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Transform Don't Trash NYC

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- by Gavin Kearney (Environmental Justice Director, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest) & Eddie Bautista (Executive Director, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance)

New York City’s homes and businesses generate anywhere from 6 to 8 million tons of mixed solid waste every year – more than any other city in the country. And the manner in which it manages that waste is rife with injustice – a few NYC communities of color play host to numerous truck-intensive transfer facilities, while other communities of color as near as Newark and as far as Virginia and Ohio then receive NYC’s waste for landfilling and incineration. For over a decade we have been working with environmental justice advocates and other allies in NYC to address these issues. We have achieved some important incremental victories over pitched opposition. But much remains to be done. 

Ultimately, if it is to do right by Environmental Justice (EJ) communities, NYC needs to greatly diminish the amount of material it exports for disposal and build local recycling infrastructure while minimizing community impacts, creating a safer workplace for waste workers, and reducing environmental harms.  To build the will for this within the City we are working to expand the local discussion around solid waste to encompass worker well-being, economic development, climate change, fair treatment for small businesses, and, of course, environmental justice. This is the focus of our current, ongoing campaign for solid waste reform – Transform Don’t Trash NYC.

Background

Recycling rates in NYC are woeful - about 15% for residences and at most 25% for businesses, meaning that every year millions of tons of NYC waste is unnecessarily buried or burned. Within NYC, collection trucks haul this waste to transfer stations in a few communities of color and long-haul trucks haul it back out. About three-fourths of all waste handled in New York City goes to just three communities of color in the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens. 

Residents in these low-income communities of color are inundated with thousands of waste-related diesel truck trips every day, as well as other environmental burdens such as power plants, Superfund sites, and truck-intensive distribution centers. The human costs of this overburdening can be seen in health outcomes such as asthma hospitalizations and cardiovascular disease, and in day-to-day hardships like incessant noise pollution and soot that forces residents to keep windows closed even on the hottest days.

Historically, much of NYC’s waste was buried or burned within city limits (or if you go back a bit further, dumped into the sea). The current state of affairs can largely be traced to Mayor Giuliani’s politically motivated decision to close the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, one of NYC’s last Republican strongholds and a source of key support for his candidacy. The landfill closure was undertaken with no alternative plan in place. In response, public and private haulers turned to the private sector and in a short period of time the conditions in NYC EJ communities described above arose. 

EJ Organizing Around Waste and New York City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan   

In this post-Fresh Kills context emerged NYC’s first and only City-wide coalition of EJ groups focused on garbage justice – the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN). OWN released a report in 2000 that articulated an alternative waste management plan for NYC that would significantly increase recycling while retrofitting the City’s marine transfer stations (MTSs) – the facilities that had barged waste to Fresh Kills prior to its closure. Unlike private transfer stations, the MTSs were fairly sited throughout all of NYC’s five boroughs, would reduce reliance on long-haul trucks, and would be managed by the City, which provided the opportunity to minimize emissions and ensure accountability to local neighbors.

A significant victory for local EJ advocates came in 2006. After two years of hearings, community forums and debate, the New York City Council and the Mayor passed a Solid Waste Management Plan for the City that embraced OWN’s call for retrofitting City MTSs. In the process of implementation, the Plan will ultimately take hundreds of waste hauling trucks off the streets of EJ communities every day and eliminate millions of diesel truck miles in and around NYC every year by tipping waste at facilities closer to its point of generation and by replacing long-haul trucks with barges and railcars. This was a significant victory for EJ advocates who had fought for years to address the discriminatory siting of waste and other facilities in NYC. It was the first time that the City had embraced the concept of “fair share” for the siting of municipal infrastructure and the Plan passed in the face of incredibly stiff, well-resourced opposition from communities that currently bear no responsibility for the waste they generate, most notably from the affluent Upper East Side of Manhattan.

It was only a partial victory, however. While the Plan would advance fairness in facility siting and significantly reduce truck impacts from the collection and export of waste, it wouldn’t do nearly enough to address NYC’s over-reliance on landfilling and incineration. It did lead to investment in a new recycling facility that has allowed the City to expand its residential recycling collection, but as noted above NYC has a long way to go on this front and needs considerably more infrastructure if it is going to improve upon its low recycling rates. EJ organizations, environmental groups, public health organizations and others supported the Plan as an important, hard-fought step forward, recognizing that there was much more to be done.

Mixed Successes in Fighting “Waste to Energy”

Over the last several decades, local EJ advocates and allies have successfully fought numerous efforts to site incinerators in and around NYC. In the recent past, shills for newer technologies have regularly poked around NYC communities of color in search of unwitting organizations that might support their effort to site a new facility or convert and existing one. Fiscally conservative organizations have also touted incineration as a preferable alternative to the City’s collection and export system where environmental controls, a union workforce, and increasingly distant disposal options have increased the cost of landfilling and one prominent mainstream environmental group has expressed openness to the idea.   

Under the Bloomberg administration, the City itself also seriously considered piloting “new and emerging” technologies for handling waste. In 2006, a consultant for the City released a report recommending that several technologies be considered for application in NYC, including gasification, plasma gasification, and pyrolysis. The report made this recommendation even though its authors were unable to satisfy two core evaluation criteria – an independent technical review of the technologies and an independent review of environmental impacts. 

Based on these recommendations, in 2012 the city issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) involving these technologies. The RFP called for applications for demonstration projects sited within or within 80 miles of NYC. The 80 mile radius was seen by many as an effort to skirt potential siting battles within the City where any proposal would likely require land use changes and thus City Council approval. Local EJ groups and environmental allies quickly mobilized against the RFP, holding demonstrations outside a briefing for prospective applicants and at City Hall. We also met with key City officials on several occasions and, with critical assistance from GAIA, were able to show City officials that these technologies were dangerous and unreliable and that, contrary to conventional wisdom, more sustainable cities in Europe were actually moving away from rather than embracing them. According to city officials, industry responses to the RFP buttressed our arguments leading one official to confide that they were dealing with “snake oil salesmen.” The RFP’s viability was also diminished when the City released a report of preferred NYC sites that included the former Fresh Kills landfill generating swift and intense local opposition leading the City to withdraw the site from consideration. Ultimately the City abandoned the RFP and we were thrilled.

A year later, the City announced that it had finalized a contract with Covanta for the export and incineration of waste from two of its new MTSs, including the Upper East Side facility mentioned above.  Even though the City had previously defined its sustainable waste management goals as “diversion from landfilling,” this move came as a surprise to us given the recent abandonment of the RFP. Although EJ groups in NYC fought for the MTSs as a way to reduce burdens in their communities, at the end of the day we had little ability to shape where that garbage would be sent - the City’s contracting authority is broad and requires no review or approval role by the City Council. For EJ groups in NYC, this only underscored the urgent need to dramatically reduce the amount of waste exported to other EJ communities for disposal. Given the parochial nature of waste policy in NYC, we also knew that we had to do so in a way that offered tangible local benefits.

Transform Don’t Trash NYC – Pushing for Comprehensive Solid Waste Reform

Over the last year and a half or so, we have built a coalition of EJ groups, labor, mainstream environmentalists, and others to tackle reform of NYC’s “open” commercial waste system. In this system each of the more than 200,000 businesses in NYC individually contracts for its waste removal from one of 200+ licensed haulers. As a recent report of our coalition details, the problems in this system are legion - excessive reliance on landfilling and incineration and attendant climate and public health impacts, redundant collection routes that create millions of unnecessary diesel truck miles each year, worker exploitation including low wages, wage theft, and unhealthy working conditions, and an overall lack of accountability or ability to effectively monitor this sprawling and chaotic market, to name a few. 

In place of this system, we are pushing for an exclusive zone collection system similar to those recently adopted in cities like Los Angeles and San Jose. Under such a system haulers would compete for exclusive collection rights within specific zones of the City and in return be expected to make commitments to reducing and recycling waste, reducing truck emissions and vehicle miles travelled, and improving worker compensation and safety. Although the campaign is relatively young, we’ve had some important successes, including successfully advocating for the City to include a zero waste goal in its recently released sustainability plan, and have gained support from key elected officials. 

In exposing these grim realities that escape the awareness of most New Yorkers, we are highlighting the broad impacts of NYC’s waste export. But to build the support we need to move it, we are focusing heavily on the local benefits of reform – reduced truck traffic and diesel emissions, improved working conditions, transparent prices for small businesses that rewards reduction and recycling, increased efficiency, and economic development. 

Challenges in Building Cross-Community Solidarity

While solidarity across EJ communities is critical, years of advocating for more just waste management in NYC have driven home just how narrowly self-interested politics can be. A prime example of this has been the opposition to the MTS on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (UES) mentioned earlier. While there may be individual exceptions, by and large the fight around the MTS has never been about one community seeking to prevent its waste from burdening another. In fact, it has been the opposite. It has been one affluent community fighting to continue to burden other communities with its waste.      

UES opposition to the new marine transfer station, which is being built over the East River, has been incredibly deep-pocketed, no fewer than eight unsuccessful lawsuits have been brought by private law firms to prevent this facility from happening to date. Opposition groups have paid for numerous public relations firms, lobbyists, and researchers over the years and have even bought advertisement on local TV stations to get out their message (last year, lobbying disclosure reports revealed that a start-up three person fashion law firm had donated $690,000 to the main opposition group, Pledge 2 Protect, raising questions about whether the firm was acting as a pass-through to shield moneyed interest from public scrutiny and to maintain a veneer of grassroots activism). 

This opposition has also been callous. Opponents of the facility have tried to co-opt the environmental justice frame despite their tremendous resources and even though the median income around the facility is $91,000/year (compared to a median income of $21,000/year in the South Bronx area that hosts nine private transfer stations and other polluting facilities). Upper East Side opponents have also had the gall to accuse lifelong EJ advocates of racism. At a City Council hearing last year, one UES leader testified that supporters of the facility could only be motivated by an interest in “socking it to white kids” and another called out local EJ leaders as “hypocritically racist” in his Huffington Post blog. 

And although opponents have recently begun to see a shared interest with Chester residents, they have been remarkably indifferent to how other communities are impacted by the waste they generate, eagerly latching on to any proposal that could be viewed as an alternative to their facility. For example, they have pushed out a number of reports advocating for the continued overburdening of other NYC communities with transfer stations, claiming that impacts on the UES will be unacceptable and catastrophic while similar, but greater impacts in less affluent communities of color are acceptable and can be mitigated. 

UES opponents have also enthusiastically embraced incineration so long as the waste isn’t transferred in their community first. In a 2014 report, Pledge 2 Protect criticized the City for failing to “take advantage of the safest, most sustainable waste-to-energy technologies,” including those that use combustion as a means to “creating a truly sustainable solid waste management system.” Similarly, at a recent hearing, Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the UES, was asked about the fact that his district’s waste is currently incinerated in Newark. He responded that “New Jersey… is not a borough [of New York City] as far as I’m aware” and thus had no legitimate claim to be treated fairly. Council Member Kallos went on to say that New Jersey residents “enjoy” incinerating Manhattan’s waste because they get paid to do so.

None of this is raised as a criticism of folks fighting the long-term burning of NYC waste at the Chester incinerator. Over the years we have certainly sought to build strategic partnerships with organizations that may not share our values but have interests that align. But it does point out how tricky these alliances can be and how important it is to recognize them for what they are. Undoubtedly there are individuals on the UES who sincerely embrace the people of Chester’s cause, but just as undoubtedly, past behavior shows that most opponents of the UES facility would abandon this cause in a heartbeat if the City found a way to get waste to Chester that didn’t take it through their community first. 

Ultimately, we agree with folks at the Energy Justice Network and others that the most effective way that NYC can stop sending its waste to be burned in communities of color is to move toward zero waste, an idea that we’ve been able to get some long overdue local traction.