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.”
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.
This story was updated on February 25th to include more information on what types of waste move through the South Bronx. It was also updated on March 2nd to more accurately explain the potential impact of waste cap legislation currently under review by the City Council.
As the de Blasio administration strives to make greater social and economic equality its legacy, the neighborhoods that handle some of the city’s most toxic materials are demanding a different sort of equity.
On February 13th, scores of South Bronx and North Brooklyn residents assembled at City Hall to hear discussion of a bill aimed at addressing the relentless movement of the city’s waste through their neighborhoods.
“We’ve had to live with this for decades; we’re going to be living with this for decades more. Our children have had to grow up like this,” observed Kellie Terry, Executive Director of The Point Community Development Corporation, based in the South Bronx.
The bill, which would cap the proportion of the city’s waste processed in any one neighborhood, is the “first tangible, real attempt to address…the clustering and the over-concentration [of waste infrastructure] in a handful of environmentally overburdened communities of color,” said Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.
Eighty percent of the city’s waste handling capacity, the Council reports, is located in just three neighborhoods—the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens. The proposed legislation would also cut the amount of waste processed by transfer stations in those three areas by almost 20 percent.
The severity of the over-concentration of trash processing in low income communities and communities of color is “not just,” said Terry in an interview outside a waste facility in the South Bronx. Trucks rumbled by continuously as we spoke. “It flies in the face of all of our principles as a society, and especially of this current administration.”
Almost one-third of New York City’s trash is handled at waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, and then trucked or sent by rail to landfills across the region.
The relentless truck traffic, along with the presence of the waste transfer facilities themselves, has exacted a steep price from South Bronx residents.
A 2014 study by the state Comptroller found that the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate “by far” among all counties in New York State: 43.5 deaths per million residents in the Bronx, as opposed to the state average of 13.1 deaths per million.
Exposure to exhaust fumes is a known risk factor for asthma, the study noted.
The de Blasio administration does not support the proposed legislation, Intro 495. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents sections of the South Bronx including Mott Haven, has not taken a position. The Speaker’s colleague in the South Bronx, Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, is a sponsor of the bill.
Establishing a Limit on Waste
Every day, an average 21,000 tons of residential and commercial trash must pass through—and out of—New York City. Seventy percent of that daily trash volume is typically processed for long-distance shipment in just three neighborhoods: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.
The Council hearing was led by Brooklyn Member and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso, who told the crowd that he had been born and raised on the south side of Williamsburg. The question of waste equity, he said, is the issue that is “most near and dear to my community.”
Reynoso referred to “a tale of two cities,” the phrase invoked by the Mayor to describe the inequities of life in contemporary New York City. “There’s no better place to look at that than North Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Southeast Queens when it comes to how we handle trash,” Reynoso said.
Intro 495, which is sponsored by Council Member Reynoso and his colleague Steve Levin, also from North Brooklyn, seeks to do two things: first to cap, and then eventually reduce by 18 percent, the amount of waste that can be processed in the city’s three most over-burdened neighborhoods.
The legislation will also limit the amount of waste that can be handled in any of New York’s 51 community districts to five percent of the city’s total permitted capacity.
The legislation is “about bare bones principles of equity, bare bones principle of fair share,” said Kellie Terry. “This [the waste industry] will still be here [in the South Bronx], but it will be just a little less,” she added.
Concerns About Emergency Capacity
Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation, told the City Council in testimony at last Friday’s hearing that the neighborhood waste processing limits mandated by Council Member Reynoso’s legislation could create dangerous logistical challenges for the City, especially during extreme weather and other emergency situations.
But, Commissioner Garcia said, the administration was prepared to immediately start negotiations with the city’s 39 privately-run waste transfer stations regarding “voluntary reductions.”
On a day-to-day basis, the city’s waste transfer stations typically use about half of their total permitted waste capacity. This is not always the case though. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the need for waste transfer capacity soared because so much debris had to be trucked out of the city.
Action Carting, which is based in the South Bronx and delivers waste to transfer stations, told lawmakers at the hearing that the company operated at capacity for 30 days straight after Sandy.
Intro 495 would eliminate the excess capacity of transfer stations in the three most overburdened areas, and then cut that capacity further, shaving off 18 percent of what is currently being processed.
The bill does give Commissioner Garcia the ability to override neighborhood waste caps in the event of an emergency like Sandy.
But, she argued, if capacity reductions are mandated, waste transfer stations will scale back operations and they may not be able to respond as quickly as necessary. Losing all excess capacity, along with 18 percent more, in neighborhoods like the South Bronx would place real limits on the DSNY’s operational flexibility, Garcia maintained.
At the same time, respond advocates, the City is also gaining capacity through the construction of a network of marine transfer stations.
2 to 3 Trash Trucks per Minute
On a typical day, nearly 6,000 tons of trash is hauled in and out of the South Bronx, requiring about 1,400 diesel truck trips.
This means two to three truck trips every minute in the course of a typical eight to 10 hour business day.
Nine waste transfer stations operate in the area, mainly in Hunts Point and Mott Haven. According to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the stations have permits authorizing them to collectively handle twice their typical volume, nearly 12,000 tons of waste, daily.
The South Bronx hosts other waste-related facilities, including a scrap metal recycling plant, and sites which collect fill (concrete, dirt, brick and asphalt).
According to NYLPI, about 2,000 of the 6,400 tons handled in the South Bronx on an average day in 2013 was residential. Residential trash is ultimately shipped by rail out of the Bronx via the Harlem River Yard, which is privately managed. The rest of the trash processed in the South Bronx is commercial waste, including construction and demolition debris.
[The Harlem River Yard is also the future site of a Fresh Direct distribution center, which has attracted strong community opposition because of concerns about more truck traffic.]
And while the South Bronx has numerous expressways running through it, there is no direct access from those highways to some of the South Bronx’s most important industrial areas. Trucks must travel on local streets to get from the Bruckner Expressway to the Hunts Point Peninsula, for instance.
In addition to waste transfer stations, Hunts Point is also home to the city’s wholesale food markets. The markets generate enormous truck traffic, an estimated 15,000 trips daily, according to the City. To get to their destination, trucks must drive around and through the Point’s community of 12,000 residents.
I joined Angela Tovar, Director of Policy and Research for Sustainable South Bronx, for a walk through Hunts Point. I was surprised by the tightness that began to build in my chest after a couple hours on local streets. When I listened to the audio recording of my interview with Tovar later, I could hear both of us coughing.
We watched as trucks passed schools, playgrounds and churches. The neighborhood’s multiple truck routes have created a situation in which residents are literally “boxed in,” said Tovar.
The traffic in and around Hunts Point is truly daunting. Trucks entering the area are coming from both the Bruckner and Sheridan expressways. “Any street is fair game,” said Tovar.
Bruckner Boulevard, which runs under the expressway, feels like a canyon of truck traffic. Crossing eight lanes of traffic at Hunts Point Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard to reach the busy #6 subway stop there, said Tovar, reminded her of the game of Frogger.
Because of much of the area’s industrial zoning, and because of its status as a Significant Maritime Industrial Area, the South Bronx has long hosted a wide range of industrial and noxious uses.
“It’s the cumulative impact of all these other polluting industries that cause ultimately the disproportionate impact that is really abusive and oppressive to our communities,” said Kellie Terry.
The range of industrial activity is mind-boggling. In addition to the waste industry, the Hunts Point markets, and various factories, the South Bronx also has a wastewater treatment facility and four power plants in the vicinity.
Further complicating matters is the fact that some of the South Bronx’s manufacturing/industrial zones have been rezoned for mixed and residential uses. New residential construction is now closer than ever to industrial activity. A similar situation exists in North Brooklyn, which also struggles with waste-related truck traffic and air quality issues.
The South Bronx’s public health issues linked to air quality have been well documented in a variety of studies conducted by the City, State, and even Congress.
A 2009 NYU-Wagner Graduate School study reported that “rates of death from asthma are about three times higher in the Bronx than the national average. Hospitalization rates are about five times higher.”
The NYU study, funded through a Congressional appropriation, also found a “strong association between asthma hospitalization rates, poverty, the percentage of Hispanic residents, and the number of industrial facilities in the Bronx.”
As Kellie Terry noted, the South Bronx is grappling with social issues that “make our environmental impacts sometimes impossible to address.”
“We’re worried about poor educational situations, we’re worried about disproportionately high incarceration rates, we’re worried about police brutality, we’re worried about everything, all the time,” Terry said, as trucks roared by.
“This [the question of waste infrastructure] is one aspect of the fight,” she continued.
“You also have to fight all those other fights. That’s what it means to be within a community like this and to work towards resiliency. It’s not just environmental resiliency. But it’s also social resiliency.”
Collecting Data at the Ground Level
Part of finding public policy solutions that will truly address the concerns of South Bronx residents is collecting the best data possible.
The most recent neighborhood-level air quality data available from the City is from 2009-2010. More data is forthcoming says the City.
In collaboration with two other organizations, Sunset Park-based Uprose and HabitatMap, Sustainable South Bronx has launched an air quality monitoring program which utilizes wearable monitors. The monitor then transmits the air quality data to the wearer’s cell phone.
The data will help to pinpoint areas where there are higher concentrations of pollutants. Data has been collected by 80 people so far, both high school students and local residents. Tovar said several local schools plan to get involved.
The response from students and community groups has been “overwhelming,” said Tovar. “It’s been great. We really feel that we’ve been able to have this conversation about air quality and what it means,” she said.
After the data is analyzed, maps of the data points will be available at aircasting.org.
One of the most useful aspects of SSBx’s air quality monitoring program is that the data is being collected at ground level.
Both the State and City have air quality monitors in the Bronx. The City has four monitors in Bronx community districts one and two, said Levi Fishman, a spokesman for the City’s Department of Health. The City’s monitors are affixed 10 to 12 feet above ground level, on street or utility poles. The State’s monitoring stations are located on the tops of buildings.
“The pollution that we’re facing is on the ground…The impact is there,” said Tovar. “[We are] directly being impacted by tail pipes and truck idling.”
Collecting data from a multitude of locations—at ground level—will help to develop a more accurate picture of the air quality experienced by South Bronx residents. It may also shed light on why South Bronx hospitalization and death rates from asthma are so extraordinary.
The City’s 2009-2010 data for fine-particulate matter pollution levels, for example, show Midtown and Stuyvesant Town, both in Manhattan, with the highest mean concentrations citywide. But these neighborhoods do not have air quality-related health issues similar in scope to those in the South Bronx.
“Harmful air pollutants are found in all neighborhoods of NYC,” said Levi Fishman. “The health impacts of air quality depend on the number of people with health conditions, like asthma or cardio-vascular disease, that air pollution exacerbates. Outdoor air pollution isn’t the only, or even the major, cause of those conditions,” he argued.
The City’s assertion would seem to be challenged by the 2009 NYU-Wagner School study, which found a “strong association between Bronx zip codes with high asthma rates and those with a large concentration of industrial facilities.”
Clearly more information is needed about what South Bronx residents are actually breathing. The NYU-Wagner School study collected air quality data at ground level, and the study’s authors reported that levels of some pollutants—carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—were higher than those recorded from the State’s rooftop monitors.
The City has tried to mitigate some of the air quality effects of truck traffic in communities like the South Bronx. It has upgraded its entire DSNY fleet to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.
A City ordinance now requires private waste trucks -which pick up commercial trash- to retrofit over the next five years using the best emissions reduction technologies available.
And the Department of Transportation operates a Clean Trucks program in Hunts Point and Port Morris, which offers rebates to private truck owners who retrofit their trucks to use alternative fuels such as hybrid electric and compressed natural gas, or make other improvements. The program’s funds are currently exhausted.
Environmental justice advocates across the city are trying to tackle the emissions problem by crafting a new approach to the private-sector waste industry.
Through an initiative called Transform Don’t Trash NYC, they are calling for the establishment of a contractual relationship between waste carting companies and the City. This would enable the City to more strictly control truck emissions, organize more efficient pick-up routes, and better enforce health and safety standards for waste industry workers.
DSNY Truck Traffic to be “Greatly Reduced”
In her testimony, Commissioner Garcia said that the City was sensitive to the concerns of South Bronx residents, and other communities, who endure the impact of thousands of diesel trucks on local streets every day.
She pointed out that once the City is able to open all of its Marine Transfer Stations, as outlined in the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan, waste-related truck traffic would be “greatly reduced.” Eighty-eight percent of the city’s residential waste would eventually be shipped out of the city by barge or rail, the Commissioner said.
The SWMP would lead to a reduction of 55 million DSNY vehicle miles travelled annually, Garcia said, along with additional reductions in commercial carter traffic. Air quality benefits will stretch across the region, the City maintains.
Advocates argue that the opening of the marine transfer stations, and the creation of this additional capacity, goes hand in hand with capping the waste handling burden in each community.
“We have to balance what they [DSNY] operationally would like in terms of their comfort zone with the on the ground reality that communities are choking on this stuff,” said Eddie Bautista. “It’s not fair for the department to get all this excess marine transfer station capacity and not reduce the noxious capacity.”
Bautista said that because meaningful voluntary capacity reductions had not materialized since the passage of SWMP, mandating them was consistent with the provisions of the plan. “That’s part of the deal…anything short of an actual reduction in these communities is an undermining of the 2006 SWMP.”
Thinking About the Future
What concerns advocates in particular is the city’s enormous commercial waste stream, which is as large or even larger than its residential waste stream.
Some of the city’s commercial waste, including some construction and demolition debris, will move through DSNY’s to-be-opened marine transfer stations, but not all of it. The remainder will go to land-based waste transfer stations.
Angela Tovar argued that the City needs to plan ahead to protect its neighborhoods, especially in this current period of major construction and development.
The fundamental point of the waste cap legislation, Tovar said, is to ensure that, “no other community in the future will have to bear the brunt of the city’s waste.”
Beyond the SWMP: Transforming NYC’s Relationship to Trash
The back-drop to all of these efforts is the City’s execution of the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. Local opposition to construction of a DSNY Marine Transfer Station at East 91st Street and the East River has attracted the most media attention by far of any aspect of the plan.
The de Blasio administration has resolutely pushed ahead, and Commissioner Garcia said last Friday that at least two marine transfer stations should be on-line in the next two years- Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn, and the North Shore facility in Flushing, Queens.
Three other marine transfer stations –one in southwest Brooklyn, and two in Manhattan, at East 91st Street and West 59th Street- will start operation as well. Trash shipment by rail will also increase as part of the SWMP.
And the City is planning to develop a major recycling and educational facility at Gansevoort Pier in the West Village.
For the first time, each borough will be directly involved in handling some of its own waste.
The city’s three most over-burdened communities will be impacted in different ways by the SWMP. Council Member Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, who represents sections of the South Bronx including Hunts Point, said that the South Bronx would probably benefit most from the addition of the West 59th Street station, which will receive construction and demolition debris.
“My community is asking me to do this [support the SWMP],” Arroyo said by phone.
The Councilwoman added that New York City needed to confront the bigger issue, which is the amount of waste it produces. “We’re not talking about real recycling…reducing tonnage…The SWMP addresses one small part.”
“The merits of the plan put us in the right direction,” maintained Kellie Terry. The task, she said, was to “continuously…assess…our current policies for ways to improve them so they can be more just, ultimately for everybody.”
Bautista praised a number of the City’s initiatives, such as increasing household composting, and using anaerobic digestion to turn organic waste into energy. The City, he said, was finally turning its attention to decreasing waste and reducing its carbon footprint.
The “top priority,” Bautista said, “is that however we’re handling our solid waste as a city, that we’re not being hypocritical. We want fair share and environmental justice, not just for our communities, but for those landfills in Pennsylvania, Virginia, wherever else we’re sending our waste. We should be figuring out how to handle that [waste] closer to home, and the way you do it is you reduce waste and increase recycling.”
Standing His Ground
For Council Member Antonio Reynoso, establishing limits on the quantity of waste that can be handled in each of the city’s neighborhoods is the next piece of this enormous puzzle.
A number of Council Members raised questions about the legislation at last week’s hearing, arguing that setting waste caps would simply push trash processing into more neighborhoods, causing widespread harm.
Other Members said they were ready to help shoulder some of the City’s trash burden. “The Upper West Side wants to do more,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal, saying that she saw opportunities for job creation with the overhaul of a marine transfer station at West 59th Street. “Bring it on.”
After a direct plea from representatives of the private waste industry for a delay to moving ahead with Intro 495 and a “dialogue” with the Council and affected communities, Reynoso responded, “we just can’t wait.”
“This piece of legislation has been going on for a long time [8 years],” Reynoso said at the tail-end of Friday’s 5-hour hearing. “There’s no solution [coming] from the other side…We need to get something done because my community can’t wait anymore, and that’s why we’re pushing.”
Intro 495 is currently under review by the Sanitation Committee.
Shifting the Paradigm
In the meantime, residents of the South Bronx have moved ahead with their own sustainability agenda, even as they continue to press the City for waste caps.
“This idea that this is an overburdened community is only part of the story,” said Angela Tovar. “There is a paradigm shift,” she added.
“The other side of the story,” Tovar said, “is that groups and activists are working in tandem to be proactive about solutions…People have a right to clean air and clean water.”
Local groups are pressing the City about improving the quality of the Bronx River, which is impacted by the discharge of over one billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater annually.
South Bronx residents have fought successfully for increased access to amenities, access to green space, and access to the waterfront. The community is now seeking to expand the South Bronx Greenway, which, when completed, will connect existing and new parks through a network of waterfront and on-street routes.
“We have a limited amount of green space in the community,” said Tovar. “We engage a lot of people locally in maintaining the trees. Anything that is going to help improve the air quality is very important to us. Trees are one of the only interventions that we have.”
Local groups have also collaborated with businesses to build green infrastructure projects, such as the green roof installed on ABC Carpet’s Bronx River warehouse.
Angela Tovar and I stopped at Barretto Point Park, which occupies a scenic spot on the East River. The roar from passing trucks was ceaseless as we spoke.
Built in 2007, Barretto Point Park was a victory for local residents and is “one of the treasures of the community,” said Tovar. “The challenge is getting people here safely.”
Tovar described lines of Hunts Point residents waiting to use the park’s floating pool during the summer. The park is also a destination for fishermen, she said.
“[But] two blocks away we have transfer stations,” she pointed out. On a windy day, Tovar said, fumes and debris can blow into the Park from the stations. Private transfer stations are sometimes open to the elements, which I saw firsthand. The City’s marine transfer stations will be fully enclosed.
One of the city’s wastewater treatment facilities, which is heavily served by trucks, is also close to the Park.
“It’s a challenge for us,” Tovar said, looking out at the beautiful coastline of Barretto Point.
Then she turned her gaze back toward the passing trucks. “We are continuously looking for solutions,” she said.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Trash: it’s such a big part of our lives, but the machinery of managing it has remained hidden from many New Yorkers. This is changing.
For years, environmental justice and community organizations have argued that a handful of neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of the city’s waste management infrastructure.
The City’s step-by-step implementation of the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan is, in part, an attempt to respond to those concerns. And now, the mounting cost of moving trash out of New York City, shrinking landfill space across the country, and the City’s efforts to expand what we recycle, have all helped to put our waste into the middle of the public discourse.
We’ve collected a few of the many interesting facts about the city’s waste stream. Because it is such a complex topic with often dueling statistics, we’ve also included the source from which we drew each fact.
10,000 tons of residential trash are collected daily by the New York City Department of Sanitation—that’s 3.8 million tons per year! [CBC]
Another 4 million tons of trash are generated every year by the city’s businesses.
76 percent of the city’s residential trash is sent to landfills (in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina), 14 percent is recycled, and 10 percent is converted to energy. [CBC]
Over thirty percent of the city’s residential waste stream is organicmaterial that can be composted (food scraps, paper towels and napkins, yard waste, etc.).
[NYC.gov: Organics Collections & Drop-Offs]
The DSNY has 7,200 uniformed sanitation workers and supervisors; along with 2,230 collection trucks, and 450mechanical street sweepers. [NYC Department of Sanitation]
New York City has 58 waste transfer stations, where garbage trucks transfer their loads to tractor-trailer trucks, railcars, or marine barges for export. A single barge can carry as much garbage as 28 tractor trailer trucks.
[HabitatMap, Map of NYC Waste Transfer Stations & Newtown Creek Alliance, Map of Waste Transfer Stations]
The South Bronx and the neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek host a combined 32 waste transfer stations. Collectively, these stations handle over 60 percent of the waste moving through the city’s transfer stations.
The area around Newtown Creek (connecting Brooklyn and Queens) has 19 waste transfer stations, the largest such cluster in New York City.
It cost the City $251/ton to collect residential trash in FY 2012, compared to $629/ton to collect recyclables. One reason for this is that the City has been collecting paper separately from glass, metal and plastic. In the past seven years, City recycling collection costs per ton almost doubled as waste diversion fell.
A new facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn could lower recycling costs by accepting the majority of the city’s co-mingled recyclable curbside trash, and eliminate 260,000 DSNY vehicle miles traveled every year. Recyclables from Manhattan will be delivered to the plant by barge from a to-be-constructed transfer station at Gansevoort Street and the Hudson River.
[CBC & Sims Municipal Recycling State-of-the-Art Material Recovery Facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn]
148,000 storm drains trap NYC’s street litter before it reaches sewer lines and, ultimately, area waterways. In addition, a fleet of five skimmer boats, along with booms surrounding 23 major sewer outfalls throughout the city, are used to capture any debris that makes it through the drains.
[NYC Department of Environmental Protection Clean Streets Clean Beaches Campaign]