Last week, Council Members Steve Levin and Antonio Reynoso, both from North Brooklyn, introduced legislation that could have a major impact on how New York City handles its trash in the future. If passed, Intro 495 would place a limit on the amount of waste processed by any single community district, and would ultimately reduce the volume of waste currently handled by the city’s most overburdened neighborhoods.
The legislation speaks to the fact that two areas of the city—North Brooklyn (Williamsburg and Greenpoint) and the South Bronx—house over half of the city’s waste transfer stations. And that proportion climbs even higher if you include recycling facilities and other types of waste infrastructure.
The ongoing public health impact of concentrating so much waste-related activity in a few areas has yet to be adequately addressed, residents and local officials say.
Every day, thousands of trucks barrel through a handful of communities, unloading trash from all corners of the city. The trucks are operated both by the City and private carting companies. They collect waste from households, public facilities like schools, private businesses, and building rehab and demolition sites.
The movement of waste never ceases. Truck traffic is one of the most dominant, and arguably destructive, rhythms of life in New York.
Council Member Levin described the current situation in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx as, “generations in the making…it’s fundamentally unfair. It goes against what we think of ourselves as a city.”
A Decentralized System with Concentrated Effects
New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day. Our waste is hauled out of the city by the truckload to incineration plants and landfills in several states.
Truck traffic is one of the most dominant, and arguably destructive, rhythms of life in New York.
While some of the city’s waste goes from our homes and businesses to its final destination in one truck trip, most of it is loaded onto larger trucks at waste transfer stations first, before being taken out of the city.
The costs of such a system are extensive: millions of dollars in landfill and trucking fees paid by the City and its taxpayers; carbon emissions generated by hundreds of thousands of truck trips; and long-term environmental contamination created by landfills, to name a few.
This story takes a look at the two communities most on the frontline of the city’s waste management system: North Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Since the 1990s, residents from these two neighborhoods have been fighting for a more equitable and sustainable citywide solid waste policy.
Their efforts were essential to the creation of the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan in 2006, which has the long-term objective of making each borough responsible for processing its own waste. The Plan also shifts waste transport away from long-haul trucking, toward a barge and rail-based system.
The most publicized debate about the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan centers around the construction of a marine transfer station on the Upper East Side, at East 91st Street. In an earlier article, we explored some of the key objections that Upper East Side residents have raised about the station, and the City’s plan overall.
The community representatives we spoke with in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx are highly supportive of the City’s plan, and see it as part of a much larger process to fundamentally shift how New York City handles its trash.
North Brooklyn: the epicenter of waste handling
In early September, Eric Bruzaitis, a North Brooklyn resident for almost two decades, took me on a three-hour walking tour of waste transfer stations throughout his neighborhood.
Bruzaitis is a member of his local community board. He is also a member of OUTRAGE (Organization United for Trash Reduction & Garbage Equity), which is beginning its third study of the impact of truck traffic on North Brooklyn. Its last study in 2009 found that trucks passed key intersections in North Brooklyn at a rate of two, and in some cases three, per minute.
The group estimated that 5,000 trucks move through the neighborhood every day.
We met in front of P.S. 132, which sits on Metropolitan Avenue, one of Greenpoint’s major truck routes. School had just let out and trucks thundered by as children played in the schoolyard. I could barely hear Eric over the sound of the trucks as he explained that what we were experiencing was a largely unseen part of the city’s waste stream.
“Metropolitan Avenue is a highway of trash-related trucks,” observed Laura Hofmann, a life-long resident of North Brooklyn. “We’re literally [being] pummelled.”
The scale of the waste that North Brooklyn handles on a daily basis is hard to over-emphasize.
In 2011, North Brooklyn handled an estimated one million tons of non-putrescible waste.
In 2011, this single area of Brooklyn received more than a third of New York City’s putrescible and non-putrescible waste—almost 7,000 tons every day, according to a Department of Sanitation breakdown. Putrescible waste contains organic material, such as food, which is capable of decomposing. This is what comes out of our homes and businesses on a daily basis.
North Brooklyn plays a particularly important role in handling non-putrescible waste, such as construction and demolition debris. More than half of the city’s non-putrescible waste was processed in North Brooklyn in 2011, which is noteworthy considering the number of construction projects taking place all over New York.
In 2011, North Brooklyn handled an estimated one million tons of non-putrescible waste, using Department of Sanitation data.
The area is home to 15 private waste transfer stations, which accept waste from private haulers and the City’s Department of Sanitation. All of the waste transfer stations in New York City are currently privately operated, confirmed Gavin Kearney, the Environmental Justice program director at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
Those transfer stations also bring related businesses with them: scrap yards, towing companies, gas stations, and truck repair and washing facilities. These ancillary businesses are “part of the waste industry that people don’t think about,” Bruzaitis said, and each one leaves an environmental footprint.
Struggling to Breathe
The most obvious public health impact of the relentless truck traffic is diminished air quality, an issue that Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents have been raising for two decades. In 2009, community volunteers used hand-held monitors to monitor air quality at three intersections with heavy truck traffic.
The analysis, coordinated by OUTRAGE, found that particulate counts at the three intersections jumped 355 percent during days in which truck traffic is present (Monday through Saturday). More troubling, the group found that levels of finer-airborne particles (.5 micron in measurement) rose over one-thousand percent during the workweek.
While the City has upgraded its DSNY trucks to minimize emissions, private companies are not yet held to the same standards.
The results align with an analysis of public health data conducted by the City in 2011. The City reported that the “rate of respiratory hospitalization among adults attributable to PM2.5 [fine particulate matter]…varies more than seven-fold, with the highest burdens found in sections of the South Bronx, Northern Manhattan and Northern Brooklyn.”
The poor air quality in North Brooklyn is attributable, at least in part, to the kind of waste processed here. A significant proportion of the waste is commercial debris, carried in by private haulers. While the City has upgraded its DSNY trucks to minimize emissions, private companies are not yet held to the same standards.
Bruzaitis said that residents have been talking to the City about establishing additional air quality monitors in North Brooklyn. The City has at least one monitor in every community district. Neighborhood-level information on particulate matter and other pollutants – through 2010 – can be found on the Health Department’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Portal.
Living Alongside the City’s Biggest Waste Cluster
To get to North Brooklyn’s transfer stations, trucks bringing waste from other parts of the city exit the BQE and then travel south and east through Greenpoint and Williamsburg.
Eric and I headed east on Maspeth Avenue, passing Cooper Park and the Cooper Park Houses, a public housing development with 1,700 residents. One block beyond the eastern edge of the park is Vandervoort Avenue, where the area’s densest cluster of waste transfer stations—ten along a 1.3 mile stretch—begins.
Industrial and residential uses, like day care centers and schools, are mixed together throughout the area. The Greenpoint Little League field sits on Vandervoort. One waste transfer station we passed, in East Williamsburg, sat across the street from a residential building. In other cases, housing could be found a couple of blocks away, or as much as a quarter-mile, from the transfer stations.
[One of the overall dynamics in North Brooklyn is the fact that residential and industrial uses are steadily moving closer together. Ten years ago, large sections of the industrial waterfront were rezoned for housing. Housing developers are also obtaining zoning variances in designated industrial areas.]
The day I visited, the truck traffic seemed relentless. Dust and grit blew through the air as trucks drove by; I could practically feel it between my teeth. And despite requirements that the trucks be covered, loose trash could still be seen blowing in the streets.
The sound was deafening at times. Because the volume of traffic on Vandervoort is so high, Bruzaitis said that the City had recently made Morgan Avenue, one block west, an official truck route as well. The addition of yet another truck route received mixed reactions from residents, Bruzaitis noted.
“Rats running around on the edges of trucks…a lot of them are dirty, leaky…oderous. Dirty diapers, tampons, [trash] aerolyzing. This is what people are being exposed to,” said Hofmann.
Regulating the City’s Waste Hubs
One of the most surprising things about my visits to both North Brooklyn and the South Bronx is that some of the waste transfer stations are not fully-enclosed. They have walls but no roof. The stations are required to use misters to wet the trash and control the amount of particulate matter released into the air. In some cases, I saw workers with paper masks hosing down enormous piles of debris in the open air.
[The City regulates waste transfer stations. Several times during my visits to North Brooklyn and the South Bronx I observed that the entrances were open. According to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the street-level entrances to transfer stations are supposed to be closed, except when trucks are entering and exiting.]
“At least get them [the stations] covered,” Bruzaitis said. “But even when they’re covered, there’s a whole other host of issues…A facility can only handle so many trucks at a time. They’ll start to queue.”
“It’s easy to blame an entire industry [but] they’re just serving a need…It’s got to go somewhere.”
Bruzaitis talked about the daily challenges of living in a waste hub—like idling trucks and truck traffic on residential streets—that his community is trying to address.
There are established truck routes, Bruzaitis said. “But if the traffic’s bad, and you’re a truck driver that’s on a schedule, guess where you’re going to go.” He explained that OUTRAGE, Community Board 1, and other City agencies are working with the Police Department to bolster existing enforcement efforts. “They [the police] didn’t even know that they could write [tickets] for…an uncovered vehicle, or a truck off-route, or leaking putrescibles,” he said.
“It’s easy to blame an entire industry,” Bruzaitis continued. “[But] they’re [the waste industry] just serving a need…It’s got to go somewhere.”
Nonetheless, Bruzaitis added later, the transfer stations, and the trucks that deliver to them, need to be better regulated, with greater enforcement. A key problem, he said, is that there is not enough enforcement personnel on the ground, either from the City or the State.
“Our problems in North Brooklyn (and other parts of the city) have their solution in a multi-agency enforcement approach,” said Bruzaitis. “My hope is that we may be able to get rules that would allow agencies to write [tickets] across their jurisdiction.”
The City maintains that it has “sufficient” staff to carry out enforcement. “Inspections [of the transfer stations] are frequent and thorough; we inspect 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” stated Belinda Mager, a spokeswoman for the Department of Sanitation.
“If observed by an Officer,” Mager said, “trucks observed leaking material receive spillage summonses.” The DSNY also writes tickets to trucks seen idling for more than three minutes.
Bruzaitis said that OUTRAGE has been “working with the enforcement division of DSNY…to schedule an in-depth meeting on the problems specific to North Brooklyn.”
Sharing the Burden
One of the guiding principles of the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan is that “for both commercial waste and DSNY-managed waste—responsibility for the City’s waste management system should be allocated equitably throughout the City, in each of the five boroughs.”
Manhattan is the only borough that currently does not handle any of its own waste.The City, along with environmental justice communities and many environmental groups, argues that sharing the burden of waste infrastructure is part of civic life.
Laura Hofmann said she understood why neighborhoods fight the introduction -or re-opening- of waste infrastructure. “Is it an ideal situation? No, it’s not,” she said. “Every borough has to do their fair share. If we [North Brooklyn] can learn to live with all of this industry and unwanted land uses, so can other communities.”
As part of the SWMP, five marine transfer stations (two in Manhattan, one in Queens, and two in Brooklyn) will be constructed or retrofitted in order to receive some of the trash now going to the city’s densest waste hubs.
The City says that the 91st Street marine transfer station, for example, will be a fully enclosed, state of the art facility. The City is also looking at ways to address truck queuing outside the stations. The significance of these steps is far more apparent after seeing what private transfer stations actually look like.
The core objective of the Plan is to begin to diminish the volume of waste entering communities like North Brooklyn.
An analysis prepared by the New York League of Conservation Voters found that “full implementation of the SWMP is expected to reduce City-collection truck travel by nearly 3 million miles and private long-haul truck travel on city streets by 2.8 million miles.” Every marine barge used will take 48 container trucks off the road, says the City.
Bruzaitis said that the impact of the SWMP will be gradual, but meaningful. He pointed to a line of trucks waiting to exit the BQE at Meeker Avenue.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said. “North Brooklyn is still going to be processing the majority of the city’s waste for the foreseeable future.” He said that the SWMP was designed to “start encouraging companies to go to other locations, making it feasible…[and, by using barges and trains] changing the way that we transport trash within the city.”
The long-term solution for the entire city, Bruzaitis added, “is people have to recycle…compost…and be smart about what they purchase…The infrastructure around trash has to be better. We have to make it easier for people to recycle.”
But achieving that vision cannot happen without addressing inequities in how trash is currently processed, Bruzaitis argued. That means better enforcement and public policy, he said. “A big part of that is full implementation of the SWMP…and getting all five marine transfer stations up and running.”
Addressing historic environmental issues in the midst of gentrification
Bruzaitis said that North Brooklyn’s environmental justice issues had to be understood in a broader historical context. Despite the current narrative of rejuvenation and gentrification, Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents are struggling with the results of decades of industrial contamination, in the ground beneath them and in Newtown Creek.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Bruzaitis concluded. “It’s important to me so I fight for it.”
“We had the rezoning in 2004/05 of North Brooklyn…It’s a story of growth and re-birth…that’s been the story,” said Bruzaitis.
“And it is great on some level. [But] you have the problems of people getting priced out, and it’s the same people that have been dealing with environmental problems [inaudible] in this neighborhood for years and years…environmental problems that are now almost impossible to remediate.”
Bruzaitis believes that waste management in North Brooklyn, however, is an environmental issue that can be tackled.
“Like any problem that is overwhelming, it is made up of individual parts…if we can just get [each public agency] to take their piece of the puzzle…ultimately we will come to a better solution.”
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Bruzaitis concluded. “It’s important to me so I fight for it.”
Emily Manley assisted with the editing of this story.
In part II of this article, we visit the South Bronx, which bears the brunt of at least 15 waste transfer stations; along with a wastewater treatment facility, power plants, a recycling facility, wholesale markets that serve the entire city, and a dense highway network.
In addition to advocating for citywide waste management policy improvements, South Bronx residents are tracking air quality and carrying out a variety of pollution mitigation projects.
Photo credit: Mitch Waxman