New York City generates more than 44 million pounds of residential and commercial waste every day, almost a ton per person per year. Only a third of it is recycled, composted or burned to generate energy. The rest is dumped, some as far away as Kentucky. Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to radically change that equation.
Last year, he pledged that New York would send “zero waste” to landfills by 2030. “This is the way of the future if we're going to save our Earth,” he said.
But anyone who knows anything about waste in New York seems to agree: Keeping it all out of landfills by 2030 isn't just ambitious, it's pretty much impossible.
“This zero-waste idea seems to be without any real plan behind it,” said Kendall Christiansen, manager of the New York City chapter of the National Waste & Recycling Association. “Other cities, like Austin and Calgary, went through a very deliberate process of developing a detailed set of goals and plans to achieve them. New York's plan has been pretty loose, without much public discussion, just rhetoric.”
The job of coordinating this moon shot appears to fall to the city's Department of Sanitation. Commissioner Kathryn Garcia recently sat in her wood-paneled office to talk about how she planned to eliminate the city's residential waste.
“We're focusing on our low-diversion areas,” she said. “Brownstone Brooklyn, there's not much more I can get out of them. To bring the overall city rate up, you need to be in areas where the environmental message may not be resonating.”
Since Staten Island's Fresh Kills dump was closed in 2001, fewer places want to take New York's trash, and they are asking more money for it. In May, the Seneca Meadows landfill, 270 miles northwest of the city, backed out of a $3.3 billion, 20-year deal to take New York's waste.
The problem for Garcia is that New Yorkers have few incentives to throw away less. At home and at work, it is often easier and cheaper to put things in black bags rather than in colored bins down the hall. “Unless it's convenient, people won't do it,” she said. Getting to zero, Garcia explained, will demand a complete rethink of how the city handles its trash.
To understand the scale of the problem, visit the 11-acre Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility on the Brooklyn waterfront, where nearly all of the recyclables collected by Sanitation Department workers end up. In a space the size of an airplane hangar, barges and trucks dump plastic bags filled with recyclables into enormous piles. A fragrant mix of brine, rot, old milk and stale beer hangs in the air, and swallows flit around the building's beams. The $120 million facility opened in late 2013. Most of it was paid for by taxpayers, but $55 million came from Sims Municipal Recycling, the local arm of a global scrap-metal and electronics recycling firm, which won a 20-year contract to process and market the metal, glass, plastic and some of the paper collected from homes, public schools and government buildings.
Optical sorters, drum magnets and massive machines called ballistics separators make recycling at Sunset Park a mostly automated process. “From a manpower standpoint, it's extremely efficient,” said Tom Outerbridge, who runs the plant and joined Sims in 2003 after a decade of recycling consulting and some years with the Sanitation Department. “Most facilities have one or two optical sorters. We have 16.”
Recycling is a capital-intensive, high-volume, low-margin business. Sims' long contract created an incentive to invest in top-of-the-line equipment. That should make recycling more cost-effective for the city. The Sanitation Department pays Sims around $75 to process a ton of recycling, but $90 to $100 to dump a ton of waste in a landfill or burn it in a waste-to-energy plant. When the market for recycled commodities is good, the city shares in the profits.
Outerbridge has a front-row perspective on just how haphazardly New Yorkers recycle. Gazing at a new hoard of dumped material, Outerbridge grimaced at an unrecyclable wicker basket. His eyes then wandered to glass jars filled with baby food. “We would've preferred they empty that out,” he said, “but what are you going to do?” There is no market for mixed glass — most recyclers either sell it at a loss or dump it in landfills — but clear glass, if separated out, fetches more than $30 a ton.
New York City may have the largest curbside recycling program in North America, collecting around 500,000 tons of recyclable material a year, but it should be much more, Outerbridge said. Twenty-seven years after the city required residents to sort their trash, they do so at the anemic rate of 16 percent. Half the recyclable waste is going to landfills.
Recycling rates for businesses average around 19 percent. But because private-sector haulers self-report their data, it is hard to know just how much is kept out of landfills. The lesson for Outerbridge is simple: “Without public participation, you can build the fanciest recycling plant in the world and you don't have anything.”
High cost of collection