By Sarah Crean
Last month, Mayor de Blasio named Kathryn Garcia as the new commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation. While the Department is mainly known for picking up trash and plowing snow, it is and will continue to be a critical part of building a more sustainable New York.
The Department is a key player in one the city’s long-standing environmental equity issues. Since the closure of Fresh Kills in 2001, the city has been forced to truck its waste to out-of-state landfills, and areas like the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens have become “saturated” with waste transfer infrastructure.
“A Tested Manager”
Garcia, who the city describes as “a tested manager with extensive operations experience,” is leaving her post as the Chief Operating Officer of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, where she oversaw the Bureaus of Water Supply, Water and Sewer Operations, and Wastewater, with a combined staff of 4,000 employees.
“I am committed to strengthening and expanding DSNY’s programs to deliver…critical services to every resident and business, in every neighborhood,” said Garcia at the press conference announcing her appointment. “We’ll do it consistently, effectively and equitably, and we will seek out every opportunity to do it better and more sustainably.”
Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, is watching carefully. “The jury’s still out on Kathryn- we don’t know exactly what her priorities are going to be,” he told NYER.
An inefficient and costly system
Communities like the South Bronx are looking to Garcia to finish the massive job started by the Bloomberg administration: the steady reduction of the city’s waste stream; and the re-configuration of waste transfer operations- away from trucks, and toward a marine and rail-based system.
Trucks carrying trash from residences and businesses currently go to one of 58 waste transfer stations throughout New York City, according to an analysis by Habitatmap. There, the trash is “transferred” on to tractor-trailer trucks, rail cars or marine barges for export out of New York.
“Currently, the South Bronx and the neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek host a combined 32 waste transfer stations,” says Habitatmap. “Collectively, these WTS handle over 60% of the 12 million plus tons of waste moving through WTS in NYC annually”.
The concentration of waste transfer stations in a handful of areas means intensified impact for a sliver of New York City’s population. Most of the city’s trash exporting is done by truck, which also adds to the local environmental impact of the stations.
And because the transfer stations are not evenly distributed throughout the city, trucks are forced to travel long distances, further compounding the pollution impact.
Addressing the lack of efficiency and equity in the system, and figuring out how to shrink the amount of trash produced in New York, are key objectives in the city’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. The plan was developed by a coalition of environmental justice and community organizations in concert with the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council.
The Bloomberg administration had very practical reasons for adopting the SWMP. As out-of-state landfills ran out of space, trucking waste out of the city became prohibitively expensive. A truck-based system also adds to the city’s overall carbon emissions; reducing the city’s carbon footprint became a major focus for the Bloomberg administration.
The Toll of Trash
Arguably the greatest price of the city’s current system is the toll it has taken on public health. Advocates have maintained for years that the stream of diesel trucks in and out of neighborhoods where waste transfer stations are concentrated leads to heightened local air pollution levels.
An analysis this month by the state Comptroller’s office found that Medicaid recipients in the Bronx have the second-highest asthma rate- 130.2 people per thousand- of any county in the state. And the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate “by far” (43.5 deaths per million residents), of any New York county.
Statewide, the disease is most prevalent among children under the age of 17, and it is concentrated in poor communities.
Several factors are believed to impact the risk of developing asthma. According to the state, one of these is “being exposed to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution”.
“Where’s the Equity in That?”
Groups like the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the New York League of Conservation Voters are urging the de Blasio administration to “fully implement” the 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan, which “relied for the first time on principles of environmental justice and borough equity”.
But Kathryn Garcia and the city face potential opposition no matter how waste transfer is re-configured.
A case in point is the city’s effort to implement one part of the 2006 Plan, the retrofitting and re-opening of four marine transfer stations: two in Brooklyn (Hamilton Avenue and Gravesend); one in Flushing, Queens; and one in Manhattan at 91st Street.
Both the Manhattan and Gravesend/South Brooklyn marine transfer stations are being fought by local residents, who say that the transfer stations will still generate some truck traffic and cause other quality of life issues.
“When this thing [the Gravesend marine transfer station] was first pitched, it was an environmental justice issue,” Ludger Balan of the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy stated to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle last year.
“The idea was equity, where everyone would share the garbage. That idea seems long gone now, and instead of everyone dealing with part of the burden, we’re left to deal with it. Where’s the equity in that?”
Shrinking the Waste Stream
Advocates and policy makers are hopeful that once enclosed marine transfer stations- which can process residential and commercial waste- are operational, the city will start to reduce the volume of waste accepted at land-based waste transfer stations.
That capacity reduction will require an ongoing drop in both residential and commercial waste. At the end of the Bloomberg administration, the city launched several initiatives to double New York City’s residential recycling rate from fifteen to thirty percent by 2017.
Continuing to expand projects that reduce solid waste, such as curbside organic materials recycling, will fall under Kathryn Garcia’s purview.
Commercial Waste Collection: The Final Piece of the Sustainability Puzzle
But reducing and more effectively managing the city’s commercial waste stream is the tougher challenge awaiting the de Blasio administration.
According to the city, about 50,000 tons of trash and recyclables are generated in the five boroughs every day. One-quarter of this waste comes from homes and institutions. The remaining 38,000 tons come from the commercial sector.
Commercial waste is not picked up by the Department of Sanitation. Rather, it is taken by private carters to waste transfer stations, which are monitored by the city.
Businesses are required to separate paper, metal and some types of construction waste from their trash, and food service companies are also supposed to separate glass and plastic.
But because the city does not directly oversee private sector waste collection, it has less day-to-day information about the degree of commercial recycling taking place.
The Alliance for a Greater New York –a coalition of environmental and community-based organizations, and labor unions- has proposed a franchise system for commercial waste collection, which they say, would rationalize a system that currently operates like the “Wild West”.
Franchise awardees would be required to meet environmental standards that “increase recycling rates, reduce truck emissions, and more equitably distribute waste handling across the city.” Awardees would also need to follow standards maintaining the safety of waste sector workers.
By operating within designated zones, advocates say, the franchisees would benefit from a steady, efficiently located base of customers.
Eddie Bautista believes that if de Blasio and his team can successfully pioneer a more “forward thinking” commercial waste collection system, it will become a “legacy” of his administration.
For now, advocates are pushing the city and Kathryn Garcia to fulfill the mission of the Solid Waste Management Plan: to aggressively promote residential and institutional recycling; and minimize the impact of waste transfer by establishing marine and rail transfer stations in more areas of the city.
“Waste exporting is a horrible solution anyway,” said Bautista. “If we’re going to landfill, let’s find a way where we’re not killing communities with thousands of trucks—and include commercial waste,” he added.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Bautista concluded, “not simply from the perspective of low-income communities, but for the air quality of the region.”
Photo credit: NYTimes (Kathryn Garcia); sangudo/Flickr (transfer station); islamoyankee/Flickr (DNSY truck).