Kathryn Garcia, the New York City sanitation commissioner wants to see the city produce zero waste by 2030. If she and her 10,000-strong department can reach that goal, it will be a stunning turnaround from the 1980s, when New York City became one of the last major cities to adopt a recycling program.
To open its yearlong “Getting to Zero: New York + Waste” series of events, Open House New York invited Garcia and Kate Ascher, author of The Works, to speak about how the city is working toward zero, and what more needs to be done.
Each New Yorker discards about 25 pounds of trash per week, working out to 6 million tons for the whole city per year. It’s a vast infrastructure network that, as Garcia notes, we don’t notice as long as it’s functioning smoothly. It’s only when the garbage bags begin piling up into curbside mountains, after a heavy snow storm for example, that New Yorkers really begin to grouse.
For most of New York City’s history, waste was simply dumped into the street and then pushed out into the rivers and harbors. By the dawn of the 20th century, waste incineration become more and more popular, peaking in the 1960s when 11 incinerators burned around a third of the city’s trash, sometimes converting it into energy.
In the 1940s, the Freshkills landfill on Staten Island was designed as a temporary solution to a fast-growing and fast-dumping metropolis. It had no accounting for standard landfill bugbears like seagulls, methane emissions and leachate. At its height, it took 20 barges to carry 1300 tons of trash per day. It closed in 2001 and is now in the decades-long process of being converted into the borough’s largest park.
The city began its recycling program in earnest in the late 1980s to treat some waste materials more as a resource. Garcia has some theories about why New York City was so late to the recycling game – investments in certain infrastructures were already sunk, for example – but we certainly had quite a ways to go on that front, and are still catching up.
Today, the city’s waste is principally handled through a system of private transfer stations that deliver waste by tractor trailer or barge to six receiving states as far as South Carolina, 650 miles away. New York pays these receiving sites handsomely for the inconvenience. Recyclables are sorted by material and sold in bulk.
Eventually, the sanitation department’s goal is for single-stream recycling: paper mixed with glass, metals, and plastic. It’s easier for consumers to not have to worry about sorting and the receiving facilities already have to do a lot of sorting anyway (thanks partly to lazy or ill-informed recyclers).