Trash Rules Everything Around Me

As New York City dumped its vast output of trash on Staten Island, Wu Tang sprang from that forgotten borough to wow the world

It is an entropic inevitability that the universe tends towards ever greater disorder. In New York City, one clear manifestation of this Second Law of Thermodynamics is our immense, constant production of “trash”. In the face of this tsunami of “waste”, our failure to maintain or develop closed-loop systems means we are then confronted with the challenge of disposing of all this “garbage”, the subject of this post.

(I’ll refrain from air-quoting throughout, but for an exploration of “mass terms” like “trash”, “waste”, “garbage”, and “sewage” – which might shed light on my choice to air-quote – read here. I’ll address “sewage” in a future newsletter, but it’s interesting to note that for approximately the first 200 years of the City’s post-colonization history, “human waste” was seen as a resource (that is, fertilizer) – for which there was, at times, an active and lucrative market – rather than as a toxic liability.)

Coming more to the point, New York produces more than 14 million tons (so approaching 30 billion pounds) of trash each year. This Guardian article does a nice job briefly summarizing the history and current state of waste management in NYC. Key points include that the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – with more 10,000 employees, more than 2,000 trucks (the Guardian underquotes here, probably for failure to include the entire fleet), and an annual budget approaching $2 billion – handles only a quarter of NYC’s total trash output, while fleets of lightly-regulated and often-poorly-maintained trucks from ~250 private carting companies – with historically strong, if now somewhat attenuated, mob ties, and which put ~4,000 more trucks on the roads – collect the remainder.

Basic breakdown is that DSNY collects waste from private residential units/structures, NYCHA buildings, and NYC public schools (in addition to making limited special collections, for example, for certain licensed professionals), while private carters handle all other commercial waste. As those who run businesses in NYC know, it is, in fact, City law that all commercial establishments must have a contract with a private carting company. Still – although the Guardian article hints at this fact – the amount of properly commercial waste is roughly equivalent to residential output, while nearly half of the total waste produced in the City can be attributed to construction and demolition; only by rolling all non-DSNY-collected waste into a single stream do we get the 75% figure the Guardian quotes. For clarity and simplicity then, we might think of the City’s overall waste stream as being constituted of approximately one-quarter residential waste, another quarter commercial, and fully one-half construction and demolition.

(For a deeper look into the murky, often-deadly world of NYC’s private carting companies, please read Kiera Feldman’s excellent reportage here, here, and here to which I’ve linked in the past.)

In 2014, NYC set the ambitious goal of being Zero Waste by 2030 (you may have seen the increasingly ubiquitous reusable orange 0x30 bags around town). Unfortunately, right now, the City is much more than zero waste. In fact, we capture less than half of our recyclable material (which, again for simplicity, constitutes roughly one-third of the City’s total waste stream) and, as yet, a risibly small percentage of our organic waste – which constitutes roughly another third – although admirable plans are afoot to dramatically scale-up the City’s composting program, in partnership with inspiring non-profit partners like the Lower East Side Ecology Center, GrowNYC, Earth Matter, Big Reuse, and most, if not all, of the City’s Botanical Gardens.

That leaves a final third of trash – that is, non-recyclable, non-compostable material – that, at present, we lack capacity to divert from landfills/incinerators even in a best-case scenario. Back of the envelope math suggests that fully 80% of the City’s solid waste is thus ending up landfilled or incinerated.

(Here‘s a breakdown of the national waste statistics which show a little more than half going to landfills, around a quarter to recycling facilities, another eighth to “waste-to-energy plants”, and the remainder – less than 10% – being composted. These numbers are comparable to – but significantly better than – ours locally. You may also want to have a look at the source from which the former data was drawn, which offers a number of helpful charts, the overall gist of which is that both recycling rates and overall waste production have risen dramatically in recent decades.)

In an NYC context, where does all this waste go, though? Historically, the City’s waste has been thrown in the streets, used to fill in so-called water lots (as well as in massive infilling projects more broadly, which have substantially expanded the area of the five boroughs and encroached extensively on wetlands, shoreline habitat, etc.), ended up in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “valley of ashes” (formerly, Flushing Meadows, today, Robert Moses’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park), been dumped into the ocean, been incinerated (a major contributor to morbidity and mortality among City residents in those days), and, between 1947 and 2001, ended up in the now-closed Fresh Kills Landfill, which is currently in the long, slow process of being transformed into New York City’s second largest park.

(Incidentally, one can glimpse the distinctive grassy-mound look of capped landfills in Jamaica Bay – where the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue Landfills once stood – and in Pelham Bay Park, and I suspect there are other now-capped landfills hiding in plain sight around the City; for a more comprehensive, though still brief, history of solid waste management in NYC, have a look at this timeline.)

Today, our municipal solid waste is delivered by truck to ~60 waste transfer stations around the City from which it passes to barges, railcars, and yet more trucks on its way to the aforementioned landfills and incinerators/waste-to-energy plants in Upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and perhaps other states (it’s, in fact, a bit hard to find conclusive information on where-all the waste is going) at a total cost to the City of more than $300 million per year and rising.

(This interesting, if dated, site offers a look at a few potential NYC waste paths, while this explainer video from the New York Times provides a characteristically synoptic perspective on NYC’s waste management challenge.)

As for the recyclables that do, in fact, get recycled, most of the paper products are sent to the Pratt Industries facility in the vicinity of Fresh Kills on the semi-industrial west side of Staten Island, while the vast majority of mixed glass, metal, plastic, and cartons goes to the Sims Materials Recovery Facility in Sunset Park (which offers frequent public tours, led by the friendly and knowledgable, Sam. Take one already!). Sims has an additional facility in Jersey City which receives material from DSNY, as well as from private haulers and municipalities in New Jersey; if I’m not mistaken, this facility was the primary recipient of NYC’s recyclables before the opening of the Sunset Park facility in late 2013. Worth noting that in all of these cases, the City pays tipping fees to these private contractors to process its recycling, though the financial picture is complicated by the fact that, at least in the case of Sims, the contract in question stipulates profit-sharing with the City beyond a certain threshold – according to Sam, reached for the first time since the opening of the Sunset Park facility relatively recently.

(A note for the urban waste spotter, should you catch sight of what appears to be a garbage barge on one of NYC’s many waterways, it is very likely bound for one of the Sims sites, as waste that has passed through a transfer station and is bound Up/out-of-state generally seems to be compacted and containerized first while recyclables travel on open barges to Jersey City or, more probably, to Sunset Park to be unloaded on the facility’s expansive tipping floor.)

Unfortunately, although I feel we’ve only scratched the surface here – for example, we haven’t even touched on the climate impact of the waste itself, let alone the millions of annual truck trips, the methane off-gassing from landfills, etc. or on the environmental justice ramifications of the inequitable concentration of waste transfer stations in certain areas/neighborhoods – alas, I’ve run out of time for this month, so will have to leave it at that for now. Given how resource-rich this post is already, I’m skipping the What I’m Reading section this month, and will just tell you a little bit about…

What I’m Doing

First and foremost, settling into a new school year with my students while also diving back into writing fiction, but I also:

  • Joined Clarinda Mac Low for the second annual Sunk Shore tour.
  • Checked out multiple of Justin Brice Guariglia’s Climate Signals currently up across the five boroughs.
  • Attended – and was deeply disappointed by the corporatism of – the launch party for The Climate Museum (like, I have friends at Goldman, too, but I’m not trying to pretend that the firm is a climate champion).
  • Joined NYC H20 for another tour, this one of the Ridgewood Reservoir, and for a cleanup of beautiful Plumb Beach.
  • Joined for another of the Social Justice Tours, this one regarding gentrification in Downtown Brooklyn.


Still confused sometimes about what to recycle and how? You’re not alone. Consider bookmarking DSNY’s handy and straightforward What to Recycle page and looking into SAFE Disposal Events around the City (for so-called household hazardous waste), as well as the City’s Electronic Disposal Information site and the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s affiliated E-Waste Collection Events, which happen around the City throughout the year.

And if you haven’t yet taken note of DSNY’s tremendous brutalist masterpiece on Canal Street at the Westside Highway, please do go have a look!


3 thoughts on “Trash Rules Everything Around Me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s