Fecal Map NYC: The Worst Places to Swim in the City

Today’s post comes to us via I Quant NY, a fantastic blog that uses NYC Open Data to tell stories about our city. I Quant NY is authored by Ben Wellington who is a Visiting Assistant Professor in The City & Regional Planning Program at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he focuses on the cross section of Open Data and City Planning.

Thank you for letting us re-publish your post, Ben!

If you have ever tried to visit a NYC beach shortly after it rains heavily, you may be disappointed to find that beach closed.

The reason is one of every NYC environmentalist’s worst nightmares: Combined Sewer Outflows (CSOs). Put simply, New York City’s sewage goes to the same place as its street drainage. That works fine until we get so much rain that the sewage treatment plants can’t handle both the storm water and the sewage flowing through our sewers. As a result, this combination of stormwater and sewage overflows and that resulting backup is released into our very own New York City waterways. For the curious, check out this great page by the DEP which include descriptions of CSOs and maps of the outflows.

So back to the beach— what causes it to close exactly? Well, the city monitors its waterways for Fecal Coliform, something that is as gross as it sounds. Specifically, its a bacteria that grows in the intestines of warm blooded animals. High level of fecal coliform indicates a high probability of raw sewage in the water. If levels go above 1,000 coliform per 100ml of water, beaches are closed in accordance with state regulations.

To find the dirtiest water in New York City (or at least the most sewage-full water, since there are many different ways to measure water quality), I turned to Harbor Water Sampling Data released as Open Data by the DEP. The dataset includes samples from dozens of sites back to 2008.

I explored the mean, minimum, median and max levels of fecal coliform at each site, but to decide which area was the dirtiest, I calculated the percent of days sampled at the site that registered as too dirty to swim in (i.e. above the safe level of 1000 coliform / 100ml).

The Top 10 dirtiest water sample locations by that measure are below:


The dirtiest water? Coney Island Creek, which sits between Coney Island and the rest of Brooklyn. Not far behind it is Bergen Basin, near JFK. These two are at the top of the list by the mean measurement as well. The Bronx River is number 3, Alley Creek is 4 and Bergen Basin comes back for number 5. At all five of these spots, samples came in as having too much fecal coliform to swim in more than half the time! So I mapped out these five “fecal hot spots” below:


Spots 6 – 10 go to two sites in the Gowanus Canal, Flushing Creek and another site in both The Bronx River and Coney Island Creek.

To expand beyond the top 10 spots, I created the interactive map below, which includes all of the harbor locations that were measured in the DEP data. Just like the analysis above, I mapped the percentage of time that water levels were unsafe for swimming. Larger circles indicate a higher percentage of unsafe days, and thus dirtier water. Clicking on a circle gives you fuller details for that site.

Note that the larger circles appear more inland. The conclusion? If you are going to swim in NYC, I guess the rule of thumb is to stay away from anything with the word “creek” in its name (and of course “canal”) and head toward the rivers. The one exception seems to be the Bronx River. I suppose its sort of intuitive… interior waterways have much less water to dilute waste matter and they generally move slower than their large river counterparts. (Of course this is more of a theoretical swim. If you are ACTUALLY going to swim, hit up the beaches!) The best part of all of this? I may have just discovered the origin of the old saying “Up sh*t creek without a paddle.”

-Analysis done in Excel (pivot tables)
-Map formed in QGIS and then exported to CartoDB
-All Data used can be found here.

For the latest I Quant NY data analysis of this great city, sign up for the mailing list (about one post a week), like I Quant NY on Facebook or follow I Quant NY on Twitter. I tell stories with data.


Plastic Bag Watch: It’s #BYOBag Week

Can you live without using a plastic bag for a week…or longer? Proponents of a charge on single-use plastic and paper bags are challenging New Yorkers to do just that.

Surfrider NYC and a coalition of environmental and neighborhood groups have declared September 15 – 21 #BYOBag Week. The groups are encouraging New Yorkers to bring their own reusable bags to the store.

Building To A Bag Law

#BYOBag Week is designed to build support for a proposed surcharge on single-use bags. In late March, Council Members Margaret Chin and Brad Lander introduced legislation designed to “dramatically reduce single-use plastic and paper bags in New York City by forcing us to think twice about whether we really need a bag and encourage reusable bag use.”

Those second thoughts would be triggered by a 10-cent charge on every non-reusable bag provided by grocery and retail stores. Stores would get to keep the 10 cents.

Reducing Waste Or Causing E. Coli?

The bill, which aims to reduce plastic bag use in New York City by 90 percent, is currently being reviewed by the Council’s Sanitation Committee. Supporters take pains to say it’s not a tax. Rather, they point to the hefty costs associated with plastic bag use. According to their numbers, New Yorkers use 5.2 billion plastic bags annually; getting those bags to landfills costs $10 million per year.

Despite a provision that would exempt WIC and SNAP recipients from paying the charge, some opponents of the bill fear it will hurt low-income families. A lobbyist for the plastic bag industry raised concerns that reliance on reusable bags will lead to an outbreak of diseases like E. coli, a claim that Council Member Lander was quick to refute.

The proposed legislation comes at a time when other cities and states are doubling-down on single-use bags – including California, which recently banned free plastic bags.

How To Bag It

To help New Yorkers ditch single-use bags, Surfrider has arranged a number of events for #BYOBag Week, including reusable bag giveaways in Brooklyn and a student-focused rally on Tuesday, September 16th. These events lead up to the People’s Climate March, a major environmental action to be held in New York City on Sunday September 21st.

While participating in #BYOBag Week can be as simple as bringing a reusable bag to your corner bodega, Surfrider is encouraging participants to go online to register their support for the legislation.

Part III: New York City’s History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old

By Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director, Natural Resources Defense Council. This series originally appeared on Switchboard

Read Part I of the series here. Read Part II of the series here.

In December 2013, the Sanitation Department was collecting recyclables from New York City residences and institutions at a rate of just over 16 per cent; the percentage is just about the same today. In view of the ambitious intentions of the city’s landmark recycling statute, Local Law 19 of 1989, this percentage is discouraging. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

For one thing, it underestimates the actual amount of household recycling taking place in the five boroughs. It does that, for example, by having to exclude from its calculations the significant number of bottles and cans that are placed out for recycling by city residents but are plucked from their blue recycling bags and bins by curbside scavengers before these valuable materials are picked up by the Sanitation Department and brought to the city’s recycling contractor. Other residential waste materials that end up in non-city run recycling programs (e.g., clothing drop-offs at non-profit organizations, battery and tire recycling at retail outlets, etc.) are similarly not counted in these official recycling calculations.

In addition, the 2013 recycling percentage does not reflect the seeds that were planted in the last year of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. Expanding the types of plastics that can be included in recycling bins, adding pilot projects to collect food waste for composting, growing the number of high-rise buildings that are separating textiles and e-waste, increasing recycling in public schools and on city streets — these and other recent enhancements to the city’s recycling program hold the promise of significant growth in the amount of refuse that New York City diverts from landfills and incinerators in the not-too-distant future.

Twenty-five years after the City Council passed a landmark recycling law, the statute’s ultimate goal—to make recycling and composting the cornerstones of city waste—has yet to be achieved. But the new Administration (Mayor Bill de Blasio (left), Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia (center) and Acting Deputy Sanitation Commissioner for Sustainability Bridget Anderson (right)) is sending encouraging signals that the era of waste policy reform has finally arrived.

2014 – The de Blasio Administration Builds Momentum on Recycling/Composting

When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January 2014, some New Yorkers were worried that he would abandon the sustainability focus that the Bloomberg Administration had begun. Eight months later, it is safe to say that, at least in the area of solid waste and recycling, such concerns appear to have been unwarranted.

To be sure, the Mayor is putting his own stamp on sustainability. And he comes at the issue with a frame that is different from Mayor Bloomberg’s. But when it comes to recycling and composting, the de Blasio administration seems determined to keep moving New York City sustainability policies forward.

First, the Mayor appointed Kathryn Garcia as his new Sanitation Commissioner. The commissioner, a former top official at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, has a long-running commitment to sustainability. And in her very first public statement upon being appointed, the Commissioner expressed the new Administration’s intention of “taking this agency to the forefront of the nation in terms of composting.”

Sure enough, the Commissioner and her team have continued to grow the organics collection pilot projects serving single- and multi-family households and schools in New York City. By July 2014, the curbside food waste collection demonstration projects had expanded to reach over 240,000 New Yorkers in all five boroughs.

The Commissioner has also begun an assessment of how recycling collections can be made more cost-effective — an analysis that could benefit city taxpayers and help to achieve the objectives of Local Law 19 at the same time. As the Commissioner recently stated, “(w)e are embracing the view that waste should be treated as a resource and in fact, we actually receive revenue from some of our recycling vendors when they sell or directly reuse the material.”

In another positive sign, the de Blasio Administration and the City Council renewed the contract with GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. This feisty little office has played a big role in building recycling and composting programs in the city’s schools and is assisting the Sanitation Department in much-needed public education efforts.

Ultimately, of course, it is performance that counts. The initial signals from Mayor de Blasio and his Sanitation Department hold the promise that the city will at long last achieve the recycling and sustainability objectives of Local Law 19 of 1989. But the final chapter has yet to be written.

Since the passage of an ambitious recycling law in 1989, the New York City Council has played an essential role in advancing sustainable waste policies here in the nation’s largest city. It is likely that the Council’s new leaders on waste issues—Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (left), Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander (center), and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso (right)—will keep the Council at the center of innovative waste planning here.

Things to Look for in the Years Ahead

Here are seven issues to watch as the waste policy reforms of the de Blasio Administration and the New York City Council move forward:

  • The single greatest step the City can take to divert waste from landfills and incinerators is to phase in programs that separate out food scraps and yard waste for composting and/or sustainable anaerobic digestion. Will the Sanitation Department continue its ongoing efforts to expand curbside collection of organics for residents and businesses and also boost community composting right here in New York City?
  • Ongoing, effective public education efforts are essential to the long-term success of recycling in New York City. Will the Department of Education cooperate with the de Blasio administration to insure that every school classroom has recycling bins and every school lunchroom collects food scraps for composting? And will GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education be given the funding it needs to target public education efforts where they are needed most?
  • Residents and building managers in many neighborhoods are already separating a large portion of their recyclable refuse for curbside collections; but in other areas, lack of participation remains a serious problem. What will the New York City Housing Authority do to make recycling convenient for their tenants and what will the Sanitation Department do to convince other reluctant building managers to improve their waste-handling practices?
  • Textiles and electronic waste can be easily separated out of the waste stream for reuse, recycling or safe handling, as the Sanitation Department’s recently launched refashioNYC and e-cycleNYC initiatives demonstrate. Will property owners and managers cooperate and take advantage of these new services and, if not, will the City Council take action to build out these worthwhile programs to scale?
  • Polystyrene food and beverage containers and plastic take-out bags contribute disproportionately to litter and pollution problems on streets, at parks and in waterways, while causing big headaches at recycling facilities. Will the de Blasio Administration and the City Council move forward with current plans to reduce these burdens and insure that more environmentally friendly substitutes are used instead?
  • While recycling and composting are cost-competitive with landfilling and incineration, it is possible to reduce the expenses associated with recycling and composting further by adjusting the schedules and routes for waste collections in New York City (as is already being done in municipalities across the country). Will the Sanitation union, the Department and the de Blasio administration work cooperatively in ongoing labor discussions to secure flexibility in trash collection routes and schedules so as to provide financial benefits to all parties?
  • Ultimately, for recycling to be a complete economic and environmental success, strong and vibrant markets for the materials collected in the recycling programs must exist and be encouraged. Will the de Blasio Administration and the City Council, with their enormous purchasing power, use the city’s procurement process to strengthen markets for recyclables currently being collected (e.g., glass and plastics) and help build new recycling industries here in the New York region?

When Local Law 19 of 1989 took effect twenty-five summers ago, on July 14th, my NRDC colleague Mark Izeman told the New York Times: “It is fitting that the statute’s time clock starts ticking on Bastille Day, because we could be witnessing a mini-revolution in local garbage policies.”

None of us expected that the revolution would take this long. But here at NRDC we are confident that the changes in New York waste policy envisioned by the City Council in 1989 are finally in the process of being realized. And the reverberations of Local Law 19 of 1989 are likely to be felt for years to come.

Read Part I of the series here. Read Part II of the series here.

Changing Climate Makes City Stormwater Management Harder, Health Risks Higher

On August 13th, New York State witnessed the greatest 24-hour rainfall, 13.27 inches, in its recorded history. The state record – last set in 2011 – was broken in West Islip, Long Island, fewer than 30 miles from the Queens border.

A flash flood watch went in effect throughout New York City, and beaches in Brooklyn and Staten Island were closed to swimmers the following day. The heavy rain had overloaded sewer mains, necessitating the release of untreated sewage directly into local waterways.

If the City’s climate scientists are right, New York will steadily become a wetter city, subject to more frequent and intense rainfall – and thus, more overloaded sewers and water-related health risks.

And at the very same time that New York’s climate is shifting, the City is engaged in what will be a decades-long effort to address a long-standing problem: the need to capture stormwater before it overwhelms sewers and treatment plants, triggering the release of untreated sewage into Jamaica Bay, the Bronx River, and other waterways.

Average annual precipitation currently ranges between 43 and 50 inches in New York City, depending on location. The New York City Panel on Climate Change notes that, between 1900 and 2011, precipitation in Central Park increased about .7 inches every decade.

Almost 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually into New York City’s waterways.

And perhaps more importantly, in its Climate Risk Information 2013 report, the Panel adds that “larger percentage increases are expected in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme precipitation.” The Panel defines an extreme precipitation event as one with more than 1 inch of rain.

Today, as little as a quarter-inch of rain can overwhelm municipal sewers. The end result of extreme – and not so extreme – weather is ongoing contamination of our local environment. Almost 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually from over four-hundred combined sewage overflows (CSOs) into New York City’s waterways.

The scale of the problem that the City is trying to solve is “huge,” said Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program.

An Over-Taxed Wastewater System

Climate change adds a further layer of complication to what has already been a pressing problem for New York City: stormwater management.

The de Blasio administration is working to address two parallel issues. First, large sections of the city rely on what is now considered an outmoded sewer system.

[A second, entirely separate issue is the fact that areas of the city like Staten Island’s east shore and sections of eastern Queens do not even have proper storm drains. These communities were developed on an “ad-hoc basis”, often in low-lying, marshy areas. Neighborhoods like New Dorp Beach and South Beach on Staten Island, which were devastated by Superstorm Sandy, are now racing against time to put stormwater infrastructure into place.]

Much of the city, however, relies on what is known as a combined sewer system. Household and industrial wastewater, rainwater, and street runoff are all collected in the same sewers and then conveyed together to the City’s treatment plants. Approximately 70 percent of New York’s sewers are combined says the City.

New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants together treat 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily. The City says it is able to remove about 85% to 95% of pollutants from wastewater before it is disinfected with chlorine and then discharged back into local waterways.

But during heavy rains or snow, combined sewers can fill to capacity and are then unable to carry household and storm sewage to treatment plants. The mix of excess storm water and untreated sewage must be released directly into the city’s waterways.

Find the CSO release site closest to you.

Major Improvement but Water Quality “Failures” Persist

There are two equally valid stories to be told about the quality of New York City’s waterways, which is heavily impacted by stormwater management.

On the one hand, water quality has improved significantly; to the point where swimmers, kayakers, and other recreators are seen with greater frequency in more and more sections along the city’s coastline. Wildlife has also responded to improvements in local water quality.

Indeed, New York City residents might be surprised to see the results of a recent six-year study which looked at 15 Hudson River estuary sites in the five boroughs. The majority of samples collected from sites like the Dyckman Street Beach in the Bronx, the Pier 96 Kayak Launch, and the Battery found that the water was safe for swimming.

The study, carried out by Hudson Riverkeeper, in conjunction with CUNY Queens College and Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, actually collected data from 74 estuary locations between New York Harbor and Waterford, Saratoga County.

Nonetheless, the other story is that one-quarter of the water samples collected from the 15 New York City estuary sites failed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “safe swim guidelines” for fecal contamination.

Last year, New York ranked 20th in beach water quality out of thirty states.

Perhaps more telling, the percentage of failing New York City samples jumped from ten percent in dry weather to thirty-five percent after wet weather. Wet weather was defined as at least one-quarter inch of cumulative rainfall in the preceding three days.

The entire state is facing similar issues. Last year, New York ranked 20th in beach water quality out of thirty states, the Natural Resources Defense Council found. Thirteen percent of samples collected at local beaches throughout the state exceeded EPA “safe swim” bacterial levels.

Combined sewage overflow (CSO) releases are seen as a primary culprit in local waterway fecal contamination.

Toxic Releases and Their Impact

Untreated human waste, and the pathogenic bacteria and viruses that come with it, is the most well known component of CSO discharges. The most common illness associated with swimming in sewage-polluted water is gastroenteritis, says the EPA.

Gastroenteritis occurs in a variety of forms that can have one or more of the following symptoms: nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache or fever. Children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk.

Swimmers and others who cross paths with a CSO release can encounter debris flushed down toilets (syringes, tampon applicators, etc.) and trash washed off city streets. Any substance on city streets, or poured down storm drains, can end up in a CSO.

Riverkeeper’s website provides a disturbing list of compounds that have been found in CSOs: ammonia; pesticides; petroleum products (from gas stations and auto repair shops); toxic metals; and other hazardous substances like paints, oils, solvents and cleaners.

CSO discharges can also damage local ecosystems because their elevated nutrient content can combine with hot weather to create dangerous toxic algae blooms. These blooms are extremely hazardous to humans and animals, and can create “dead zones” in local waterways.

Similarly, CSO releases containing food waste, and dead plant and animal tissue, deplete oxygen needed by fish and plant life to survive.

Trouble in the Gowanus

Gowanus canal detritus. Photo credit: Anthony Fine/Creative Commons.

CSO releases into the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn have been documented for years by local residents who say that the canal becomes “one huge toilet” after a major rainfall.

“Last night’s [July 2nd, 2014] heavy rain caused another Combined Sewer Overflow event,” wrote neighborhood resident and local blogger Katia Kelly.

“By 11 PM, much of the waterway was covered with raw sewage. The smell was unbelievable…It is unfathomable to think that the new residents of the 700 unit Lightstone Group Project at the shores of the canal will have to deal with this every time it rains heavily.”

In the aftermath of the July 2 storm, and following other major downpours, residents in the nearby Gowanus Houses public housing development have also reported that raw sewage backs up into their kitchen sinks.

One of those residents happens to work for local City Council Member Steve Levin. Levin said that he had spoken with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Housing Authority about the back-ups. “It’s hard to say what’s going on,” he stated, but added that he believed the back-ups were caused by “some combination” of the CSO releases into the canal, and plumbing issues within the development itself.

Levin stressed that NYCHA had been very responsive in dealing with similar issues at other developments in the area. He also noted that long-term clean-up plans for the Gowanus Canal included “sewage holding tanks” that would help to control the releases.

“We would like to see as much of an effort as possible,” Levin said, “to determine what’s going on in the intervening years before all of the [sewage management] infrastructure is implemented.” He said it would be “helpful” if DEP could examine all of the existing infrastructure in the surrounding area and “make sure that everything is in good repair.”

Neither the DEP nor the state Department of Environmental Conservation would respond to questions for this story about CSO releases into the Gowanus Canal, or sewage back-ups at the Gowanus Houses.

The Public’s Right to Know

Residents in Gowanus and other neighborhoods cannot obtain real-time information on rain-related releases from individual CSOs, despite 2012 state legislation requiring “publicly owned treatment works to report discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage.”

According to state law, residents must be notified within four hours of a sewage overflow. The state DEC must report the estimated amount of the overflow, the location and duration, the reason, and a description of steps taken to control the release from happening again.

The lack of publicly-available data on rain-related CSO releases is technically a violation of state law, said Phillip Musegaas, an attorney with Riverkeeper and director of its Hudson River Program. But, he added, there is a straightforward reason for the lack of data: the City does not know exactly how much sewage is coming out of each of its 426 CSO release points during rain events.

The City estimates the size of releases using modeling based on the amount of rainfall and the impact of similar rain events in the past. City residents can check online to see if a water quality advisory has been issued for their area.

Some of these “areas” are very broad, encompassing multiple neighborhoods, and making it hard to know what is happening at the local level. Musegaas said that Riverkeeper has repeatedly raised the problematic nature of this method of tracking with the City to no avail.

“Why not install monitors on the biggest CSO’s? Pick twenty or thirty,” said Musegaas.

Musegaas added that climate change also made the use of modeling more questionable. “If you’re basing your modeling on one place [rainfall measured at LaGuardia Airport] and one year, that’s a problem.”

Why does the lack of data about releases of raw sewage into an already polluted waterway like the Gowanus matter? “The thing that’s going to make you actually physically ill is what comes from the CSOs – it’s raw sewage,” said Council Member Levin.

Neither the City nor the State responded to questions about how releases from CSOs across the city are tracked.

Some communities living close to CSO release points are taking the lack of real-time data into their own hands. The Newtown Creek Alliance is now attempting to track local CSO releases and alert area residents by text message when flushing their toilets will send waste directly into the creek.

It is important to note that, during the summer months, the City collects and then publishes weekly data about water quality in 70 locations across the five boroughs. The data is published on a monthly basis the rest of the year. The latest available data is from August 18th through August 21st.

What’s the Goal? The City and State Face Off on Water Quality Standards

CSO discharges operate in a grey area relative to federal and state clean water regulations. They are essentially pollution releases that are managed by government.

“The City is supposed to reduce [these releases],” said Larry Levine of the NRDC. “What would be illegal is if they don’t follow through on specific plans [to reduce volume].”

And the City is actively working on a long-term plan to reduce CSO releases based on a series of “Consent Orders” it has entered into with the State. In the next three years, the City must produce plans for ten separate water bodies or “sewer sheds” – areas of the city where raw sewage is released into waterways.

According to the City, the goal of each plan “is to identify appropriate CSO controls necessary to achieve waterbody-specific…standards, consistent with the Federal CSO Policy and the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act.”

The areas targeted for CSO reduction are: Alley Creek, the Hutchinson River, the Bronx River, Coney Island Creek, Flushing Bay, Flushing Creek, the Gowanus Canal, Jamaica Bay and its tributaries, Newtown Creek, and Westchester Creek.

The ten area plans will eventually form the basis of a citywide CSO reduction plan.

However, the state DEC has rejected the first long-term plan submitted by the City, which covers Alley Creek in Queens. At issue is to what extent the City actually plans to clean-up Alley Creek. The City aimed lower than what the State says is required by federal law.

“The City’s proposed long-term CSO control plan unlawfully failed to identify CSO controls that would either clean up Alley Creek enough to allow full fishable/swimmable use or, if that were not attainable, clean up Alley Creek enough to allow…[that] use on a seasonal basis,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote in a document filed with the New York State Supreme Court this June.

The City “misses the mark,” said Schneiderman, by attempting to only adhere to state water quality standards that are not as stringent as federal standards. “Under the federal Clean Water Act, DEC’s regulation of pollutant discharges to such water bodies as Alley Creek, can be no less stringent than the requirements set by federal law.”

The water quality standards that are ultimately established for Alley Creek could set the tone for the nine other waterbody plans to come, said Levine. The State and the City are now in litigation.

‘Green Infrastructure’ Will be Key

The State and the City have reached agreement, however, on the use of green infrastructure to “improve the overall water quality in New York Harbor waters.”

The idea is to capture and make use of rainwater at the source, before it enters the city’s combined sewer system. By changing its fundamental approach to stormwater management, the City is not only reducing pollution levels in local waterways, it is also preparing for climate change.

A State order requires that by 2030 the City be able to divert the first inch of rain from 10 percent of New York’s impervious surfaces using a green infrastructure “adaptive management approach.”

Examples of green infrastructure projects include: blue roofs and green roofs, which use mechanical devices or vegetation to slow roof water from draining too quickly; porous pavement for parking lots so water can be absorbed into the ground; tree pits and streetside swales for roadways so water can pool in underground holding areas and dissipate in the ground or through plants; wetlands and swales in parks; and rain barrels in some residential areas.

The State’s order requires five-year incremental milestones to meet the 10 percent target, and annual reporting on progress. The City has committed $187 million toward meeting the first five-year target in 2017.

And the City says it will utilize an estimated $2.4 billion of public and private funding over the next 18 years to install more green infrastructure technologies. Through the order, the City maintains flexibility to prioritize green investments in neighborhoods that it says “will benefit most from reductions in combined sewer overflows.”

How much of a difference can green infrastructure make?

The City estimates that its use could lead to the annual removal of approximately 1.5 billion gallons of CSO releases by 2030. Roughly 8.4 billion gallons could be removed by 2045, using green and “targeted” gray infrastructure.

That’s almost one-third of the estimated 30 billion gallons released by CSOs each year.

“Green infrastructure is the right solution,” said Larry Levine. “The City is making some serious progress.” But, Levine cautioned that solutions to the city’s wastewater problem are going to be “long-term.”

And, Levine added, the City “should improve its stormwater management standards for new development projects.” Standards for new buildings should require on-site management – through green infrastructure, not discharge into sewers – “of at least the first one-inch of rainfall in any storm,” Levine said.

A similar approach is already mandated in other parts of New York State.

Instead, the City requires new development sites “to temporarily hold on to runoff and then release it slowly into sewers,” says Levine. “That approach helps to reduce overflows but, by the City’s own calculations, it’s much less effective than keeping that runoff out of the sewers entirely,” he concluded.

The pressure to address stormwater management is unrelenting. At the time this article was being finalized for publication, a flash flood warning was issued for New York City. “Rain rates up to 2 inches per hour are expected,” said the National Weather Service.

And climate change makes the goal of a truly sustainable city – one which no longer pollutes the environment around it – both more challenging and more urgent at the same time.

Is it reasonable to expect that all of the city’s waterways should eventually meet the federal requirement that they be swimmable and fishable?

“Absolutely,” responded Phillip Musegaas. “That’s what the Clean Water Act calls for…to make sure that these public resources are healthy…It’s a good goal to have.”

Part II: New York City’s History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old

By Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director, Natural Resources Defense Council. This series originally appeared on Switchboard

Read Part I of the series here.

The 2000s – The New Administration Stumbles at the Start

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took office in 2002, compiled an impressive track record in addressing environmental health and sustainability issues in New York City. But he didn’t start off as a big fan of recycling or of Local Law 19 of 1989, the City’s recycling Magna Carta.

Indeed, in 2002, the Sanitation Department proposed to eliminate recycling collections of metals, plastic and glass. The Bloomberg Administration suggested that such a move would save 57 million dollars a year, although the Department was never able to document that claim.

Again, the New York City Council came to the rescue. Thanks to Speaker Gifford Miller and Sanitation Committee Chair Mike McMahon, a compromise was reached; metals would stay in the program, plastics would be suspended but only until 2003 and glass collections would be suspended but would return in 2004.

Unfortunately, these stops and starts — on top of what had already been a program under attack from the previous administration — further confused the public. In part as a result of these changes, participation in the curbside recycling program declined.

In December 1999, the citywide residential and institutional recycling tonnage collected by the Sanitation Department had reached about 2,500 tons per day, a rate of over 21 percent. By December 2002, however, the citywide recycling tonnage collected by the Department had declined to about 1,550 tons per day, just under 13 percent. And even after the plastic and glass recycling collections were restored, the numbers did not fully bounce back.

In the summer of 2010, the City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Christine Quinn and Sanitation Committee Chair Tish James, enacted eleven new recycling laws. They were designed to update Local Law 19 of 1989 and to advance its original objectives. Among other things, the new laws sought to expand recycling collections to cover additional kinds of plastics, boost recycling in public schools, increase recycling in public spaces, and jumpstart food waste composting.

Another one of the laws established revised goals for recycling tonnages. It modified the original tonnage mandates of the 1989 statute and set 2020 as the final date for achieving a 25% rate for citywide residential recycling collected by the Sanitation Department at curbside and a 33% goal for all residential recyclables – those collected at curbside by the Department as well as residential refuse recycled by other means (e.g., bottles and cans redeemed under the state’s bottle deposit program, composting programs, electronic waste and other retailer take-back programs, etc.).

In a large number of New York neighborhoods, including Manhattan’s Upper West Side pictured here, many residents and building managers are complying with the city’s recycling law by separating newspapers, cardboard, metals, glass and plastics for curbside collection. But, 25 years after the City Council’s passage of Local Law 19, there are still challenges to be addressed in order for New York City to reap all of the economic and environmental benefits of recycling. Photo via: NRDC.

2012 – Team Bloomberg Launches Bold New Recycling Initiatives

In the spring of 2012, the Bloomberg Administration’s big turnaround began. The Mayor sought to make up for lost time by appointing the first-ever Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability, Ron Gonen — a savvy entrepreneur with the talent to help expand recycling cost-effectively. The appointment was championed by Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, who understood that the rising costs of landfilling could make recycling economically attractive and that stepped up recycling would mesh well with the Mayor’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Then, in the summer of 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would begin collecting all rigid plastics as part of its recycling collections. This change marked what Sanitation officials and waste experts hope will be the beginning of the end of years of confusion as to which plastics go in which receptacles. And it reflects the reality that genuine markets to purchase many (but not all) types of plastic waste have emerged over the past twenty five years.

The Administration also launched ambitious pilot projects designed to jumpstart curbside collections of food waste from households on Staten Island, high rise residences in Manhattan, and city public schools. These demonstration projects were revolutionary because food wastes and other organics account for more than 25% of the city’s residential waste stream. Get food scraps and yard waste out of landfills and incinerators and you’ve struck a powerful blow against pollution-generating and economically unsound waste disposal practices.

At the same time, the Sanitation Department kicked off enhanced programs to make recycling of textiles and electronic waste much more convenient for apartment-dwellers. The Department’s re-fashioNYC program is run jointly with a non-profit group, Housing Works. At the request of building managers, the city has been installing permanent bins for collecting clothing in apartment buildings of ten or more units (over 460 now and more being added); when the bins are filled, occupants notify the Department/Housing Works team, which arranges to empty the bins and reuse or recycle the contents for charitable purposes.

A companion to clothing and textile collections is the city’s recently launched e-cycleNYC program. For this new initiative, the Department has been installing separate bins (now over 300 and more available) in high-rise buildings that give residents a convenient place to drop off their old computers, televisions, and other unwanted electronic waste; when notified that bins are full, the city and its partner, Electronics Recyclers International, collect these wastes for reuse or for disassembly and recycling. (This initiative is supplementing the still-ongoing Lower East Side Ecology Center’s e-waste drop-off program, which has for years been a savior to New Yorkers who could not get themselves to toss old electronics, with their toxic constituents, out with the household trash.)

As 2013 came to a close, the Bloomberg Administration was also celebrating the long-awaited opening of a beautiful, new recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront in Sunset Park. Sims Municipal Recycling – the company that is handling all of the city’s metals, glass and plastic recyclables under a 20 year contract with the city — now has a modern sorting plant that is providing green jobs for New Yorkers and moving most of its recyclables by barge and rail.

Last but not least, Mayor Bloomberg advanced two forward-looking bills that were passed by the City Council and signed by the Mayor in his last month in office. One law set the stage for the Sanitation Department to phase out the polystyrene food and beverage containers in New York City. It requires the Commissioner to prohibit the use of such containers unless she concludes by the end of this year that this problematic waste can somehow be recycled in an economically and environmentally sound manner.

The second law gave another boost to composting and other sustainable organics handling strategies. It directs large scale commercial generators of food waste in the city to insure that their organic materials are sent to composting or similar facilities (rather than to landfills or incinerators) beginning in July 2015 — provided that sufficient capacity to sustainably handle such food wastes exists in the region by that time.

In one of the most promising developments on the solid waste scene in New York City, the Bloomberg Administration started, and the de Blasio Administration is expanding, pilot programs in which the Sanitation Department is collecting food scraps from private residences, high-rise apartments and city public schools for composting. Food waste and yard waste account for more than 25% of the residential waste stream, so organics collections programs like this, if phased in across the city, could dramatically cut the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators, saving city tax dollars and reducing global warming emissions and other pollution. Photo credit: DSNY

A third and concluding section of this blog will review the de Blasio Administration’s record to date in advancing the recycling objectives set forth in Local Law 19 of 1989. It will also identify seven things to look for over the next several years as the new Administration moves forward with what we hope will become the final chapter in the Local Law 19 story — the transformation of New York City into a national leader on sustainable waste practices. Read Part I of the series here.

Part 1: New York City’s History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old (Part I)

By Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director, Natural Resources Defense Council


New York City’s landmark recycling statute — which provided residents here with curbside collection of recyclables for the first time in modern history and generated momentum for stepped-up recycling in cities around the nation — is celebrating its 25th birthday this summer.

On July 14, 1989, the day the new law took effect, dozens of Sanitation Department trucks were rolling down city streets in 14 of the city’s 59 sanitation districts to collect metals, glass and newspapers placed at the curb by homeowners and building superintendents. Voluntary recycling collections, which had already begun in some neighborhoods, were now becoming mandatory citywide. These collections marked the beginning of a still-ongoing odyssey to transform the way residents of the nation’s largest city dispose of their trash on a daily basis.

The program has had its ups and downs over the past two and a half decades. For years, budget cuts, rule changes and suspensions of recycling collections confused residents and dampened participation. As a result of these factors and often tepid agency support for the program, recycling levels have not grown as quickly as envisioned. And, even twenty-five years later, the full objectives of the 1989 recycling statute have not yet been achieved.

Still, it would be best to characterize the implementation of the city’s landmark recycling law as a continuing work in progress. Today more than a quarter of the residential waste stream is being neatly placed out for recycling in some neighborhoods in all five boroughs. The city finally has an impressive, state-of-the-art recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront. And over the past two years the Bloomberg and de Blasio Administrations have been making up for lost time by launching, implementing and envisioning ambitious new programs to boost recycling and to compost food waste — the largest single component of the residential waste stream.

What follows — in three parts — is a look-back at the birth of the city’s recycling law, the trials and tribulations of its childhood and teenage years, and its recent, long-delayed coming of age.

New York City’s curbside recycling program began 25 years ago this summer, as New York City Sanitation Department trucks began fanning out to neighborhoods in all five boroughs to collect newspapers, metals, glass and plastic. Despite many stops and starts along the way, the program has survived, matured and is here to stay. Mayor de Blasio’s new Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, has expressed her determination to advance recycling and food waste composting — making waste collections here more sustainable and more cost-effective as well. Photo via The New York Times

In the Beginning

Although the roots of recycling in New York City go back more than a century, the program’s current incarnation can be traced to the early 1980s. City landfills were closing and in 1984 Mayor Ed Koch advanced a proposal to build five giant garbage burning incinerators across the city. That possibility sparked environmental groups — including NRDC — into action; they vowed to advance more environmentally friendly recycling and waste prevention strategies as new cornerstones of city policy.

As community leaders in Williamsburg and groups like NYPIRG formed a united front to oppose the Koch Administration’s proposed Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator (which was never built), other environmental advocates began meeting with sympathetic City Council representatives and their staffs to help design city legislation intended to jumpstart big-time recycling efforts here.

In 1987 and 1988, a handful of City Councilmembers, led by Ruth Messenger and Sheldon Leffler, began negotiating with the Koch Administration, environmental leaders and other stakeholders. A valued partner in these early efforts was then-Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. They were determined to craft a comprehensive bill that would require the Sanitation Department to provide curbside collection of recyclables for New Yorkers in every neighborhood and regardless of whether residents lived in private homes or high-rise apartments (which were viewed as problematic due to real and imagined limitations on space for storing recyclables).

In March 1989, after nearly two years of contentious debate, the Council enacted Local Law 19 of 1989 — “the New York City Recycling Law.” It stated the City Council’s intent that “the measures taken by the city must establish the most environmentally sound and economically desirable waste reduction, recycling and reuse programs possible….”

The law was comprehensive. It covered everything from recycling by city agencies (including the public school system) and by commercial establishments, to the procurement of goods made with recycled content, the preparation of citywide recycling plans, the undertaking of public education activities, and the creation of citizen solid waste advisory boards.

The heart of the statute was a provision designed to thrust residential recycling collections forward citywide. It set forth a schedule for gradually increasing mandatory tonnage levels that the Sanitation Department was required to recycle over the next five years. It directed that at the end of the first year, the Department was to be recycling 700 tons per day and that by the end of the fifth year, the Department was to have reached a daily recycling level of 4,250 tons per day (equal to about 25 per cent of the estimated total residential and institutional waste that was expected to be collected by the Department that year).

Sheldon Leffler, who was Chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and the bill’s leading shepherd, pronounced the statute “a strong beginning … not the end.” City Council Majority Leader Peter F. Vallone, proclaimed the new law to be “one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the city.” And Mayor Koch’s Sanitation Commissioner, Brendan Sexton, who had tangled with the Council on the bill’s language for months but who eventually supported the legislation and ultimately became a great advocate for sustainable waste policies, told the New York Times: “We are going to recycle like crazy.”

Of course, there was no place to go but up in terms of New York City recycling. Although groups like the Environmental Action Coalition had begun voluntary recycling endeavors in the 1970s, the City was still recycling less than one percent of its daily trash in the late 1980s, before the new law was enacted.

Since the city’s recycling law took effect 25 years ago this summer, students and teachers have been pressing to have recycling collections implemented at their schools, as is evidenced by this 2008 rally on the steps of City Hall. For a very long time, the Department of Education was uncooperative. But with GrowNYC’s Recycling Champions program adding intensive recycling in individual schools, and the Sanitation Department now collecting lunchroom food scraps for composting at several hundred public schools, things are finally beginning to improve. Photo via Switchboard.

The 1990’s — Legal Wrangling Under Mayor Giuliani

By the spring of 1990, the City had succeeded in meeting the recycling law’s first year tonnage mandate. Blue recycling bins, distributed by the City, were a common site outside of private residences in all five boroughs. And the Sanitation Department was collecting at least 700 tons of recyclables per day.

Still, there were trouble spots on the horizon. They included ineffective efforts to educate the public regarding the details of recycling and its importance, lack of cooperation from many building managers and lack of attention from the city’s public school leadership.

Back in 1989, Commissioner Sexton predicted: “I think we will meet the law’s goals. But I also believe we have still some surprises to come, negative and positive.” On this second point, he was certainly correct.

When in 1991, the Department missed that year’s mandatory recycling tonnage number, NRDC brought suit to enforce the law on behalf of Councilmembers Sheldon Leffler and Fred Cerulo, the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board and concerned residents from Staten Island and the Bronx. (Michael Gerrard and the law firm of Arnold & Porter graciously provided pro bono legal assistance.) In response, the City’s lawyers argued that the statute’s tonnage mandates were non-binding “goals.”

But, beginning in 1992, one New York State court after another rejected that theory and ordered the city to comply with the tonnage directive and the other mandatory provisions of the recycling law.

The Giuliani Administration was no great friend of recycling and continued to drag its feet in implementing the statute. In 1996, the NRDC plaintiffs returned to court to enforce the pre-existing court order. This time, Mayor Giuliani’s lawyers argued that using construction and demolition debris to line the roads at the Fresh Kills landfill counted as residential recycling under the statute.

In 1997, the court rejected this argument of the Administration as well. And in 1998, the state’s highest court turned away the City’s last appeal. In total, seven separate court rulings had all gone against City Hall on the question of recycling tonnage deadlines. But as these legal matters made their way through the courts, valuable time was lost. Under revised court orders, the city was given until 2001 to meet the 4,250 tons per day recycling mandate.

Mayor Giuliani, who had called the city’s recycling law “absurd and irresponsible,” then sought to block funding that would have provided weekly (instead of every other week) recycling collections in all five boroughs. Once again, the City Council stepped in. In 1998, under the leadership of Environmental Protection Committee Chair Stanley Michels, the Council unanimously passed a new law directing the city to provide weekly recycling collections to every city neighborhood.


We will publish part II of this series next week.

This series originally appeared on Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Read Eric Goldstein’s blog here.

We thank Eric for allowing us to re-publish his series.

Another Step Taken Toward Solving NYC’s Solid Waste Problem

Contrary to the tremendous environmental and social burden our waste stream imposes, it actually has real value. The City has taken another step toward harnessing that value in North Brooklyn.

One of the biggest challenges to New York City’s fundamental sustainability is the enormous quantity of solid waste it produces. As we and other outlets have reported, city residents and businesses generate over 20,000 tons of trash per day. The majority of that waste is trucked out of the city to landfills and incinerators across the country, causing problems every step of the way.

But the de Blasio administration, following in the footsteps of its predecessor, is taking aim at one of the largest components of our waste stream: food scraps and other organic material.

Organic waste -food, paper towels and tissues, and yard refuse- makes up over thirty percent of our residential waste stream.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent every year to truck that waste out of state. But that is changing. The City has been steadily expanding organics recycling -or composting- across the five boroughs. At the same time, it has been busy experimenting with turning organic waste into something usable- energy.

And now,  as Capital New York reported yesterday, the City is preparing to ratchet up the amount of organic waste it feeds to its space age digester eggs in Newtown Creek, which convert sewage sludge and organic waste into natural gas. The eggs will now process 50 tons of waste per day, a big jump from today’s 1 to 2 tons daily.

There is the possibility, says the City, to ultimately process as much as 500 tons per day at Newtown Creek- that’s reportedly 15% of New York City’s entire organic residential waste stream.

The implications of the City’s technological advances are widespread.

The City’s progress on anaerobic digestion is good news for everyone, from communities around Newtown Creek and the South Bronx which are home to much of the city’s traditional waste transfer infrastructure, to Newark which burns our trash, to Ohio which buries it.

And, as Capital New York reporter David Giambusso notes, fewer trips to out-of-state landfills means 90,000 fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide pumped into our atmosphere. So we can all breathe a little easier.

Map of the Week: BargeNYC

New York City’s garbage is a hot-button issue these days (see our 91st Street MTS post here if you’ve missed the hubbub). One thing we think helps put the fight into context is hard data—while you might have an opinion on where these transfer stations should be sited, you can’t argue with facts about where they currently are.

Plus, we all contribute to the problem (if, by some crazy chance, you manage to exist without producing trash, please let us know your secret!), so it’s extra-important to have an understanding of what happens to those bags after their curb-side pick-up.

Barge NYC has put together this map in order to show the location of our Waste Transfer Stations: the places where garbage trucks unload their goods. At these stations, our garbage is loaded onto tractor trailers, barges, or railcars, and ultimately taken out of state.

A few important points that the map makes:

  1. Most of the city’s transfer stations (59) utilize tractor-trailers to move trash. There are only seven marine transfer stations, and five rail transfer stations.
  2. The neighborhoods of Newtown Creek and the South Bronx host 32 transfer stations. Collectively, these stations handle more than 60% of NYC’s annual waste.
  3. Newtown Creek has 19 Waste Transfer Stations — this is the densest cluster in all of the city.

You can check out the map here. Another cool feature: click on the individual icons to see details about that specific station — and in some cases, a Google Map photo!

Are there any transfer stations in your neighborhood?

Garbage Arguments: Battle Over Transfer Station Underscores City Trash Dilemma

A note from the author:

One of the comments I have received on this story is that it doesn’t give real space to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who live in close proximity to waste transfer stations today. For instance, neighborhoods in the Newtown Creek area currently host 19 separate waste transfer stations. Residents in Newtown Creek note that every marine barge used by the City to move trash will eliminate up to 28 tractor trailer trucks from the roads. My article also does not clarify that local reaction to new/re-built Marine and Rail Waste Transfer Stations has varied by neighborhood. I think these are fair points, and they add important context to this story.



While residents of the Upper East Side continue to fight the opening of a rebuilt Marine Transfer Station that would handle some of the island’s waste, the true cost of New York City’s trash output steadily grows.

Is the 91st Street Marine Transfer Station the beginning of a new paradigm, in which the collective burden of processing our waste is handled more equitably and sustainably, or is it a “hollow symbol” of a city strategy that doesn’t address the underlying problem of too much trash?

No matter your view of the transfer station, though, one thing is clear: New York City’s day-to-day approach to trash – shipping most of it elsewhere – is not fundamentally sustainable.

“We’re not where we need to be,” agreed City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, referring to the city’s long-term approach to waste. But Reynoso, who represents North Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, maintained that the new transfer station would make the existing system “more efficient.”

Reynoso said the City was moving in the right direction by shifting from trucks to barges, and establishing transfer stations in every borough. “We want to give every community the best [transfer] facility we possibly can,” he added.

20,000 Tons Per Day

New York City generates 10,000 tons of residential waste and a comparable amount or greater of commercial waste every day.

Manhattan’s residential waste is trucked daily by the city’s Department of Sanitation to an incineration plant in Newark, which converts trash into energy.

The island’s commercial waste is taken by private carters, both directly to New Jersey, and to waste transfer stations in the other boroughs for shipment to out-of-state landfills.

While converting Manhattan’s residential trash to energy is arguably better than burying it, there are real costs associated with the practice.

Kim Gaddy, a Newark resident and community organizer with Clean Water Action, described being on the receiving end of Manhattan’s garbage as “a nightmare.” “We have been fighting the Covanta [the plant’s operators] facility for 20 years,” she said.

Gaddy said that Covanta has finally agreed to install new filtration technology for the plant’s boilers after a long campaign by local residents. Elevated child asthma rates in Newark are due to emissions from the Covanta plant and others like it, she said, and compounded by trucks delivering trash from New York City.

A Better Plan?

The hard-fought Solid Waste Management Plan of 2006 was supposed to address some of the most egregious irrationalities of New York City’s waste management system, especially the way in which trash is moved and consolidated within the city.

The plan may also provide some indirect relief for residents of Newark by re-routing some of Manhattan’s residential trash flow to other locations.

After the 2000 closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, the city had no place to take its trash aside from other locales throughout the U.S. The city’s residential waste – excluding Manhattan’s – and much of its commercial waste is delivered by truck to waste transfer stations, which are concentrated in a handful of New York City neighborhoods, particularly the area around Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and Queens, and the South Bronx.

There, trash is transferred to tractor-trailers and taken to landfills in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states. And it’s not cheap. New York City taxpayers spend over $330 million annually in landfill costs.

Trucking the trash out of New York City every day, and the out-of-state landfills themselves, also impose costs on the broader natural environment.

And there are local public health costs. Almost two-thirds of the city’s waste transfer stations are located in the Newtown Creek area and the South Bronx, say environmental justice advocates. Both areas have higher than average hospitalization and death rates linked to air pollution.

Establishing a More Equitable System

The basic philosophy behind the Solid Waste Management Plan is to establish a more equitable -and less impactful- waste processing system, with infrastructure in every borough. Not surprisingly, communities targeted for new and/or upgraded waste infrastructure facilities are responding with bitter opposition.

Opponents to the 91st St Marine Transfer Station say that, besides taking DSNY trucks off the road, the station will not contribute to a more environmentally sustainable waste management system in New York City.

“It [the transfer station] harms residents,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the area.

“Instead of being located in an industrial area, it is being placed…between an Olympic training ground serving 30,000 children from all five boroughs and a public housing development with 1,173 units, and within feet of 6 schools and 22,056 residents.”

Opponents like Kallos argue that the City should be focused on reducing the actual waste stream, and not on large capital projects.

The City is clearly trying to do both. The Department of Sanitation is continuing the Bloomberg administration’s late-term efforts to expand what is recycled in the five boroughs. The City is introducing organics recycling to a growing number of neighborhoods.

Could this really make a dent in the long run? Yes, says the City. Compostable organics – food, yard waste, etc. – make up more than 30 percent of New York’s residential solid waste stream.

But even the 91st Street transfer station’s opponents concede that no matter how much the waste stream is reduced by recycling and other strategies, the city will still need to cope with solid waste – the question is where and how.

How Do You Measure Positive Impact?

How much of an impact will the new Marine Transfer Station have if local opposition is unsuccessful and it opens, as planned, in 2016?

Four of Manhattan’s 12 Community Districts will send their waste to the new facility, which will sit on the site of a former transfer station that closed in 1999.

Using the City’s estimates, the transfer station could eliminate 13,000 or more DSNY round-trip truck journeys to Newark every year, leading to significant air quality benefits.

The 91st Street station is permitted to receive up to 720 tons of residential trash daily, but Belinda Mager, a spokeswoman for the Department of Sanitation, said the City is projecting that the facility will receive 550 to 600 tons of residential waste per day.

This would require around fifty daily truck trips into the transfer station, Mager said. But the City also estimates that, at maximum use, between 100 and 500 trucks could enter the facility every day, via an entrance ramp at 91st Street and York Avenue.

Commercial carters are also supposed to use the station eventually, contributing to what could become 24-hour truck traffic moving through the neighborhood.

The entrance ramp, which will run between the Asphalt Green sports complex and its soccer field, will bring trucks over the FDR to the marine transfer station.

Residential trash will be barged from the station to the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island, and then shipped by rail to two “waste to energy” incineration facilities in Chester, Pennsylvania and Niagara Falls, New York. The facilities are also operated by Covanta, which has a 20-year contract with the City.

Residents in both Chester and Niagara Falls are organizing to fight the shipment of New York City’s trash into their cities.

Back on the Upper East Side, opponents to the 91st Street station maintain that it will not receive enough of Manhattan’s trash to justify the daily physical impact it will have on one neighborhood.

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, who was heavily involved in the City’s creation and adoption of the Solid Waste Management Plan, responded that, “this transfer station was always supposed to handle the East Side wasteshed (i.e., the districts that always used this station for decades), as other marine transfer stations are only supposed to handle their respective local wastesheds.”

According to the City, Manhattan’s other eight community districts will continue to send their residential trash directly to the incineration facility in Newark, which opponents cite as a fundamental injustice. Why burden the Upper East Side with a transfer facility, when most neighborhoods will not have to live with one, they ask.

The Solid Waste Management Plan also proposes a marine transfer station at West 59th Street, which would handle commercial waste, along with a Gansevoort Street facility that would receive recyclables.

Belinda Mager said that both facilities were slated for completion. An additional marine transfer station for commercial waste, at West 135th Street, was dropped from the City’s plan.

Will the 91st Street Station Give Some Relief to Newtown Creek and the South Bronx?

The Upper East Side transfer station is also permitted to receive up to 780 tons of commercial waste daily. It is not yet known how many private haulers, who pick up waste from Manhattan’s businesses, will use the facility.

The 91st Street facility will not accept construction-related waste, a significant part of the city’s commercial waste stream. Manhattan’s construction waste, which is currently trucked to New Jersey and transfer stations in the outer boroughs, will eventually go to the marine transfer station on West 59th Street.

If the 91st Street station does begin to see real use by private haulers, and proposed marine transfer stations in other parts of the city come on-line, communities like the South Bronx will feel the difference, argues Bautista.

“The sum total of all the marine transfer stations’ commercial waste capacity equals thousands‎ of tons – which will reduce the need for this capacity at land-based waste transfer stations,” he said.

“It’s our hope and advocacy goal that opening the marine transfer stations will actually obviate the need for so much land-based transfer station capacity… Which is why we need every single marine transfer station to open, to maximize economies of scale.”

And, supporters of the City’s plan point out, if recycling rates increase as the marine transfer stations come on-line, the need for land-based stations will be reduced even further.

Dara Hunt, an Upper East Side resident and volunteer member of Pledge 2 Protect, a coalition formed to fight the 91st Street transfer station, questions whether commercial carters will use the facility in large numbers. She and other opponents also doubt the City will even open the marine transfer station at West 59th Street.

Hunt argued that the 91st Street station will raise Manhattan’s waste costs, but will not have the desired effect of closing land-based waste transfer stations in other neighborhoods.

“It’s not just about this neighborhood – it’s about city priorities…the logic of this,” said Hunt. She described the marine transfer station as a “hollow political symbol.”

But a symbol of what exactly? “It’s all about ‘alleged’ environmental justice,” she responded. “It’s an eye for an eye. It’s payback.”


The fight over the Upper East Side marine transfer station has pitted environmental justice organizations from minority and low-income neighborhoods in the boroughs against residents of one of the city’s wealthiest -and whitest- Manhattan communities.

The race and class dimensions to the dispute have been further complicated by the fact that two public housing developments – Stanley Isaacs and Holmes Towers – are in close proximity to the Upper East Side marine transfer station. Some residents of these developments have also joined the fight against the facility, as has the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, a local settlement house.

NYCHA residents have asked that the City consider moving the location of the entrance ramp to the facility – a “reasonable request,” said Council Member Reynoso.

How fair is it to compare the future impact of the 91st Street Marine Transfer Station on the local community to what has been experienced by residents of North Brooklyn, for example?

First, there is the question of scale.

According to the City, the 91st Street facility will handle an average of 1,200 to 1,500 tons of residential and commercial trash per day. Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on the other hand, has a capacity of more than 20,000 tons per day.

There’s also a qualitative difference between land-based transfer stations in the outer boroughs and what is being built at 91st Street, says Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“What the City is constructing here [on the Upper East Side] is a modern, state of the art, fully enclosed facility,” Goldtsein explained. “They have promised to employ every possible technique to mitigate impacts.”

“It’s likely to be the best-operated transfer station in the city. There’s been a lot of focus on 91st Street, but not on the [other] facilities concentrated in a handful of communities,” he added.

Hunt maintained that after the station is operational, no other high-density residential neighborhood in New York City would be as close to a waste transfer station as the Upper East Side.

Bautista challenged Hunt to “tell the 125,000 residents of North Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 (that handles 40% of the city’s waste) and the 50,000 residents of the South Bronx (handling 25% of the city’s waste) that their communities are not highly/densely populated.”

“And while some of those [North Brooklyn] transfer stations aren’t in residential neighborhoods, the trucks that use those stations travel through dense residential neighborhood every day,” Mager added.

Bautista and opponents to the 91st Street station do agree on one thing: the core impact of waste transfer stations comes from truck pollution. While the city’s DSNY trucks operate on low sulfur diesel, commercial fleets are not yet held to the same pollution control standards. Mager said the City was committed to working with commercial carters on this issue.

Speaking about neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Bautista said, “One doesn’t have to live immediately next to a transfer station to feel its impacts – ‎in fact, the worst impacts are living next to the truck routes where thousands of these diesel trucks rumble daily.”

Moving Forward

The argument that the 91st Street transfer station doesn’t substantially shift the waste transfer burden away from other communities in New York City, begs an obvious question: why not increase Manhattan’s waste transfer capacity further then, especially for commercial carters?

Opponents to the transfer station appear unwilling, however, to endorse more transfer capacity in Manhattan in order to create “economies of scale,” as Eddie Bautista has proposed.

They are interested in “alternatives” to new waste transfer infrastructure, such as requiring commercial carters to use cleaner, less-polluting fuels, as the Department of Sanitation now does. And they also argue – as the environmental justice community has – that commercial carter pick-up routes should be coordinated more “rationally” so that truck miles can be reduced.

While shortening commercial pick-up routes would help reduce pollution levels throughout the city, it is unclear that residents living close to existing transfer stations would be likely to benefit as the trucks must still enter their communities.

At a fundamental level, opponents to the 91st Street transfer station simply reject much of the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, which was hailed by environmental justice advocates when it was adopted, and has taken years to move forward.

“The SWMP was an admirable plan with well-intentioned goals,” Kelly Nimmo-Guenther, president of Pledge 2 Protect, stated. But, she said, key aspects of the plan are now “outdated and dangerous”.

At a minimum, Pledge 2 Protect is asking the City to reconsider building marine transfer stations at East 91st Street in Manhattan and in Southwest Brooklyn. The stations do not belong in residential neighborhoods, Nimmo-Guenther said.

But, what is really needed, is a new approach to waste management citywide, the group says.

Dara Hunt pointed to a recent Citizens Budget Commission study which suggests that residential garbage should become a metered utility, as water has. This, she said, would force New York City residents to change their waste disposal behavior.

“Ultimately, our City must rely on a sustainable plan that disposes of our trash smartly and greenly,” Council Member Kallos added.

“That means reducing, reusing, recycling and innovating to ensure that all New Yorkers are safe and protected. Instead of recycling at 15%, we can recycle at 75% to match other major cities such as Los Angeles.”

The City is standing hard by its position that action must be taken now to begin to relieve “historically overburdened neighborhoods.” The 91st Street transfer station is a “critical component” of its waste plan, said Mager. “As a whole, it will take hundreds of trucks off the roads.”

In the meantime, one-hundred or more DSNY trucks make the journey from Manhattan to Newark every day, rain or shine. No matter how Manhattan’s waste is taken away, it is impossible to escape it. As Eric Goldstein of the NRDC noted, some of the waste returns to Manhattan in the form of air pollution. It is emitted by Newark’s incinerator and floats back across the Hudson.

What Are We Doing Here?

Hello there. My name is Jeff Tancil. My web shop proudly produces the New York Environment Report.

Simple as it sounds, I decided to make this site because I have way too many questions about our environment.

For instance, the plastic bags. You’ve probably seen them many times—the sad plastic bag, snarled in the branches of an unsuspecting tree. I used to ignore them. As a long-time Brooklynite, I’d gotten used to seeing them tumbleweed along the sidewalk, waft into the air on a gust of grimy bus-wind, and take up residence in one of NYC’s 5.2 million trees.

But lately, the plastic bag stuck in the tree drives me nuts. All litter does, really. I get so mad that I momentarily lose all of my carefully-concocted New York cool and I pick up the trash with my bare hands. Yes, it’s a weird (and foolish) thing to do.  I promise to regain my senses soon.

While I am picking up the litter, though, I wonder about a few things—and not just the diseases I risk contracting. Where do these bags and other litter come from? Where do they end up? How does their journey impact all of us? And what the heck ever happened to that plastic bag tax?

Perhaps you’re wondering about plastic bags as well.  Or, maybe you’d like to know about our water—is it safe to drink? Is it ok to take a dip at the local beach? What about the air where you live? Or the future of Indian Point? Or what’s going on with fracking across the state?

One New York, One Environment

That’s where New York Environment Report comes in. We’re here to fill the void in regular coverage of New York’s environment. And by New York, we mean New York City and State—it’s hard to cover one without the other.

New York does not lack for media coverage. And there’s been a welcome uptick in reporting on all environmental issues—not just climate change. But, New York’s environment is a vast, rich and complicated rubric. Many important stories are under-reported or simply not reported at all. Take a look back at our report on the use of fracking water on roads and see if you don’t agree.

From the Rockaways to the Finger Lakes, we live in a richly interconnected state. Our water comes from the Catskills, our energy flows through pipelines and transmission lines that crisscross the state, at least some of our food comes from the Hudson Valley, and at least some of the garbage that doesn’t end up in trees gets trucked and shipped upstate.

Questions and Story Pitches Welcome

So far, we’re what you might expect: a small but deeply passionate team of writers and web people. We’d love your help: New York is a big place and five people (only 2.5 of whom write for the site) can only cover so much.

If you’re a writer, please pitch us stories about the environment. It can be anything from a report on the day’s weather to a data piece about food policy.

And, if you live anywhere from Battery Park to Buffalo, please send us your questions and comments about the environment—it can be as local as the water quality of your nearest beach to statewide questions about the status of fracking.

Please drop me a line if you have any questions or suggestions. My email is jeff(at)nyenvironmentreport.com. Yes, the (at) is intentional. I hope to hear from you.

In the meantime, you’ll be happy to know that I now own a sturdy pair of gloves for when I get that uncontrollable urge to pick up litter.