New York City leaders set an ambitious and commendable goal to stop sending garbage to landfills by 2030. While that’s just eight years away, we are light years from making it happen.
The reality is three components of the 2016 plan have stalled due to (i) financial factors, (ii) the inability to have a true single stream recycling program, and (iii) lack of acceptance of composting and the curbside infrastructure for it.
New York’s 8.2 million residents are served by some 10,000 public sanitation workers who remove 13,000 tons of trash daily. The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) exports homeowners’ waste by barge, rail, and truck at a cost of $1.75 billion annually, as city legislative mandates have increased export costs to over $300 per ton.
On the other hand, recycling and waste of all businesses, restaurants, bodegas, and commercial buildings is handled by private sanitation, recycling and hauling firms. Their efforts to go green must also be embraced with President Joe Biden’s $66 billion plan to expand the nation’s railway systems.
Waste By Rail Is Green New Deal
To achieve environmental targets, policymakers must get serious about realistic infrastructure upgrades and evaluate contradictory climate laws. For example, New York City’s “Waste Equity” provision reduced how much waste a non-public transfer stations can process by 33 percent.
Rail is an ideal, low-carbon method to export more of Gotham’s recycling and municipal solid waste needs. American Recycling, a Jamaica, Queens, firm is looking to invest over $30 million in green infrastructure upgrades.
Their site has been in operation since World War II. By reactivating an adjacent rail spur, American Recycling will lower regional carbon emissions, mitigate dust and odors, and limit cost pressures on small businesses.
Construction Makes Debris, Get Rid of It Smarter
A recent study by the Building Trade Employers Association (BTEA) and Urbanomics, found that between 2016 and 2020, New York City added 235 million square feet of new building space.
This includes: 129 million for residential, 25.5 million for offices, plus 80.8 million or other residential and non-residential buildings. But it’s not just new construction, as 43.9 percent of all of Gotham construction value is renovation of existing space.
The American Recycling’s project offers the technological capacity to sort, recycle and reuse 60 percent of all construction debris, diverting this from the waste stream. Such a bold, green agenda can be an environmental game-changer, although such a plan might never see the light of day without greater urgency by leaders.
As pundits continue to bicker over a potential Green New Deal, on September 16 a tractor trailer exporting waste overturned on the Major Deegan Expressway paralyzing traffic for 12 hours.
That single incident caused chaos, trapped tens of thousands of delivery vehicles and motorists, while countless tons of tailpipe emissions were needlessly released across the South Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Queens, and New Jersey.
Likewise, the current New York City Waste Equity Law unwittingly forces private sector garbage and recycling truck drivers to play hopscotch across local neighborhoods. If the closest transfer station has already reached daily capacity, truckers must drive to the next nearest depot to unload.
If these are already at capacity limits, they must drive further to dump the junk. In effect, Waste Equity mandates cause even greater problems in terms of traffic, lost time, increased prices, and needless emissions.
Political inaction is not a solution, as the math on climate change becomes more costly in terms of life and economics. Hurricane Sandy claimed 233 lives at a cost of $350 billion.
Less than ten years later, Hurricane Ida killed 68 people, causing an estimated $95 billion in damage. AccuWeather finds the nation witnessed $1.5 trillion in extreme weather destruction since 2012.
With respect to trash, the same is true. Year over year, New Yorkers toss out more garbage at rising costs. At least $13 billion later, approximately 25 million tons of trash and recycled material has been removed from NYC since Sandy wiped us out. Now, Ida has given another unwelcome wakeup call.
The climate clock is ticking and it’s time to act.
Leveraging an underutilized rail line running parallel to its existing waste-transfer facility to remove 28,000 truck trips annually, 10.3 million garbage truck miles and saving 1.5 gallons of diesel fuel from being burned, makes smart environmental sense for New York.
When the private sector is prepared to invest $30 million in construction and $20 million for rail for new technology to substantially upgrade its facilities and create new green jobs that could eliminate 60 percent of all construction waste from ending up in landfills, city leaders have an urgent obligation to embrace, not derail, those ideas.
Thomas J. Grech is president & CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.