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.

Kate Ascher: One of the challenges about New York City and waste is that we have so many tall buildings; we’re very dense, particularly in Manhattan. How do you think about the housing stock across the city, from NYCHA to other tall, multi-family buildings? Tell us a little bit about the challenges in thinking about recycling and organics. In a lot of other cities where everybody has a house, they can put their garbage out where it’s away from animals, kids, and everything else. That’s not the nature of our housing stock in New York.

Kathryn Garcia: There are times when I wish we had alleys, but we don’t, so waste ends up on the curb. That is just a fact of life. There is a lot that people in the design community can be thinking about, because it’s not only tall buildings in Manhattan. , Look at what’s happening in Long Island City or the waterfront of Brooklyn–you have enormous buildings going up. There are some people who think about waste before they build, and there are folks who don’t. I mean even the basics—like where are you going to put the garbage bags so I can collect them? Are you going to be containerized inside the building? If so, can I actually get a truck in there?

We need to make sure residents have the space to do the right thing. We also need to plan for what the operating expenses are, and to have that translate from the folks who are in the building all the way out to the curb. Recycling stations should be conveniently located at least on everyone’s floor, and those can be organic stations as well. They’re really not that different. It’s just one more can, which is why we’re trying to reduce the blue-green to one can [through single-stream recycling] and then the brown [for organics] to one can, because we understand the challenges of space.

It’s an important thing to think through, from a design perspective: how people go about their daily life, [and how waste fits in]. When someone designs a kitchen, everyone always thinks about how you’re moving between the refrigerator and the stove and the sink and the counter. They’re not thinking about, “Well, if they’re cutting something on that counter, where are they putting the food waste, or where are they even putting the recycling?” I think that there is a real opportunity for design, but tall buildings can be as good as small buildings.

Kate Ascher: When you think about buildings and you think about design, you think so much about tying into plumbing, tying into electrical. We don’t really think about tying into the waste infrastructure because it isn’t quite the same physical connections, but it’s just as important.

Kathryn Garcia: That’s because you don’t need a permit! That’s how the water and wastewater folks impact building design: they just don’t give you a permit.

Kate Ascher: One of the things that I’ve experienced myself, in developing the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan with a big team at the city, is the challenge of siting waste processing facilities. Everybody loves thinking about infrastructure, but nobody really wants infrastructure close to their house.

Kathryn Garcia: I don’t think it’s gotten much better since you were working on it. Despite the [opening of] my most spectacular, beautiful garage and salt shed on the West Side Highway, I have yet to convince the folks on the East Side that they should have a garage on East 25th Street. And that it can be beautiful and a benefit to the neighborhood, and that it is designed to serve them in the same way that a firehouse is designed to serve them or a police precinct is designed to serve them.

More broadly, I think that there are things that we could do in the city—expanding composting, for instance, and having it be less regionally based—if we could find sites for it, but it’s considered waste and therefore you have to be in a manufacturing zone. There is not a lot of space for that, and you’ll get a lot of pushback because it’s viewed very, very negatively. We have a phenomenal compost facility out on Staten Island that’s doing great work, and all of the community composters are doing great work within residential buildings. But they have to almost get special permits from the state because they’re too close to residential buildings and they’re constrained by the volume that they can take it because of that location.

It makes it very hard to even begin to think about experimenting with any other technology, because I still struggle to get a garage built—which basically is where the trucks sleep it’s not any more complicated than that. Most days of the week we can work around it, but on a day when it’s snowing, it’s really hard for us to get to those locations and effectively service them.

Kate Ascher: People don’t want sleeping trucks, they don’t particularly want the composting, and they certainly don’t want even more unusual technologies, or anaerobic digestion, aerobic digestion. All of these technologies are accepted and used in other parts of the world, but we still have that strong NIMBY feeling here toward waste that makes it hard to site these things.

Kathryn Garcia: But what is so funny is that we were fought forever on the West Side for the garage and salt shed, and now the community loves it. I’ll occasionally go by and there are models out there taking pictures! We have a whole different kind of security issue there than we’ve ever had at a DSNY facility!

None of the marine transfer stations were easy to site. Even though 91st Street [on the Upper East Side of Manhattan] may have the highest profile, none of them were easy to site. When the one on the north shore of Queens opened, we didn’t do a big announcement. Then during the blizzard the following year, I was out in Queens a lot, and one of the elected officials turned to me and asked, “When are you going to open that marine transfer station in College Point?” I was like, “Well, it’s been open for almost a year, and none of you noticed!” You can see it transition over time, but nobody at the initial stage ever welcomes us.

Kate Ascher: And these marine transfer stations weren’t actually sited anew. These were reactivated facilities. These were the places where the barges used to come and collect the garbage that was dumped from the trucks, and they would bring it to Fresh Kills. These were existing marine transfer stations. The idea of siting new facilities is almost off the charts. It’s part of the reason why we can’t get out of our own way with some of the stuff, because there really is no place for a lot of it to go.

I want to talk about design for a second. I think the idea of tying design to infrastructure and making it that much more acceptable and that much more friendly is something that has legs. As you go forward and you look at some of the new facilities you need in the future, is there an ability to reach out to the design community to help make those facilities more palatable, more functional, more green, more efficient?

Kathryn Garcia: I think we hire the fanciest architects out there to make sure that our buildings are attractive, extraordinarily energy efficient, and that are meeting our needs on the smallest footprint possible. Those are our goals. My goal actually isn’t to make the cover of any architecture magazines, though we seem to end up there. We think that we’re making the right choices, but we are very open to including more thoughts about how we can make our facilities even more acceptable to communities.

Kate Ascher: Many of you are probably aware that Kathryn and the city have been working hard to try to limit use of plastic bags and to charge people for buying bags. I lived in the UK and it’s been a five pence charge for plastic bags for as long as I can remember. The whole issue has been caught up in Albany politics, and I wondered both if you would tell us a little bit about that, but also talk more broadly about the State Legislature and what role they could play in either hampering or giving support to some of the initiatives that would take us closer to zero waste.

Kathryn Garcia: We’re not going to get to zero waste easily. You actually are going to have to step up and think about doing something differently. Every other city that has instituted charges or bans—and this is cities that swing blue and swing red–have seen a substantial change in behavior that did not even take that long. Most Americans, at least that I have met, are highly incentivized by money, and also by the idea that it’s easy to change [your behavior and stop using plastic bags]. You don’t have to pay it!

One of the challenges in much of the press has been resistance to the fee going to the grocery store or the drug store. My point had been that I don’t want the revenue to come to DSNY and have people say, “Well, you’re just trying to raise money.” My whole point is that I’m not trying to raise money, I really want to see the use of these things decline and leave the waste stream. But there are other options in terms of compostable bags. Those are in use across the world, particularly in cities that have organics programs, because if they end up in the compost, they will decompose with the food. Plastic doesn’t do that.

There are opportunities. Albany is somewhat of a mystery to me, but I would be totally enthusiastic about something that dealt with plastic bags on a statewide level. It’s always better when we do things bigger, and hopefully we can get there. The thing that I thought was so unfortunate is that New York City is doing exactly the same thing as Long Beach and Suffolk County. Somehow it’s okay in Long Beach and Suffolk County to get charged for a plastic bag, but it is not okay in the City of New York.

[Getting to zero waste] is not going to be something that we can do just by doing what we do now. You have to take some proactive steps to change the way you’re making decisions. Do you need to buy hummus in single serve containers? If you’re making lunches for someone, I understand; it’s a whole different challenge. But how we’re thinking about that and having to make those types of decisions and changes is the only way that we will get there.

Kate Ascher: You know, the single serving of hummus is maybe a small example of something else that I wanted to talk about, which is really sort of the upstream causes of waste: how things are packaged and how they could and should change in the future, and also whose responsibility is it when you buy an appliance or computer and it comes with all this packaging. Just thinking about how much we buy and how much we replace…it all comes to DSNY.

Kathryn Garcia: Right, I don’t get a choice about what people choose to buy, and I don’t have a lot of say in what designers choose to design for consumption. Whatever happens, I get it. There are two parts of this. One is packaging, but the other is the planned obsolescence—of everything, not just your iPhone. You know, your washing machine: if it breaks, [after the warranty ends] it will cost more to fix it than to buy a new one. That’s not thinking about the product as being something that you want to keep for a long time.

Even television sets: we’ve been struggling a little bit with the number of those big tube TVs that are coming out of everyone’s house as they transition to the flat screen. Flat screens actually aren’t lasting that long. Those big, giant bulb TVs lasted forever, so now we’re still dealing with them because everyone still has them. There’s a planned obsolescence that I think [requires] fundamentally rethinking consumer culture. Do you need to physically buy the washing machine, or do you need to buy a certain number of washes? Then the manufacturer would be incentivized to build something that either can be recycled and taken back or is repairable, but the incentive structure is a little bit off right now.

Regarding packaging, the decisions that people make about packaging [make a difference]. It’s better if you buy cola in the can than if you buy it in glass. Metal is more valuable to our recycling stream than glass. It’s lighter, which will hurt on the diversion rates, but in general it’s better overall for us in terms of our ability to get that back and get it to something that can easily be reused or remanufactured.

Our biggest challenge is probably within the plastics industry, because of mixing of resins and things like the fact that the shampoo bottle has a hot seal because it’s going to be a wet environment. It means it’s really hard to get the damn thing off. Whereas, if you find with a water bottle that isn’t designed to be in a wet environment, that thing comes right off. All these are little pieces of a puzzle make it easier or harder to have something reused in the manufacturing process, which is the whole point of recycling.

Kate Ascher: I want to talk about one of the favorite infrastructure buildings in the city, the wastewater plant on Newtown Creek, which you know a lot about from your previous life as the Chief Operating Officer of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). I think most people recognize those beautiful digester eggs that light up at night; that image has been everywhere. But many people may not know what happens inside those eggs, which Kathryn can explain certainly much better than I can. It’s basically breaking down the wastewater solids into useful byproducts. Is there some way of using the capacity of wastewater facilities like that for dealing with the organics that right now we struggle with?

Kathryn Garcia: Actually, we have a partnership wherein we [send a portion of the organics that we collect] to a private contractor who then takes it to DEP at Newtown Creek! But the challenge that you have with using the full digester capacity at Newtown Creek, or any of the other thirteen wastewater treatment plants around the city, is that they don’t want a woody mix. They want a sort of ground up hamburger going into them. That makes them happy. They’re accustomed to solids that are partially digested, and not fully digested until they’re through the next process, so they really want more food. They like greasy food. They don’t want sticks and yard waste.

We actually are still getting a lot of yard waste in our program. That may change as we move to higher density areas, but it requires some pre-processing. We not only need to pull all the plastics out that do end up in the organic stream, but we also have to remove all of the yard waste before it can go to Newtown Creek. Then it is taken to Newtown Creek to create methane gas and that can then be used to heat homes.

Kate Ascher: I love the sanitation fleet. I’m fascinated by it and I love the way the vehicles go from collecting waste to collecting snow, and I think the whole thing is somewhat magical. I wonder if you could just tell us now just a little bit about what that fleet is made up of, because when I was writing The Works, I didn’t even realize there was more than one type of garbage truck. I thought there was just one truck that went around, and then it just got a snowplow stuck on it. Then I realized there were special trucks for recycling and other such stuff.

Kathryn Garcia: We have about 2,200 white collection trucks, the 25-yarders that you see primarily on the street. They may have two bins on them in the back, in outer boroughs in particular, so it’s basically split in half: one for paper, one for metal, glass, and plastic. We are also using that truck in many of our districts for organics on one side and refuse on the other, because we are trying [not to add many] additional trucks since that’s bad for the environment, I have nowhere to put them, and it would cost a lot of money to buy them. None of these trucks are inexpensive. All of them were required to meet the 2007 EPA requirements a few years ago, and are meeting even more stringent requirements now, so we’ve seen a huge reduction in particulate matter and NOx and SOx from our fleet, which the private carting industry will have to meet at the end of 2019.

The interesting thing about where I think we might go—I just have to get the Fire Department to agree that it’s not too dangerous—is that there is a fuel you can create from food, which is called DME, dimethyl ether. It is clean enough that it takes the diesel engine back to a simple diesel engine, without any of the emissions, because of the way the carbon molecule is put together. We’re testing one now. The Fire Department won’t let us fuel in the City of New York, so we fuel in New Jersey and we are allowed to drive it around the landfill. We’re going to get there, but we have to prove the new technology to all of the stakeholders.