Fron Truck to Transfer Station Where Does All the Garbage Go?

 Twice a week whether it is on Tuesday and Thursday or Monday and Friday, in  every neighborhood throughout the city, you can hear it. Usually before first  light you are roused from a sound sleep by the rumbling, beeping and crushing  sounds of the garbage truck sent to retrieve your block’s mountains of sorted trash.

 But as the sounds of the truck finally fade in the distance awakening another  area of the city that never sleeps, not too many of us think about where all  that garbage goes. According to information provided by Kathy Dawkins, a  spokesperson for the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY), the  department collects more than 12,500 tons of refuse and 1,760 tons of  recyclables a day.  

 And it is no small operation. The DSNY has more than 7,100 uniformed workers and  supervisors, 2,048 civilian employees, 2,505 collection trucks, 450 street  sweepers, 298 front-end loaders, and 365 salt/sand spreaders in its fleet of  vehicles.  

 And that doesn’t even take into account the city’s private carters. According to Nancy Walby, co-chair of the Brooklyn Solid  Waste Advisory Board (SWAB), while the city provides garbage pickup for  residences, multifamily buildings can supplement that with private carting  services if they feel they need it.  

 So how does that estimated 12,500 tons of bagged refuse and recycling ultimately  get to its final destination?  

 A Little History

 Garbage collection in New York City has had an interesting history. According to  Elizabeth Royte, author of the book Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, up until the 1880’s garbage in New York was simply left out onto the streets. The majority of the  waste was organic materials that were consumed by the hundreds of dogs and in  many areas pigs that were free to roam the mean and muddy streets of the age.  

 “Garbage collection was a private business,” says Royte. “If you were wealthy enough you could afford to have carters who would pick up  the waste from your house and from your streets and they would bring it off to  the rivers and dump it in the waterways.” As you’d suspect poorer areas were not so fortunate. In those areas refuse would simply  pile up until merchants demanded the city do something. On those occasions  people from the city would come with carts and dump the waste into the rivers.  In some instances, organic materials would be taken to “reduction plants” where it would be processed into glue or fertilizers.  

 In 1894, the streets became a little cleaner with Colonel George E. Waring, the  Commissioner of Street Cleaning. Under him, city workers were organized to  sweep the streets on a regular basis. According to Royte, during this time  residents were asked to separate their trash into three separate categories:  ash, which was in large supply due to resident’s cooking and heating their homes with wood; wet waste and dry waste. The wet  waste would travel off to the reduction plants in Queens and the dry waste was “tipped into low lying areas such as swamps and wetlands.”  

 This became standard operating procedure until the 1940’s when the city started investing in incinerators. Then in 1948 during the  height of his tenure in New York City government, urban planner and power  broker Robert Moses opened the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. This  would become known as the world’s largest landfill until its closure in 2001.  

 And for decades, trash wasn’t just buried, it was burned—burned in incinerators, but that simply didn’t meet the EPA’s air standards. “They were also an annoyance to people in the area,” says John Doherty, DSNY commissioner.  

 The city’s modern waste management system has changed as technology has evolved. Today’s municipal waste stream primarily consists of trash, plastics, and paper. And  of those three options: waste is disposed of in the state, out-of-state or  recycled. Whatever the option is, the trash must be organized before being  moved.  

 Next Stop: Transfer Stations

 Once the trucks, which hold a little over 12 tons of waste, are filled, they go  to the nearest transfer station. “Currently, the process is as follows,” explains Doherty, “the city’s Department of Sanitation trucks pick up the garbage and transport it all to  transfer facilities in surrounding states. We have one transfer facility in New  Jersey that is a waste energy facility, but most of the waste ends up in  probably a dozen or more landfills in several different states.”  

 Soon however, each borough will be responsible for transporting its garbage to  their own transfer facilities. The plan before the City Council, says Doherty,  will provide for transfer stations in each borough.  

 What exactly goes on inside the plants? Lynn Brown, a spokesperson for Waste  Management Inc., one of the largest trash-processing firms in the U.S.,  explains. The company’s Harlem River yard transfer station in the Bronx, for example, receives  residential waste from throughout the borough. DSNY trucks bring the refuse to  the plant, where it is taken from the trucks, processed, and then placed into  sealed rail containers for transport. “Collection trucks deliver the materials in a single stream—that is, they do not need to be separated in advance,” says Brown. ”The materials run through a highly automated facility where they are separated  into different types (fiber, plastic, metal, glass), compressed, packed and  shipped out to plants that convert these materials into new paper produces,  containers, etc.”  

 Waste Management also operates recycling plants, known as materials recovery  facilities (MRFs). MRFs accept all types of recyclable materials from paper and  cardboard to glass and metal, Brown says.  

 Waste is usually moved off site in a matter of minutes or hours, usually sorted,  but not always. From there it is compacted for long distance transfer to  landfills in six different states. Stand-up comic's jokes aside, we think of  New Jersey and its 14 landfills or New York State's 42 but New York City’s trash can end up as far away as in one of South Carolina’s 37 landfills. Other destinations include Pennsylvania’s 47, Ohio’s 63 and Virginia’s 152 landfills.  

 N-I-M-B-Y Response

 Needless to say, it’s human nature that no one really wants a trash transfer station in their  neighborhood. Take for example, the proposed marine transfer station on the  Upper East Side. This facility to be reactivated and rebuilt along the East  River on East 91st Street would be the only waste transfer station in  Manhattan. Fully permitted and with broad government support and approval by  the New York City Council, neighbors are fighting the construction. Lawsuits  have been filed by neighborhood activists, and unless a court grants an  injunction, construction of the ten-floor marine transfer facility is set to  begin by the end of March 2013.  

 Residents allege the facility will create even worse traffic congestion, noise  at all hours, and smell of diesel fumes and rubbish. Many neighbors are so  fearful that their properties will be devalued. “The waste dump . . . and the stench and the hazard it poses, that was one of the  major factors in the decision to move,” said Dr. Laurence Orbuch, who recently sold his family’s penthouse condo at 52 East End Avenue. Barring a court injunction, the  facility will likely go through as planned.  

 Resource Recovery Facility

 As most of the city’s garbage finds its way out of state, a potential destination might be across  the river in New Jersey to a “resource recovery facility.” Resource recovery facilities, also known as “co-generation” or “waste-to-energy plants,” are designed to burn solid waste but also turn the heat to electricity, leaving  a much smaller volume of ash to be buried. These facilities are not to be  confused with the pollution-creating incinerators of the 1970s.  

 There are currently five operating in New York State and almost 100 in the  United States. Trucks bring the solid waste into a tipping area and unload the  trash into a large pit. A crane sorts out any inappropriate material, and then  moves the trash into a combustion chamber where it is burned. A boiler recovers  the heat generated from the combustion process, and the resultant steam is used  for electric power generation. Two types of ash are produced—bottom ash and fly ash. Bottom ash is the heavier glass and metal pieces that do  not burn and it accounts for about 75–90 percent of the ash created. Fly ash rises with hot gases and is captured by  emission control equipment in the stacks.  

 Where Does Your Recycling Go?

 When tracking the garbage left on her own New York City sidewalk Royte  discovered something interesting about her recyclables. “The trash that I put on the curb is going off to a landfill in Pennsylvania and  that the metal I set out was going to a scrap yard in Jersey City, where it was  shredded and then piled into a ship most of the time is bound for China.” Plastics that were separated ended up down South to make carpeting and fiber  fill for sleeping bags while the glass ended up being crushed for landfill  cover.  

 Bloomberg’s Waste Management Plan

 In January, Mayor Bloomberg announced a citywide Waste Reduction Plan. The plan  proposes to cut the amount of waste through increased recycling efforts and  converting non-recyclable waste to useful energy. Recycling, however, is down.  A DSNY preliminary report found a 5 percent decrease in recycling tons per  truck-shift, a 3 percent decrease in curbside recycling, and a 45 percent  decrease in the number of recycling summonses issued.  

 Some portions of the plan that called for technologies to convert waste into  renewable sources of energy came under fire. There are many environmental  organizations that see these new technologies as doing more harm than good.  Activists believed that the combustion process produced many pollutants that  would decrease air quality.  

 Antonia Florio of the Sierra Club New York City Group remarked that “the city has previously evaluated some new conversion technologies such as  anaerobic digestion, gasification, and hydrolysis. In theory, these  technologies provide a solution for converting waste to renewable energy in a  safe, environmentally-friendly way. For example, hydrolysis uses acid to  breakdown waste into sugars to produce ethanol, which can then be used either  as fuel or for energy production.”  

 Building new waste-to-energy facilities or siting them in places like Staten  Island also drew much flack and were withdrawn after much public outcry. Where  they are eventually located remains to be seen, although the mayor would like  the conversion facilities to be located in New York City proper or within 80  miles of the Big Apple. The question of “where does our garbage go” in the future is still open for debate.    

 J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.  

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