The people of Yorkville didn’t get a lot of love at City Hall two weeks ago when the City Council’s sanitation committee finally moved toward a vote on New York’s 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan. When one Yorkvillian tried to take a seat in a crowded row of chairs, a Sunset Park activist declared loudly that the move to sit was just another example of “that feeling of entitlement” and yelled to her young activists not to yield their chairs. None were asked to. This was one day when the entitled were underdogs.
After all, the passage of the waste plan was, in chairman Michael McMahon’s word, “historic,” and Yorkville was on the wrong side of history, fighting against a proposal that would reduce truck traffic in asthma-plagued low-income neighborhoods. The fact that residents near East 91st Street (living in one of the top zip codes in the nation in terms of political-campaign cash) would have to accept a massive new waste transfer station as part of the deal was dismissed as a minor detail. “From the perspective of the Bronx, it’s Manhattan’s problem to determine where its waste gets handled,” said environmental activist Resa Dimino the day after the vote. “When it comes right down to it, it doesn’t make any difference to us where the site is as long as it’s in their borough.”
It doesn’t make much difference to Beth Pirolli either, because no matter where in the five boroughs New York’s trash is loaded and whether it’s sent by truck or barge or rail, a good portion of it is going to end up in her burg, Tullytown Borough, Pennsylvania, home to 2,090 people and the Tullytown Resource Recovery Facility. No state imports more garbage than Pennsylvania, and Tullytown is that state’s biggest destination for New York garbage—more than 400,000 tons in the three quarters of 2005 for which numbers are available. (It’s not clear how much of that is from the city, but it’s a safe bet that some is.)
Pirolli, who grew up in the town with her 14 brothers and sisters, has been fighting the “dump,” as she calls it, for more than 20 years. But local efforts to thwart the Tullytown landfill—or its trashy twin in the next town, which is also run by giant Waste Management Inc.—have met with little success. “There was a lot of pressure from the county to locate this dump here because nowhere else in Bucks County was going to site a dump. They normally go where there’s not a lot of affluence. They go where it’s primarily blue-collar,” Pirolli says, noting that the Tullytown landfill is “adjacent to an almost closed-down steel mill.”
Waste Management does a decent job of covering the trash every night, she says, but the stink remains. “With the heat and the rain we’ve had some days, you know you shouldn’t be breathing this stuff in, but you don’t have a choice,” she says. “It’s not like everyone can pick up and move.” Pirolli’s recent battles have been over what the landfill does with its leachate, the nasty liquid that drips out of the garbage as it decomposes. So far, she has lost: A couple years back the company won the right to send 100,000 gallons per day of the stuff to a public water treatment plant, and a few months later Pennsylvania allowed the landfill to expand by 24 acres. “Once it’s here you can’t keep fighting against it like you’re going to get rid of it,” Pirolli explains, “because you’re not going to get rid of it.”
The history of garbage in New York City is littered with bad ideas. First the city dumped its trash in the ocean, then burned a healthy portion of it. While folks realized that those were bad options, the city kept burying refuse in local landfills, but as those filled up the city ended up dumping all its garbage on Staten Island. In 1997, Mayor Rudy ordered Fresh Kills closed in the name of fairness but never came up with a plan to replace it. And in 2002, pleading budget problems, the city decided to suspend recycling.
The Bloomberg administration eventually restarted recycling. But it’s still living with the ad hoc system that grew up in the vacuum created by the Fresh Kills closure, in which garbage trucks bring 12,000 tons of waste each day to private transfer stations located in poor neighborhoods. Then long-distance trucks carry most of the trash out, leaving diesel fumes and trash stench in their wake. An even greater amount of commercial waste is handled in much the same way.
The injustice of the current system is manifest. The new plan is supposed to fix that by transferring the waste to barges or rail cars so it can be moved out of the city without putting trucks on the road. It’s supposed to take pressure off the neighborhoods that host private transfer stations too, and make Manhattan handle its fair share (hence the East 91st Street site.) But the plan will not provide any relief to Beth Pirolli or people elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, and other states where New York’s diapers and eggshells go to their final rest. The historic plan agreed last week alters how garbage leaves the city, but not where it ends up.
“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 trash—by 2015—to 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.”