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"Even when we solve the transfer station issues, we haven't solved the amount of waste that we generate and how it's handled," says veteran environmental activist Tim Logan, one of several voices who want New York to follow the lead of San Francisco and adopt a "zero-waste" target, with policies like widespread composting of food waste and rules to discourage local consumption of items that cannot be recycled.
Instead of zero waste, the city's new waste plan calls for 70 percent of the trashby 2015to be reused or recycled, and while that's a laudable goal, Logan says that given the rest of the plan, "it's hard to see any way that they'd reach that diversion." The waste plan sets up a new independent office to handle recycling and tries to harness market pressure to make recycling more profitable, but does little more to spell out how the city can get to 70 percent.
The goal of zero waste may sound utopian, but there are dollar-and-cent arguments for it. Landfills in nearby states are filling up, so the city is going to pay higher dumping fees at those places or higher transport costs to find new ones. And political resistance to interstate garbage shipments has been brewing for years; the Supreme Court has slapped down state laws banning trash imports, but Congress could always step in and prohibit them. "It's absolutely a threat," says Benjamin Miller, a waste expert at Columbia.
Some zero-waste proponents would like the city to send less trash to landfills and more to modern incinerators, whose backers say can generate electricity and, thanks to new controls and filters, produce air emissions that aren't any more harmful than the fumes coming off landfills. Other activists insist that high-tech or not, burning trash is harmful to people breathing in the results.
The debate is not abstract to those right across the Hudson. Under the city's current plan, all of Manhattan's residential trash goes to an incinerator in Newark, and under the new scheme, much of the borough's refuse will continue to go there. City sanitation commissioner John Doherty told councilmembers last week that the Essex County Resource Recovery Plant meets all federal standards. But Reverend Joseph Parrish, whose church in Elizabeth is within smelling distance of the plant, claims that the 1,700 tons of waste that Manhattan sends to Essex each day contributes to the high blood-lead and asthma levels among kids in his neighborhood. Asked to describe the smell, Parrish is blunt: "It smells like garbage on fire."