May 12 2015
Making Sense of News that New York is the “Most Wasteful” Megacity on the Planet
Crowding in New York City.
Photo credit: Andrew F. Kazmierski  via fastcoexist.com
May 12, 2015
Making Sense of News that New York is the “Most Wasteful” Megacity on the Planet

Category

Environment

Residents in the New York metro-area use more water and energy, and generate more waste per capita, than any other large city on the planet. These and other findings were discussed in a study just released by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Over twenty-two million people live in the New York City metro-area, which spans four states and scores of cities and municipalities.

Other “post-industrial” megacities, like Paris and London, are far less wasteful than New York, according to all three metrics.

The study, led by Christopher Kennedy, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Civil Engineering, looked at energy and material flows through the world’s 27 “megacities” with populations greater than 10 million people as of 2010.

Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, the authors note. They state that:

“At the pinnacle of the growth of cities is the formation of megacities, i.e., metropolitan regions with populations in excess of 10 million people. In 1970, there were only eight megacities on the planet. By 2010, the number had grown to 27, and a further 10 megacities likely will exist by 2020. In 2010, 460 million people (6.7% of the global population) lived in the 27 megacities.”

Interestingly, megacities are not always more environmentally efficient on a per capita basis than non-urban areas, say the authors. Megacities produce almost 12.6 percent of the world’s waste, despite having 6.7 percent of the world’s population.

In addition to the five boroughs, the New York metro-area is usually understood as including Long Island and the Mid- and Lower Hudson Valley in New York; the five largest cities in New Jersey (Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth, and Edison) and vicinities; six of the seven largest cities in Connecticut (Bridgeport, New Haven, Stamford, Waterbury, Norwalk, and Danbury) and vicinities; and five counties in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Digging into the Details- Energy

In terms of energy use per capita, the New York metro-area led the way globally, followed by Tokyo, Moscow, Seoul and Los Angeles, the PNAS study found.

Per capita electricity use is approximately equal in New York and Tokyo, the world’s largest megacity with 34 million people. But, the study reports, New York surpasses Tokyo’s energy use because of our higher consumption of both transportation fuels and heating/industrial fuels.

Another possible issue is the New York metro-area’s low density relative to other global megacities. The authors say that they “suspect that lower-density megacities such as Los Angeles and New York have greater building floor space per capita, leading to higher electricity consumption for lighting and other building applications.”

Total per capita energy use in New York appears to be roughly double that of London’s, and Paris’ usage is even lower. “New York consumes the energy equivalent of one supertanker approximately every 1.5 days,” say the authors.

Water

New York was the lead per-capita user of water, followed by Guangzhou, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Tokyo, says the PNAS study.

Over half -about 54 percent- of the water used in the New York metro-area goes toward creating electricity in thermoelectric plants, the authors report.

Another possible contributing factor is water loss due to leaking infrastructure. The Delaware Aqueduct, one of New York City’s two major drinking water tunnels, has been leaking at a rate of up to 35 million gallons a day. The aqueduct, which also serves suburban communities north of the city, is currently being repaired at a cost of over a billion dollars.

Waste

What is particularly striking is the New York metro-area’s per capita production of waste, which is more than double any other megacity on the planet, according to the PNAS study. New York also produces more waste than any other megacity in absolute terms.

“One of the challenges with solid waste data that we have observed in the past,” the authors state “is that the construction sector often produces large quantities of waste (not always counted in inventories), and commercial waste production can be difficult to estimate when handled by the private sector.”

Both construction waste and the private handling of commercial waste are major challenges for New York City as its seeks to reduce and more sustainably manage its waste output. Over half of the city’s total solid waste stream comes from restaurants, stores and other businesses, and is managed by private carting companies.

Can We Do Better? Take a look at London

“[Public] policies can matter,” the PNAS study notes. “It is interesting to contrast New York’s waste production (1.49 tons per capita) with that of London (0.32 tons per capita), where the share of municipal solid waste landfilled in the United Kingdom has fallen from 80 percent in 2001 to 49 percent in 2010, encouraged by a landfill tax.”

London has also “notably managed to reduce its per capita electricity consumption during the period 2001–2011 while growing its GDP,” say the authors.

Several factors may be responsible, they point out: a 66 percent rise in electricity prices, improved energy efficiency in buildings and appliances, energy labeling and increases in public awareness of the environmental impacts of energy consumption, and a decline in manufacturing.

London is an exception, however, the PNAS study cautions. “As the economies of megacities continue to grow, the expectation under current trends is that their energy use will continue to increase rapidly.”

What’s New York City (and State) Doing?

New York City -the most populous city in the metro-area by far- frequently trumpets its sustainability achievements, such as heavy mass transit usage. Since 2007, the city has been guided by a multi-pronged “sustainability blueprint,” formerly known as PlaNYC, which the de Blasio administration has re-structured to include a focus on a social equity.

We’ve asked the City’s Director of Sustainability, Nilda Mesa, to comment on the PNAS study’s findings. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that some of the goals in the de Blasio administration’s OneNYC plan partially -but not fully- address New York City’s share of the metro-area’s tremendous use of water and energy, and generation of waste.

It’s also worth reiterating that well over half of the New York metro-area falls outside of the five boroughs. True environmental sustainability will require inter (with New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania) and intra (with Albany) planning.

New York State, for instance, is actively planning to overhaul how energy is produced and consumed here as part of its effort to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. The State has been criticized, however, for never completing an overarching and comprehensive “Climate Action Plan,” which sustainability advocates say would make its efforts more effective.

Take a look at some of the de Blasio administration’s “Plan OneNYC” goals that are supposed to improve our energy and water usage, and waste output….

#1: New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions will be 80 percent lower by 2050 than in 2005.

This ties directly back to the city’s heavy energy usage. Nearly three quarters of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy used to heat, cool, and power buildings. The de Blasio administration says that energy efficiency building retrofits must be “a central component of any plan to dramatically reduce emissions,” and has put forward a roadmap to accelerate those retrofits.

The administration has also announced that it is funding 24 solar installations in public schools, tripling the amount of solar currently planned for City-owned buildings. The City’s goal is to install 100 MW of new solar on City-owned buildings, and “catalyze” an additional 250 MW of solar power on private buildings.

#2: New York City will send zero waste to landfills by 2030.

How is this possible? For one thing, almost one-third of the city’s residential waste is organic and compostable. The de Blasio administration is seeking to expand curbside organics recycling throughout the five boroughs.

It is also expanding recycling options for a wide variety of household items that have traditionally gone to landfills.

#5: New York City will mitigate neighborhood flooding and offer high-quality water services.

The billion-dollar, multi-year repair work on the Delaware Aqueduct is the “central component” of the city’s Water for the Future program, which “aims to ensure clean, safe and reliable drinking water for future generations of New Yorkers.”

Between now and the shutdown of the Delaware Aqueduct in 2021, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection will implement several initiatives to reduce water consumption in New York by as much as 50 million gallons a day.

Crowding in New York City.
Photo credit: Andrew F. Kazmierski  via fastcoexist.com
  • DLH

    Thanks for thoughtful follow-up to an important & troubling report. I can only speak to NYC’s production and handling of waste. We are way behind many U.S. cities in efforts to truly REDUCE waste – and to handle what is diverted & discarded sustainably. We need – incentives to help residents & businesses reduce the waste sent into the waste stream; strong, uniform management & regulation of ALL waste (residential, institutional & business); and we need to thoroughly re-think and expand waste reduction, diversion & transformation programs. The new OneNYC plan should provide an opportunity to start on this path – I hope the political will is there – so far do see little evidence of it. NYers need to recognize the impact of everything we discard on the health of our communities and the environment. Thanks again for more good reporting.