textiles, plastic shopping bags, and e-waste. Finally, about 26% comes from other sources that are difficult to recycle or break down.

According to the Commissioner, about 17% of the city’s waste is recycled, representing a “capture rate” of about 48% of the portion of the waste stream that could be recycled if everyone got it right a hundred percent of the time. “For every two water bottles you throw away,” she explained, “I’m getting at least one. And that’s actually after it’s been picked over by anyone who is scavenging, so I’d say in some ways we’re probably doing even a little better.”

The city is working to make its recycling program much easier for residents to participate in, moving toward a single-stream collection system common in many other cities. “The challenge for New Yorkers is always about space,” Garcia said. “No one has storage, so our concept is to make it so that metal, glass, plastic, and paper would just go into one can and be collected and sorted at our recycling facility in Brooklyn. We are moving forward with that as we speak.”

Under Garcia, New York City has also seen the creation of what is now the largest curbside organic waste collection program in the United States, serving nearly a million residents. The program is on an ambitious expansion schedule, with pick-ups for curbside organics set to be available across all four of the outer boroughs by 2018. When it comes to other types of waste, like plastic bags and Styrofoam, the city is working to discourage use of these materials entirely by encouraging the adoption of reusable bags and containers, eliminating single-use containers from the waste stream entirely. DSNY also hosts safe disposal events for e-waste, paint, and other challenging materials, is expanding partnerships with city schools and NYCHA developments, and promoting the expansion of the reuse market through the creation of the Donate NYC app.

Finally, the Commissioner spoke about her proposal for DSNY to more closely regulate the city’s private carting industry, which collects waste from commercial sites. DSNY itself collects only from residential, municipal, and certain institutional sites; businesses contract with private firms to haul away their waste. Commissioner Garcia ordered a study of the industry in 2015 to better understand the current system. “What we found is that in the private carting market, it’s highly competitive, but…[also] incredibly inefficient, because it always makes sense for them to go the extra mile to make sure they fill the truck up … But if you look at constraining the geographies in which a private carter operated, you’d get a 68% reduction in commercial collection truck traffic, which is a 64% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 3.5 million gallon reduction in annual diesel fuel consumption.”

The proposal has been controversial among many in the commercial carting industry, and Garcia made her case to the audience in urbanistic terms: “I would say the streets are a commodity in which we have serious constraints [in New York City]. We need to make sure that we’re using them as efficiently as possible.”

Following the Commissioner’s talk, she was joined onstage by Kate Ascher, a principal at BuroHappold and author of The Works: Anatomy of a City, for a discussion about how the current waste system shapes life in the city. In her role at BuroHappold, Ascher has worked with DSNY on several projects, including efforts to site various waste facilities, giving her insight into the challenges—geographic, social, and beyond—that the department faces in achieving the mayor’s goal to eliminate waste sent to landfills by 2030. What follows, after the jump, is an edited transcript of their conversation.