Don’t Miss: NYC Food Waste Fair

Last year, New York City began requiring businesses of a certain size to recycle their food scraps, either by hauling it themselves or hiring a private carter. The law is part of the city’s effort to deal with the 650,000 tons of food waste produced by businesses annually, and eventually send zero waste to landfills by 2030.

A change on this scale is not easy to implement, and in order to assist businesses on their food waste journey, the Foundation for New York’s Strongest will host the NYC Food Waste Fair, an expo-style event with workshops, digital content and live demonstrations, on June 27, 2017.

The organizers hope to equip New York City business owners and managers with the knowledge, tools and connections they need to build a food waste prevention plan from scratch, or take existing programs to the next level.

What: NYC Food Waste Fair

When: Tuesday, July 25, 2017 // 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM

Where: Brooklyn Expo Center

Price: $50

More info: NYC Food Waste Fair website

The exhibit hall will showcase dozens of vendors offering food waste prevention, recovery and recycling services. And workshops will provide information from city government officials on how to comply with laws and regulations, as well as tips from experts on how to achieve tangible, cost-effective results.

5 Reasons I Love Composting in NYC Right Now

I know this sounds crazy, but moving to an apartment with curbside organics pickup has changed my life.

In my last apartment, I saved up my food waste throughout the week, storing it in the freezer to reduce smells, and then hauled it to the local greenmarket on Saturdays.

Sounds easy enough, but over time it drove me crazy. My refrigerator was old and small, and one or two bags of compost took up almost all of my freezer space. If I missed a weekend drop-off, things were suddenly out of control and, critically, I had no room in my freezer for actual food ice cream.

It was also just gross — I tried my best to keep things tidy and sealed, but there were leaks and drips, and at least once I had a fruit-fly massacre in my freezer. Yes, it was as bad as it sounds.

But now that I have curbside pick-up, I have reclaimed my freezer (yay, ice cream) and I find myself composting even more because there are no space limitations: into the bin goes paper, bread, dairy, even meat and bones.

The Department of Sanitation hopes to make curbside composting or neighborhood drop-off sites for food scrap/yard waste available to all of the city by the end of 2018. Photo credit: Scott Lynch/Gothamist.

My love for the brown bin goes beyond the size of my ice cream stash, though. Read on for five big reasons why I can’t stop composting.

5 Reasons I Love Composting in NYC Right Now

  1. It’s really easy—and getting even easier. Organics collection in NYC just keeps on growing—more than a million residents now have access to the program, and city officials estimate that all residents will have access by 2018. Game changer! Literally all you have to do is collect your food waste and dump it in the bin. Move it to the curb on trash day, and whoosh, your compost disappears, along with your garbage and your recycling. Thank you, DSNY!
  2. I never take out my trash. Well, almost. The DSNY estimates the single largest portion of our trash is organic material—meaning it could be composted. If you’re an avid reduce-reuse-recycler (that’s me waving my hand frantically), then after sorting properly, there’s almost nothing left to throw away. My trash can takes forever to get full, and I estimate that I’ve saved roughly $5 million on trash bags already.
  3. No stinky smells. This is huge, especially in the summer. Because my kitchen trash can isn’t full of decomposing food, my household garbage basically never smells. It’s awesome. I won’t lie, though, the brown bin outside can get pretty stinky. Luckily, biodegradable compost bags or bin liners are sanctioned by DSNY and help cut down on the ick-factor quite a bit.
  4.  Pest-free living. Some folks are hesitant to try composting because they fear the bins will attract pests. I’m here to tell you that’s a myth! In fact, the opposite is true: putting food waste on the curb in plastic trash bags is essentially inviting rats, roaches and other critters to have a midnight feast at your expense. Locking all those tasty food scraps inside the city-provide brown bins, however? That actually does keep pests at bay…unless your neighborhood rats have super-human strength and opposable thumbs, in which case we’ve got bigger problems.
  5. A zero-waste future. NYC’s organics collection program is about more than just composting—it’s part of a larger, city-wide effort to go completely waste-free by 2030. Is it possible? Who knows, but composting our food waste is an easy way to get a little closer towards that goal. Plus, in the not-to-distant future, you could help power the city with your used coffee grounds and old pasta salad…how cool is that?

Do you participate in curbside compost pickup? Share your composting tips in the comments!

My Favorite Countertop Compost Bin

One of the best parts about composting is that it requires no special equipment to get started. Anything can be a bin — an old yogurt container, a large tupperware, even a plastic bag in the freezer. As long as you have a place to take your compost regularly, you can get started right now.

That being said, sometimes having the right equipment can make things easier. I’m not a huge proponent of buying more stuff (or kitchen clutter or single-use gadgets or plastic, to be honest) but I recently upgraded my countertop compost bin and I’m not mad about it.

A Better Bin

For many years, I used a classic ceramic jar to collect my scraps (you know the one). When the jar got full, I’d empty the slop into a plastic bag and store it in the freezer. It was fine, but there were occasionally issues — especially when dealing with particularly ripe or *juicy* food waste. Plus I always forgot to replace the charcoal filter.

Now that I have curbside organics pickup, I’ve changed my system a bit. Our building has asked that all residents use biodegradable bags in order to keep things tidy—a compromise I’m happy to make if it keeps people composting—and I decided to get a bin specifically made for these bags.

Not me or my kitchen counter…but I do use this compost bin!

Enter the Full Circle compost collector. This bin is specifically designed to work with biodegradable bags and even though it has a few little flaws, I really, really love this thing.

Here’s how it works: the bag (I prefer these 3 gallon Biobags) clips in around the top with a stainless steel bar and essentially just hangs down inside the grey shell — this enables air to circulate around the compost. The air flow is key: not only does it evaporate any excess moisture, it also keeps the bag from breaking down too fast and magically eliminates almost all odors. It sounds weird but I find that it actually works. Also? Zero fruit fly infestations.

Once a week, I take the whole thing apart and pop it in the dishwasher.

My only complaint is that the lid, latch, and the bar that holds the bag in place all feel a little flimsy–like, if I get a tad overzealous in my composting, something might snap off. That being said, I’ve been using this container for eight months now and it’s still working just fine, so…maybe I’m just paranoid!

If I have any complaints I’ll be sure to update this post, but for now, I’m smitten with my new bin and find it a completely reasonable investment.

Now, let’s hear from you: how do you store your compost?

 

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What to Do With Your Christmas Tree

Now that the big day is over, your poor Christmas tree is likely languishing away in the corner, getting dryer and more flammable by the minute. Are you even bothering to turn the lights on anymore?

I know there are those of you out there who hang on to your Christmas tree until New Year’s Day (or beyond), but for those of you who are ready to reclaim your living room, here are a variety of options for returning your hardworking evergreen to the earth.

  1. Curbside pickup: The easiest, cheapest, and most popular way to send your tree packing. DSNY will collect trees for recycling from January 3 to January 14. All lights, ornaments, stands, plastic bags, and other items must be removed; trees will be chipped, mixed with leaves, and recycled into rich compost for NYC’s parks, institutions, and community gardens.Trees left on the curb on any other dates will be collected as garbage.
  2. Mulchfest: A more glorious goodbye for your tree—watch it being chipped in person (best it smells fantastic!), and take home your very own free bag of mulch. On January 7 and 8, from 10am to 2pm, simply bring your naked tree to one of many designated sites in all five boroughs—or leave it at a drop-off location. The city will use these wood chips to nourish trees and plants on streets and gardens citywide.Last year, more than 30,000 trees were recycled at Mulchfest!
  3. Pickup Service: Have no time? Hire a tree disposal expert to take care of this chore for you. NYC Trees will send a “dedicated removal team” to pick up your tree and bring it directly to a local NYC Parks mulching center to be processed. This service ranges from $50 to $200 depending on tree size.

One important note: please do not chop up your tree and burn it! Dried-out evergreens burn like tinder, creating fast burning sparks that can set your room or roof on fire. The pitch in the wood can also create toxic smoke and and fast-moving flames.

NYC Big Businesses Now Required to Compost Food Waste

New York City’s slow march towards zero waste has reached yet another milestone: as of July 19, certain large businesses are required by law to separate and recycle organic waste. The law applies to about 350 establishments, including stadiums, hotels, food manufacturers, and wholesalers.

Businesses that must comply are those who meet the following criteria:

  • All food service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms
  • All food service vendors in arenas and stadiums with seating capacity of at least 15,000 people
  • Food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet
  • Food wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet

These businesses are given the option to arrange for collection by a private carter, transport organic waste themselves, or process the material on site.

If handling the waste themselves, businesses can use a machine called an ORCA, which can “digest” more than a ton of food waste per day. Using continuous motion, a proprietary “natural Microorganism solution” and “recycled plastic Bio Chips,” the ORCA turns food waste into “environmentally safe water” that can be disposed of into the municipal sewage system.

See an ORCA in action here.

Part of a Larger Picture

New York City’s organics collection plays a key role in Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious OneNYC plan, which sets forth a goal of “Zero Waste” by 2030.

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DSNY organic collection bins. Photo credit: BioHitech

Organic waste (food scraps, yard waste, and soiled paper not suitable for recycling) comprises nearly one-third of all waste NYC residents discard at the curb—approximately 1.1 million tons per year. In landfills, this organic material decomposes, releasing methane gas, a greenhouse gas six times more potent than carbon dioxide.

If composted, however, this material can be converted into a nutrient-rich natural fertilizer that can replenish our city’s soil. It can also be processed through anaerobic digestion, releasing methane gas that can be captured and used as an alternative to natural gas.

Since the launch of a pilot program in 2013, curbside organics collection has expanded include approximately 50,000 households and 700,000 residents across the city. By the end of 2016, DSNY plans to serve more than a million New Yorkers.

The goal is to make curbside or drop-off programs available to all residents by the end of 2018.

In April 2016, DSNY reported collecting more than 55 tons of organic material across the five boroughs—a 50% increase over the amount collected in April 2015.

 

Birdie vs. Litter: NYC Takes On Trash In New Ads

New York is a trashy town. Each year, we generate over 3 million tons of residential waste. And another 3 million tons of commercial trash.

Last spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared war on all of this garbage. As part of his OneNYC plan, he gave the city a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030—that’s the “0 x 30” signs you might notice on garbage trucks.

The de Blasio administration aims to achieve this goal by increasing the amount of trash that gets recycled or composted. But, the city is also trying to tame New Yorkers’ consumption habits—cutting down the amount of plastic bags, bottles and takeout cups we use will ultimately mean less trash going to landfills.

NYC mascot Birdie's ads supporting plastic bags
One of the BYO ads put out by the city.

With that in mind, the city just announced a media blitz to reduce waste and combat litter. The ads will feature Birdie, the government mascot who just starred in the city’s “B.Y.O.” (Bring Your Own) campaign. Birdie will again remind New Yorkers to “bring their own”—in this case, reusable mugs, bottles and bags. You’ll soon see the ads on sanitation trucks and at bus stops.

Can Ads Change Our Habits?

Still, you might wonder if even the best ad campaign can curb New York’s penchant for creating waste. City officials answer this with a clear “yes.”

According to GreeNYC, New Yorkers had “overwhelmingly positive feelings” towards Birdie’s first B.Y.O campaign. It even increased their feelings of responsibility for reducing waste: 14% of New Yorkers reported that it got them into the habit of carrying reusable bags, mugs and bottles; 36% reported that they now intend to always carry reusable bags; 42% intend to always carry a reusable water bottle; and 27% intend to always carry a reusable mug.

Still, getting 9 million New Yorkers to change their habits will probably take more than ads. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is pitching in with a fleet of 500 new or repaired public water fountains and water bottle refilling stations across the five boroughs.

Trash cans will also be part of the solution. For now, many city trash cans are part of the problem—they’re teetering mountains of waste. So, as part of this new push, the Department of Sanitation is calling on New Yorkers to Adopt-a-Basket through a program that teams local residents, businesses and community groups with the city to monitor and change liners in trash baskets on busy streets.

Spare Our Waterways

Along with sparing landfills and streets, the city also hopes this new campaign will help keep our local waterways clean and healthy. After all, some of that errant trash makes its way into sewers and then winds its way into larger waterways. That leaves a lot of “plastic in our harbor and ocean…[which] is an assault on the environment,” says Judith A. Enck, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are essentially turning our waters into a landfill,” Enck said. “The best way to remove trash from our waters is to keep it out in the first place. We need to reduce waste at the source. NYC’s Bring Your Own is a terrific initiative that should be repeated in other communities.”

Trash Collection System for NYC’s Businesses Unsustainable, Say Advocates.

The waste collection system used by New York City’s businesses is “inefficient, ad-hoc and chaotic” and causes direct harm to a handful of low-income communities of color, says a report released yesterday.

What’s more, the way commercial trash is handled in New York will make it difficult for the city to meet its recently adopted commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, the report claims.

New York City produces roughly 21,000 tons of solid waste every day; over half of that trash comes from private businesses.

The report released yesterday, prepared by Transform Don’t Trash NYC, a coalition of environmental justice organizations and labor unions, found that:

  • New York City’s businesses generate about 5.5 million tons of waste annually—2 million tons more than previously estimated.
  • Hundreds of private hauling companies collect waste from businesses nightly using “overlapping” and “inefficient” truck routes. The trash is delivered to transfer stations and recycling facilities concentrated in just a handful of communities. This waste is then transferred to long-haul trucks and taken to landfills in several states.
  • The recycling rate for commercial trash is about 25 percent, “significantly worse” than the 40 percent commercial recycling rate claimed by the Bloomberg administration, and lower than the national average of 34.5 percent. The recycling rate for NYC’s major private haulers could be even lower—only 9 to 13 percent in 2014, according to reports filed by waste companies with the state.
  • Emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases from landfills storing NYC residential and commercial waste have been estimated at 2.2 million tons per year, and “are probably much higher given new estimates of the amount of waste generated by the city’s business sector.”

What’s Next?

Advocates say they will push the New York City Council to draft legislation to “bring the industry into the 21st century.”

The Council’s Sanitation Committee will hold a public oversight hearing on the commercial waste industry next week, April 29th. Representatives of the waste industry and the City will presumably also be on hand to discuss the state of commercial trash collection.

 

 

Keep It Out of the Landfills!! NYC’s Waste Disposal Options Are Expanding

Spring is here (ok, almost)! That means Spring Cleaning, which entails all of us trying to dispose of a wide assortment of items that should not go into our trash cans.

Luckily, New York City residents have expanding options for getting rid of everything from used medication to clothing to yard waste.

The City is actively trying to both 1.) minimize the amount of waste that it trucks to landfills and incinerators across the country, and 2.) find ways to dispose of toxic substances more safely.

Here are three major categories of waste that no longer need to be buried in a landfill in Ohio or Virginia, or sent to our neighbors in Newark, NJ for incineration.

1.) Organic material- one third of our residential waste stream

Spring Cleaning aside, it is becoming more feasible for New Yorkers to stop putting food waste into the trash.

The City is gradually expanding its curbside organics recycling program. Organics means food scraps, paper towels and yard waste. Residents already recycle glass, metal, plastic and paper.

There are questions right now about where the organic waste collected by the Department of Sanitation is actually going. Nonetheless, if the DSNY can successfully expand organics recycling to every neighborhood, this would cut the amount of solid waste New York City sends to landfills by almost one-third!

No curbside organics recycling in your neighborhood yet? Consider taking your compostable material to a drop-off site, like your local Greenmarket.

2.) Clothing and other textiles

You can drop off clean & dry clothing, paired shoes, bedding, linens, hats, handbags, belts, fabric scraps 36″ x 36″ or larger, and other textiles at your local Greenmarket.

Do you live in a building with ten apartments or more? DSNY will help you set up a clothing and textile recycling bin in your building!

3.) Hazardous Household Items & Electronics

DSNY hosts SAFE (Solvents, Automotive, Flammables, and Electronics) Disposal Events throughout the year in all five boroughs.

Items that Can be Dropped Off

  • Electronics
  • Personal care items like medicines or cosmetics
  • Thermometers
  • Syringes (clearly labeled and packaged in a “sharps” container or other leak proof, puncture-resistant container)
  • Household products such as pesticides, paint, hazardous cleaners, spent compact fluorescent lightbulbs
  • Automotive products such as motor oil, transmission fluid, and spent batteries

 

What Happens to Items Dropped Off at a SAFE Event?

The City says that materials collected are “either recycled, blended for fuel, or sent to licensed hazardous waste treatment facilities for safe disposal.”

Electronics are recycled or refurbished for reuse through e-cycleNYC, the City’s on-site electronics recycling service for apartment buildings with ten or more units.

Unwanted medications are “managed by environmental police and incinerated to prevent unintentional poisonings or entry into the water supply.”

Can’t make it to one of the SAFE events listed below? The City also has drop-off sites for batteries, paint, fluorescent light bulbs and other hazardous household items. Check here for details.

And there are even more options for electronics recycling. Remember- you can no longer put electronics- from mice to TVs to tablets- in the trash.

Check out DSNY’s website for more information on other recycling and re-use options.

2015 SAFE Events

(This list is updated as more events are scheduled.)

Events are held rain or shine, from 10 am to 4 pm. Be prepared for a line, says the City.

Only NYC residential waste is accepted at SAFE Disposal Events, and no commercial vehicles are allowed. Residents must provide proof of NYC residency, such as a NYS driver’s license or utility bill.

Staten Island
Saturday, April 11
Midland Beach Parking Lot
Father Capodanno Blvd and Hunter Ave

Brooklyn
Sunday, April 19
MCU Park, Surf Ave Parking Lot

Bronx
Saturday, May 2
Orchard Beach Parking Lot

Queens
Saturday, June 20
Cunningham Park, Ball Field Parking Lot

Manhattan
Sunday, June 28
Columbia University/Teachers College
120 St between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave

City Schools Get Scrappy As Compost Collection Expands

In the eternal battle to get kids to eat their greens, the stakes just got a little…lower? Last month, New York City announced a dramatic expansion of its school organics collection program, meaning that what doesn’t feed kids could eventually feed plants instead.

Starting this academic year, 720 schools across the city will be composting food waste, including every public school in Manhattan and Staten Island. That’s an enormous increase from the previous year’s 358 schools, and the Department of Sanitation hopes to have all of the city’s educational facilities on board by 2016-17.

Scooping Up Savings

New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day (that’s 40 million pounds!). A large portion of that is generated by the public school system, which has more than 1,800 buildings spread out through the city.

Forty percent of school waste comes directly from the cafeteria.

Dealing with this output has enormous financial costs — NYC spends approximately $100 per ton to dispose of trash in landfills — and the process of getting it to its final destination is fraught with health, environmental, and social issues.

While there’s no doubt that having kids actually eat their veggies would be the best possible way to reduce school waste, it has become clear that organics collection and composting are also pretty good options.

“We realized that if we could divert that waste, we could not only save the city money, but we could also make an extraordinary environmental impact and make a statement about recycling.” says John Shea, chief executive officer at the New York City Department of Education.

Depending on where the participating school is located, the organic material is picked up by city sanitation trucks and taken to compost facilities in Staten Island, upstate New York or Delaware. From there, the waste decomposes into nutrient-rich soil that is then sold to farmers and landscapers.

Eventually, the city will also send compost to the Newtown Creek digester eggs, which turn garbage into natural gas.

DSNY claims that the cost of composting organics is 40 to 60 percent less than disposing of regular trash, thanks to the resale of the end product. Once the city’s entire school system is participating, administrators expect that they will be able to negotiate even lower costs with the facilities that receive the material.

Color-Coding and Hands-on Training

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Compost. Photo credit: zen Sutherland | Compost collection bins. Photo credit: NYC.gov

Implementing a composting system in public school — where kids often have less than 30 minutes just to scarf their sandwich — is not for the faint of heart.

The process begins in the cafeteria, where students sort their food into color-coded bins: one for trash (plastic bags, foam cups and wrappers), another for recyclables (metal, glass, plastic and milk cartons), another for liquids (milk, juice, water) and finally, a bin for food scraps.

Some schools utilize “green teams” of students or parents who don latex gloves and wield plastic grabbers to sort wayward objects.

But as one might imagine, the real key is training. “We have been working closely with the NYC Dept of Education to systematically train the Deputy Directors of Facilities who in turn train their custodians, and similarly SchoolFood managers,” says Mary Post, Public Information & Outreach Specialist at the DSNY. “We also provide regular trainings for Sustainability Coordinators in each school; and we’re working with the unions to present trainings to their members.”

The NYC Recycles website also hosts a plethora of resources and information for schools that are implementing composting programs, as does GrowNYC.

Trial by Pilot

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Middle school students enjoying lunch. Photo credit: USDA

The program that could eventually impact the way more than a million students across New York City eat (and discard) their lunch got its start in a much more modest way. In early 2012, a group of five public school parents launched a completely PTA-funded compost pilot in eight District 3 schools on the Upper West Side.

The parents—each of whom chair their school’s “Green Teams”—worked to implement the program in the school cafeterias by training students and staff on composting basics, including how to separate trash from meat, dairy, and kitchen scraps.

They also kept detailed records on how much compost, garbage, and recycling was generated at each school.

At the end of the program, which lasted for exactly four months, the parents found that they were diverting 450 pounds of food waste from landfill every single day — and reducing the volume of cafeteria garbage by 85 percent. In real terms, this meant decreasing the number of garbage bags used in their cafeterias from 54 to eight.

The following academic year the city took over the program, and has expanded it each year since.

North Brooklyn: Fighting for Fairness in NYC’s Trash War

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

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A line of DSNY trucks in Greenpoint. Photo credit: Mary Sue Connolly / Creative Commons.

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

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Trash trucks roll down Metropolitan Avenue, in front of P.S. 132. Photo credit: Sarah Crean via NYER.

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

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Greenpoint waterfront. Photo credit: Jim / Creative Commons.

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

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Waste transfer stations also bring associated industries. Photo credit: Sarah Crean via NYER.

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

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View of Greenpoint from a rooftop. Photo credit: Angelo Calilap / Creative Commons.

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.

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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.