How de Blasio bombed in his attempt to fix New York’s garbage crisis
And for nearly two decades, New York City has entirely outsourced its trash burden to other communities across the country.
The proximity of working-class students to a heap of waste and a daily convoy of long-haul garbage trucks has so alarmed residents that last year they elected a new Republican mayor in this Democratic stronghold after he campaigned on a promise to shutter the Dunn Landfill, which opened in 2015.
If New Yorkers recycled at their maximum potential, about 68 percent of the 3 million or so tons of trash produced in the city’s homes, municipal buildings and schools each year would be diverted from landfills. Yet the residential recycling rate stands at 18 percent — a shortcoming owed to a public housing system that mixes virtually all its garbage, a stalled program to recover food scraps and a lack of financial incentives to reform behavior. This all underscores de Blasio’s abandoned pledge to virtually zero out the city’s garbage exports by 2030 to combat the effects of climate change.
The city’s bustling construction industry helps keep the Dunn Landfill in business: More than 77,000 tons of waste were shipped there from the five boroughs in 2018, according to the most recent data available.
And Dunn is just one of three dozen or so landfills and incinerators around the country that received some of the 12 million-plus tons of construction, commercial and residential refuse exported from the city that year.
Businesses, stores and restaurants, which are part of a separate, loosely-regulated system of commercial trash, only recycle 24 percent of the 3 million-plus tons of trash they produce each year, according to a recent report on the industry. A sweeping city law passed last year aims to change that.
Meanwhile the city’s construction and demolition industry, which produced 6.4 million tons of garbage last year according to a state official, recycles half the time.
The result: Year after year, New Yorkers rely on rail, barge and trucks to ship trash to methane-producing landfills and toxin-emitting incinerators. The total haul cost the city $409 million last year, a price tag that ballooned after City Hall reformed its waste management system in 2006.
Over the next week, POLITICO will publish a series on New York City’s management of refuse. Based on four months of reporting, more than 50 interviews and a review of hundreds of pages of public documents, the stories will explore the politics, policies and financial decisions that contribute to the mountains of black bags piling up each night up on city streets. They will examine the impact of the city’s sluggish progress, which reaches from Newark, N.J., a poor city of mostly racial minorities, to Bishopville, S.C., which has a 46 percent poverty rate.
And they will seek to explain why progress on recycling remains lower than many other premier American cities, even as de Blasio and Bloomberg vowed to tackle climate change during their presidential bids. Seattle and San Francisco, for instance, boast rates that are triple New York’s.
“New York City has one of the lowest big city recycling rates in the country,” Judith Enck, the former Region 2 administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said in an interview. “You would think, with that massive amount of money and carbon pollution from moving so much solid waste out of the city, that there would be like an epic campaign to reduce, recycle and compost. But oddly there’s not.”
“It just seems like recycling in New York City is stuck in the early ‘90s,” she said.
The city has made some recent strides in cutting greenhouse gas output within the five boroughs. But its trash remains a significant source of pollution, accounting for 1.7 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from landfills each year, as of a 2017 report.
“We recognize that equity and environmental conditions are inexorably linked,” de Blasio wrote in a 2015 climate change blueprint, which he released on Earth Day. “We are committed to improving air quality in vulnerable communities through reduced and diverted truck trips resulting from of Zero Waste.”
The goal was to slash the 3.6 million tons of garbage the city shipped out in 2005 by 90 percent, so that by 2030 the five boroughs would only export a collective 360,000 tons of waste.
Little progress has been made on that front — the sanitation department exported nearly 3.25 million tons of residential waste in the past fiscal year, up from 3.17 million tons when de Blasio made the promise. At that rate, he is nowhere near his goal, at a time when concerns over climate change are at the forefront of national politics.
De Blasio’s own sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, acknowledged time is running out.
“We’re getting close to not being able to get there in time because certain programs aren’t completely rolled out yet,” she said during an hour-long interview in her Lower Manhattan office in December.
Above her desk hangs a framed orange poster touting the “zero waste” goal, which she said will only happen if de Blasio finally makes good on his promise to implement a citywide mandate that food and yard scraps be recycled.
San Francisco, widely considered a recycling success story, has taken earlier and more aggressive measures than New York. Even then, its leaders modified their own “zero waste” goal, discovering that dealing with consumption in a wealthy city is harder than they thought.
“It is what the public chooses to buy every day that impacts this whole entire logistical train,” Garcia said. “You went into the store and you came [out] with X, Y or Z. And whether or not you were intending to use that for a very long time or a very short time, I’ll eventually see it.”
Across the country politicians are amplifying concerns over climate change, highlighted by a push among left-flank Democrats for a Green New Deal and an emphasis by Bloomberg and former candidate Jay Inslee.
In Rensselaer, those concerns stretch the length of a city block.
From the windows of the Skyline Diner, patrons and wait staff could see the long-haul truckers making their way out of town — one 50-ton reminder after another of the blight that has come to shape their lives.
As an elderly man lamented the coating of dust that covers cars in the lot of the school where his son teaches, a waitress preparing coffee behind the counter said she recently bought a house in the neighboring town of Troy to move her fifth-grade son out of Rensselaer’s school.
“I didn’t do a lot of research into it. I just know I don’t like the idea of it. Not at all,” said the waitress, Meagan Vigliante.
The Rensselaer residents are paying the price for decades of inaction around the management of construction debris.
The state and city don’t require bulky construction materials to be repurposed. The transfer stations in New York City that sort that type of refuse before it heads to landfills reported an average recycling rate of 53 percent in 2018, according to state figures.
But that statistic belies the scope of that type of trash: Some transfer stations boost their rates — in one case by as much as 37 points, according to an environmental advocacy group — by including debris that’s simply used to cover landfills rather than repurposed for another project. What’s more, there’s no accounting for all the waste that bypasses any transfer stations in the five boroughs as it’s trucked out of the city.
“It’s a huge waste stream that has big potential for recyclability but needs both the infrastructure and the legislation to make that happen,” said Justin Green, executive director of Big Reuse, a nonprofit organization that works on repurposing building materials.
As far back as 2003, city officials were looking for ways to curb construction waste that ended up in landfills. “It is the right thing to do, for the environmental benefits of resource conservation, energy savings and pollution prevention,” the Department of Design and Construction, which oversees municipal projects, urged in a report 16 years ago.
Eight years later, Bloomberg pledged in his own sustainability agenda to “work with the business community and the City Council to enact mandatory recycling for certain C&D [construction and demolition] materials and encourage cost-effective recycling options for these materials.”
But nothing ever happened.
“I’m certain that there is more that we could do on the C and D front that we have not looked into yet,” Garcia said.
The issue of construction waste dominates local politics in Rensselaer.
“My very first time voting Republican. I never thought I’d see the day,” said 40-year-old Sarah Hudson, whose small corner house was adorned with Bernie Sanders lawn signs and door stickers. She said Mike Stammel, who won the race, promised to challenge the dump before its license is up for renewal in 2022.
“It’s criminal, it really is,” she said of its proximity to school children. “And it’s only because Rensselaer is not a town of affluent people.”
The landfill does provide a benefit in the form of $1 million in revenue each year to the city’s $15 million budget.
A representative for the Dunn Landfill did not respond to a request for comment.
In New Jersey, another low-income city is grappling with the effects of New York’s garbage.
An incinerator that opened 30 years ago in Newark burned 378,450 tons of the city’s residential trash last year, just a mile from a school where nearly the entire student body is categorized as economically disadvantaged.
An advocacy organization named for Newark’s Ironbound district has been warning of the ill effects of the incinerator for decades, even offering “toxic tours” to out-of-towners.
“I talk to many, many communities whose trash comes to us and they’re not aware that when they throw something in the trash they’re actually hurting a little second-grader’s lungs in the Ironbound,” said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, who works with the Ironbound Community Corporation.
Bloomberg’s and de Blasio’s teams increased the city’s reliance on incinerators, arguing that using the trash to produce energy is better than simply burying it in a landfill that produces methane — one of the most potent greenhouse gases.
That argument overlooks the toxic effect of incinerators, Lopez-Nuñez said. A report published by The New School’s Ana Baptista last May concluded that Newark’s incinerator emits “the largest total amount of lead of any MSW [municipal solid waste] incinerator in the country.”
“No one thinks of us when they think of the wealth of New York City, but for that wealth to be possible there has to be neighborhoods like ours,” Lopez-Nuñez said.
James Regan, a Covanta spokesperson, pushed back on the New School’s findings, stating that any toxins emitted by the Newark facility are “well below” allowable limits set by state and federal regulators. The company also added new emissions control technology in 2016 that reduced lead emissions from the facility by over 90 percent, he said.
“As a result, in 2017, the facility represented only one-tenth of one percent of New Jersey’s lead emissions,” he added.
In Seneca Falls, N.Y., a waste hauler is legally challenging a local law that would shutter its landfill, which receives trash from the five boroughs, in 2025.
New York City had a landfill of its own once. Staten Island was home to Fresh Kills, the world’s largest garbage dump, whose closure in 2001 spurred the current and elaborate waste export system.
Staten Island’s borough president, Jimmy Oddo, expressed resentment over Fresh Kills in a recent interview.
“The moment the garbage left their hand going down the garbage chute on the 30th floor of an apartment building on the Upper East Side is when they ceased caring about it. That’s how we felt,” Oddo said, referring to one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. “We were the punchline in many a joke.”
Nearly two decades since Fresh Kills closed, there’s little indication the city is going to end its reliance on out-of-state landfills anytime soon. One former Bloomberg official warned that strategy is unsustainable.
“My view was ultimately, whenever ultimately is — could be 2030, 2040 or 2050 — New Yorkers won’t be able to send their waste to landfills in Pennsylvania, Virginia, or any other state. These places won’t accept the city’s trash at any price,” Cas Holloway, a deputy mayor who oversaw sanitation under Bloomberg and now works at technology company Unqork, said in an interview. “You will start to see less and less availability and higher and higher costs to bury this stuff.”