Talkin’ Trash in New York City

originally published

January 1998

What’s Past is Prologue

New York City plans to close its only landfill, Fresh Kills, at the end of the year 2001, leaving it with no way of disposing of its garbage within the city limits. The solution proposed by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his Department of Sanitation is to simply export the trash and make it someone else’s problem. But this is a shortsighted, and likely expensive, answer. Worse, it throws away an opportunity to reinvent the City’s problem-ridden waste system from the ground up.

To help put the current situation in context, imagine the following scenario:

A few years before the end of the century, the citizens of New York City throw the incumbent administration out of office and elect a new mayor who has run on a platform of rooting out corruption and fundamentally restructuring city government to make it more effective. Because there are serious health concerns about garbage both in the city and the region, waste issues are high on the public’s agenda. So, one of the mayor’s first actions is to appoint a new sanitation commissioner, charging him with the task of completely reinventing the way the city handles its solid waste.

The commissioner quickly leaps into the fray by championing recycling. He implements a radical new program that requires every household and business to separate its waste. The collection of reusable and recyclable materials becomes a standard part of every pickup. Food waste is collected for composting into a fertilizer the city markets to agriculture. Anyone who fails to follow these new rules is fined, and repeat offenders are even arrested. The program does require a sudden change of habits, so it is not initially popular. But, within just four years New Yorkers are acting as though they have been separating and recycling all along.

This “scenario” is not some dream of what might have happened under Mayor Giuliani — it is what actually happened under the administration of Mayor William L. Strong, and his pioneering Streets Cleaning Commissioner George Waring, a hundred years ago. Unfortunately for New York, after only one term, in 1898, the corrupt Tammany Hall machine recaptured the Mayor’s office, ended the recycling program and resumed dumping the city’s garbage in the Atlantic.

Waring’s recycling program was decades ahead of its time, and although his recycling and composting operations probably would not win any environmental awards today, his success at radically changing the system remains an impressive example we would be wise to learn from.

Closing Fresh Kills landfill will require the New York to alter one of the largest parts of its public infrastructure — it is likely to be one of the most significant investments the City will make over the next quarter century. But it is attracting very little attention from planners, public officials, or the newspapers. The public hears a great deal more about a pie-in-the-sky proposal to build a rail tunnel under New York Harbor. I guess it’s just that tunnels are sexier than trash.

This commentary is adapted from testimony presented to the New York City Council.