Essential Info: Materials for the Arts

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On April 19th, Open House New York visited Materials for the Arts’ (MFTA) warehouse in Long Island City. MFTA, a program of New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), began in 1978 in the Central Park Arsenal with one employee, one desk, and one phone. Since then, it has had an impressive roster of addresses, from a pre-renovation 2 Columbus Circle to the 3rd floor in the Chelsea Market. In 2001, MFTA moved to its current (and largest) location, a 35,000-square-foot warehouse space. Over the years, the program has expanded into a multi-agency effort: still housed within DCLA, MFTA also receives funding from the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY), and has a formal partnership with the NYC Department of Education (DOE) that allows teachers access to MFTA materials to support arts education in public schools. MFTA has thousands of member organizations across all five boroughs of New York City (1,904 public schools or school programs, 401 city agencies, 1,430 non-profit arts organizations, and 689 other non-profits) that range from the Village Halloween Parade and the Nuyorican Poets Café to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Today MFTA is considered one of the largest creative reuse centers in the United States, and is certainly the largest municipally funded reuse center, regarded as a model by many nationwide.

Connection: MFTA supports the city’s arts and cultural community while simultaneously diverting more than a million pounds of materials from landfills each year. Companies, organizations, and individuals donate everything from unused paper and fabric to furniture. While donations are tax deductible, MFTA relies, to a large extent, upon generosity, since it’s often easier to simply throw something away than to donate it. As a result, the model is centered on connecting the people who benefit from donated materials to the people who drop them off. Members can visit the warehouse as often as they like to pick up free supplies, whether that means furnishing a non-profit office with donated desks and chairs, finding unexpected materials for a new sculpture, or loading up on paper and markers for an art class. The only thing that MFTA asks in return is for members to write letters to the people whose donations they claimed, thanking them and telling them how the materials were reused. “Our only currency is gratitude,” says MFTA’s Hallie Bahn.

Re-Framing: “Years ago, when we were at another location, I heard someone visiting the warehouse refer to the materials as ‘a bunch of junk,’” recalls Harriet Taub, who joined MFTA in 1998 and now serves as the executive director. That experience has inspired Harriet and her team to invest a great deal of time and effort into making the warehouse space clean, inviting, and well-organized. “We set it up like Costco,” she explains, “because we want people to understand that these things have value; they’re not just somebody’s leftovers.”

Education: While the reuse value of office furniture, musical instruments, and many other objects is often obvious, there are plenty of materials that are donated to MFTA that require some imagination in order to find new life—what the organization terms “nontraditional” materials. MFTA, through its nonprofit partner, Friends of the Materials for the Arts, organizes a host of educational programs aimed at teaching everyone from students to crafty locals how to make new and unexpected things out of discarded goods, from jewelry to sculpture. The organization aims to inspire people to think creatively when considering how a given object might be “upcycled.” The warehouse also features a studio that plays host to MFTA’s Artist-in-Residence program, as well as a public gallery where artworks made from reusable materials are exhibited. The warehouse is not merely a clearinghouse for objects looking for new life; it is a public platform for building awareness around the importance of reuse.

Specialization: While it is one of the largest, MFTA is part of a constellation of reuse centers across the city, each of which tends to specialize in different types of materials. As an organization working to support the city’s arts and cultural sector, for instance, MFTA typically does not take in donations of clothing, as it needs to make room for goods that will be of more immediate use to other non-profits and educators, rather than individuals. As Harriet explains, “There are other people who do it better than us.” To ensure that materials have the best chance of finding new owners, MFTA will often coordinate with other local reuse centers to help re-route donations. “We’ll take things that we can’t use and give them to Big Reuse, the Salvation Army, etc.”

Space: It has found its largest home yet in Long Island City, but MFTA’s future growth is as challenged by space constraints as any other organization in a city where space is at a premium. “The only way that we’re going to grow this program now is virtually,” according to Harriet, and MFTA is increasingly looking to the internet to help route donations directly to new users. Still, she sees a silver lining in the high cost of physical space in the five boroughs: it incentivizes people to get rid of materials that they might otherwise let sit around. “If you’ve got a printer that has a bunch of paper left over from a job that they aren’t going to use, that paper is just taking up space. This is New York City—that’s rent!” The trick, in the future, will be to find ways to use technology to capture a larger percentage of the goods that are thrown away each year, without ever having them pass through the warehouse.


Photos: Ben Helmer for OHNY

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.


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.