hot garbage

Voyage of the Gross

Even though every other option is better, most of New York’s trash still goes into a hole in the ground.

At the Department of Sanitation’s Marine Transfer Station on East 91st Street. Photo: Thomas Prior
At the Department of Sanitation’s Marine Transfer Station on East 91st Street. Photo: Thomas Prior

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After the meal comes the ritual cleansing. Bones and fat and stray clumps of spinach slide from my plate into the bin beneath the sink, landing on a length of plastic film still clinging to a supermarket foam tray. These new arrivals cover a fistful of worn-out pens, a tube of dried-up glue, a glob of ancient salad dressing, and a layer of coffee grounds. When the stew starts to smell, I tie up the bag and drop it down the building’s chute into oblivion.

Except it’s not oblivion at all. What happens to the several daily pounds of garbage we each produce — where it goes after it exits our homes and gets tossed into the jaws of a sanitation truck — is a topic most of us would like to avoid. It’s taken care of: That is all ye know and all ye need to know. Throwing out is an act of forgetting, and modern urban bureaucracies have tried to make that progressively easier to do. In 19th-century cities, when waste disposal was a private matter and not yet a public responsibility, households lived close to their own putrescence. Garbage piled up outside the window or in empty lots. It wound up in pigs’ slop or flowed along the street, joining a mighty ooze. Even after New York began deploying an army of street cleaners and garbage collectors in the 1890s, the stuff poured onto the shoreline or got dumped in the rivers to resurface as a floating mire. Only relatively recently did refuse start performing its daily disappearing act, swept up, bagged, chewed up, and carted away to … somewhere, usually a big open field hundreds of miles away.

Today, while many urbanites agree that composting and recycling are fine things, most of us don’t actually contribute much to either. Only 17 percent of the city’s trash tonnage gets recycled, and just 1.4 percent winds up in compost. (San Francisco claims to recycle more than 80 percent of its waste, though some New York experts complain that the city is pumping the numbers.) The result of this slow-moving, multipronged crisis is a closing window to solve it. The question of where garbage goes is one politicians don’t like to think about any more than the rest of us do. But ignorance is a luxury New Yorkers can no longer afford.

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Depending on where household trash starts its final journey, it might follow one of a skein of paths: A little gets composted, a bit more gets recycled, some is burned, and the vast majority is dumped in the ground. In an ideal system, those proportions would be reversed. Combustion, recycling, and composting all have their drawbacks. But they are infinitely preferable to landfills, which remain noxious even after they’ve been closed — and most of ours are approaching that moment. In 2016, the Department of Sanitation announced a goal to send zero waste to landfills by 2030, but so far that looks like wishful thinking. About 65 percent of everything city workers pick up goes into a hole, and for commercial waste the proportion is probably higher. (This is not just a local problem: A decade ago, the National Resources Defense Council estimated that Americans were sending 40 percent of the food they bought straight to landfill.) Combustion facilities, known as waste-to-energy plants by their owners and incinerators by their neighbors, operate at capacity, and building more is about as popular as opening a fresh nuclear reactor down the street.

Because I live in Manhattan, my bag will likely meet a fiery, comparatively harmless, and useful though unpopular end, producing a glimmer of electricity. New York apartment superintendents once burned waste in their buildings’ basement incinerators, smudging the skyline daily, but the city outlawed that practice in 1989, and the air has been less gritty ever since. Today’s combustible castoffs take the George Washington Bridge to a waste-to-energy plant in northern New Jersey or (mostly) much farther by truck, sea, and rail.

Early on a weekday morning, DSNY Deputy Chief Anthony Bianco strides around the East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station like a captain inspecting his ship. As we open a door onto the area where trucks disgorge their ten-ton loads, I brace for a blast of foulness but get only a modest puff. Before the facility opened in 2019, East Siders worried it would stink up their neighborhood; the howls have died down. Bianco points to an arsenal of pollution-control features: negative air pressure, which keeps odors within the walls, carbon-dioxide monitors, a ventilation system that flushes out all the air in the main pit at a hospital-worthy clip of 12 times an hour. The indoor atmosphere is scrubbed before it’s released. Spills get pushed into a tank where oil is collected before treated water is sluiced away.

The more intractable source of local pollution is the plume of diesel exhaust from the 65 trucks that show on up on the first day after a long weekend, pause to get weighed and scanned, then drop their load and huff off to the next shift.

Arrival on East 91st. Photo: Thomas Prior

Occasionally, sensors pick up the presence of radioactive material, and though the specter is of a leak or a terrorist act, the culprit is usually radiation treatment discarded by a cancer patient. Still, the truck will be banished to a salt shed on 125th Street, where investigators try to pinpoint the source, sometimes even spreading the whole load on the floor and pawing through it item by item.

Emptying the truck at the transfer station. Photo: Thomas Prior

The transfer station is one node in the ceaseless machine that is DSNY. New York’s 8.8 million residents produce 12,000 tons of trash every day, and businesses produce roughly the same quantity of waste that’s handled by a gaggle of private companies. The 7,200 sanitation workers and 2,100 trucks that crisscross the five boroughs every day handle plastics, paper, metal, and furniture, each of which has its own destination. What comes to the transfer station is the grossly heterogeneous and nonrecyclable mixture called municipal solid waste.

At East 91st Street, diggers shove the refuse through trapdoors into massive steel boxes, then compact the contents to make room for more. Photo: Thomas Prior
Shipping containers are closed and stacked. Photo: Thomas Prior

Down a chute it goes into blue-steel shipping containers that are shunted onto a loading dock and handed off to one of those enterprises few New Yorkers have heard of but millions depend on: Covanta. The company descends from Ogden, a utilities company that was founded in 1939, then meandered into plumbing, real estate, and horse racing, and finally narrowed its focus to hauling and burning garbage. A lonesome crane operator sitting in an overhead cab sorts and stacks containers like casino chips. Empties come off the waiting barge, and full ones are piled in their place until a full complement of 48 containers pushes the floating platform a foot or so lower in the water.

Loading the barge. Photo: Thomas Prior

I climb onto the Pathfinder, the tugboat that will pilot this Kon-Tiki of rubbish down the East River. Onshore, the accents have a ring of Queens and Long Island. Onboard, it’s as if I’ve crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Sailors from various parts of the country converge on New York to take six-hour shifts round the clock for two weeks at a time before being spelled. Instacart delivers groceries to the pier. At ebb tide, they move the 900-ton cargo for the three-hour trip down the East River, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and out to the Global Container Terminal on Staten Island. There it’s plucked off the ship and goes onto a railcar for a trip to Niagara, New York, where its contents will be burned.

The barge ride to Staten Island. Photo: Thomas Prior
Onto a flatbed to head northwest. Photo: Thomas Prior

There’s also a shorter, quicker route into the flames: Every day, a line of DSNY trucks rumbles over the George Washington Bridge, along the Turnpike, and down a dead-end exit ramp outside Newark, joining a parade of trucks from all over Essex County at a similar Covanta waste-to-energy plant. When its manager, Jack Bernardino, escorts me around this palace of combustion, it’s like taking a trip through Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times: There’s something awesome about so much power and immensity being brought to bear on the elimination of excess. The elephantine dance is constant: Each load is dumped, pushed, and dropped into a pit immense enough to hold 15,000 tons of waste (more than the city’s entire daily output). A crane operator plays a grown-up version of the classic arcade grapple game, clawing at the compacted refuse, turning and aerating it before dropping it down one of three chutes.

Trash at Covanta’s plant in Newark shortly before it goes down to the furnace. Photo: Thomas Prior

Then the garbage gets carried slowly down into a pit that burns at 1,800 degrees. Bernardino leads me down several floors to a window that looks onto the angled conveyor belt, and I stand there mesmerized by the sight of a ceaseless river of chicken bones, ketchup bottles, expired pharmaceuticals, eggplant peel, and broken toys being vaporized into ash and gas.

At Covanta’s waste-to-energy plant in northern New Jersey. Photo: Thomas Prior

Just before the cooling residue drops onto the pile, bits of iron and steel fly up into a magnet and an eddy current separates out aluminum and other metals to be recycled. Inside the flues, smoke that’s thick with fly ash and chemicals gets scrubbed and passed through a filtration facility called a bag house before finally being released. By Covanta’s calculations, every ton of refuse that’s processed in a waste-to-energy plant instead of slopped onto a landfill saves one ton of carbon-dioxide emissions. The technology of filtration has driven most emissions well below the levels allowed by federal and state regulations. Nitrogen-oxide emissions are more stubborn, but waste-to-energy plants trail far behind cars, trucks, and construction machinery on the offenders’ list. “The data for modern waste-to-energy facilities that operate well should reassure people,” says Marco Castaldi, a CCNY professor who runs the college’s environmental-engineering program. Despite the brute violence of what goes on in its bowels, Covanta’s Essex plant is a far more sophisticated and cleaner burn box than incinerators of yore. A pair of turbines treats garbage as fuel, converting heat into a 65-megawatt stream of electricity — enough to power 46,000 homes — that gets piped into New Jersey’s power grid. Maybe when I look out my apartment window, that’s last week’s breakfast leavings coming back to me in the form of lights I see burning across the Hudson River.

Trash becomes fuel in Essex County. Photo: Thomas Prior

But that destination is the exception. The reality is that the bulk of what New Yorkers throw out goes to other companies — moving through other transfer stations around the city — that haul it to the least desirable final resting place: a huge landfill, typically in a place where the nearest residents are either too far away or too lacking in clout to complain. Toss out your fish bones on Staten Island and they will spend a week or so traveling by train to the Lee County landfill, perfuming the humid air of Bishopville, South Carolina.

If, for example, you live in Brooklyn, your riddance goes through a similar process and eventually becomes an unavoidable presence for the tens of thousands of residents of Fairport, Perinton, and Macedon, outside Rochester, who have the misfortune of living within smelling distance of the High Acres Landfill. The 300-acre site, operated by a large national company called Waste Management, gets 90 percent of its input from New York City. As those sealed canisters inch 300 miles across the state or sit in a siding, waiting for more urgent cargo to pass, they bake and stew. On arrival, each is transferred from railcar to truck and hauled to the top of a mound as tall as a 15-story building. There, it’s tilted and opened on the side to let the fetid mush slide onto the pile, releasing its bouquet. The word biodegradable is supposed to be benign, suggesting that a slightly more expensive version of a previously indestructible item — a drinking straw, a dog-poop bag, a detergent jug — will harmlessly break down, leaving nothing but some nitrogen-rich dust and a smear of moisture. What the term really refers to is anything that, once dumped in a landfill and sealed into an oxygen-free mound beneath more tons of refuse, undergoes a slow and messy kind of digestion. Those oozing hills shift, belch, and mist their surroundings with the odor of putrefaction. Toxic liquid seeps into the water table. Buried methane explodes, causing tremors, or escapes into the atmosphere, which it heats up far more efficiently than carbon dioxide. Don’t feel bad, but you should know that the leftovers you just tossed are nudging us a little closer to apocalypse.

Landfill operators are required to cover fresh arrivals with six inches of soil at the end of each day, but that’s not exactly a scientific process. “A landfill is a construction project — you’re always building, you’re always changing the slope,” says Morton Barlaz, an environmental engineer and professor at North Carolina State.

In 2018, a group called Fresh Air for the Eastside filed suit against New York City and Waste Management, listing headaches, cratering home values, forced moves, and unpredictable bursts of intolerable smells that can last for several days. “I just drove by there in my brand new car, and I had to fumigate the car afterwards,” complains Linda Shaw, the attorney who filed the lawsuit. “It’s a real violation of the air these people are breathing.” (Waste Management declined to let me visit the landfill.)

In a vivid chronicle of disgust, the suit enumerates occasions when foul clouds have drifted miles from the landfill. “Most memorable was Christmas Eve 2017,” it says, when two of the plaintiffs “planned to take a winter night walk and the Odors were so bad, they returned indoors after walking 20 yards down the sidewalk.” One resident designed a High Acres stink-reporting app that has logged 26,000 complaints. The lawsuit has remained stalled in the discovery phase for years, but Shaw recently upped the ante in light of the so-called Green Amendment to the State Constitution that passed last year: High Acres, the amended suit alleges, violates its neighbors’ constitutional “right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”

The smells aren’t even the worst of the problem. The EPA estimates that landfills make 15 percent of the nation’s methane, which is odorless, flammable, and tricky to capture, since it can bubble out of sight then erupt almost anywhere in the topography of trash. A network of wells and conduits is supposed to channel the methane so it can be collected and resold as fuel, but in practice that captures only about 50 to 60 percent. Worse, it appears that the numbers severely understate the problem — new methods of measuring methane plumes from planes suggest that actual emissions from landfill are double what was previously thought.

High Acres, outside Rochester. Photo: WM/YouTube

New York has a plan to address these issues. Or, rather, it has a plan to come up with a plan — by 2026. So far, it has only a dream. In 2015, the de Blasio administration announced that the city would zero out landfill waste by 2030. Seven years later, the numbers have barely budged. “We’re simply not on a path toward zero waste by 2030 on our current trajectory,” the department’s new commissioner, Jessica Tisch, told the City Council in June. “Nor do we have enough time left before 2030 for me to sit here today and genuinely tell you I think the goal is achievable.”

Eventually, the landfills may preempt the city by filling up and shutting down. Around the country, thousands have closed in the past few decades, and the remaining ones have gotten vaster and taller, but even so they’re maxing out. Unless companies are allowed to enlarge the dumping grounds — never a politically popular move — they can keep swallowing refuse for only another couple of decades. Even after they’re closed, they can continue their toxic rumble, just with less daily supervision. “Once that waste is in place and capped and covered, if something is going wrong, you have to think real hard about whether you want to go in there and try to fix it. You’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage,” Castaldi says.

On the face of it, packing the ordure of millions into open-air mounds is a terrible approach to a more livable planet, particularly in a part of the world where scavengers don’t comb through them for every salable scrap. On the other hand, landfills are familiar and relatively cheap. We may be stuck with them in any case, even if recycling and composting somehow make huge leaps. “It’s foolish to think we’re going to eliminate landfills,” Barlaz says. “There are always going to be things you can’t burn and need to bury — including ash from combustion.”

In theory, emissions data from waste-to-energy plants should reassure incinerator haters (a group that includes almost everyone) and make it easier to locate plants close to the source of their fuel. In Europe, it has. Paris has three waste-to-energy plants, including one that opened in 2007 a 15-minute bike ride from the Eiffel Tower. Copenhagen’s Amager Bakke, which opened in 2013, does quadruple duty as an incinerator, power plant, architectural landmark, and artificial mountain complete with outdoor skiing and climbing. New York could learn from those examples and, for instance, build a state-of-the-art trash palace on Rikers Island (as a former DSNY executive, Robert Lange, has proposed) with plants for recycling, waste-to-energy, and composting, all close enough to our kitchen cans to save millions of truck, barge, and train miles. That’s not likely to happen.

Castaldi points out that, in this country, waste-to-energy is a business first and a service second, so it must compete with the cheaper option of landfill. Covanta Essex is one of only 75 waste-to-energy plants in the entire country, all of them functioning at capacity. The combination of cost, opposition, and political inertia makes the prospect of new ones dim. A 2020 EPA report concluded that the technologies of turning garbage into fuel were both well developed and promising but that, “as long as the cost of landfills do not consider the environmental externalities,” those less noxious procedures “will have a more difficult time being cost competitive.”

In Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, Alfieri describes Red Hook in its shipping heyday as “the gullet of New York swallowing the tonnage of the world.” Today, the digestive metaphor should be reversed: New York is a gullet in distress, vomiting its tonnage into the world. And the city has only sporadic interest in how its splatter gets cleaned up. Part of the problem is jurisdictional: The Sanitation Department’s responsibilities end at the municipal boundaries. “Our first job is to manage the waste that New Yorkers generate,” says Deputy Commissioner Gregory Anderson. “We have an obligation to pick up that material — 24 million pounds every day — and get it out of the city to its final destination.” As to whether the ratio of those final destinations should tilt away from landfills to waste-to-energy plants, Anderson is studiously neutral. “I wouldn’t say right now we’re taking steps to favor one over the other.” The bridge is the municipal equivalent of your trash chute or curbside bin: Once it’s there, it’s gone.

Yet the city’s burden is also a problem for New Jersey, the entire Northeast, and beyond. Garbage doesn’t stay where it’s made. “This country has no national waste policy,” laments Michael Van Brunt, a Covanta executive in charge of environmental issues. “It’s left to local jurisdictions. And even if you have state legislation to limit waste, how do you prevent people from just driving it across the border?”

Squeezed between unsustainable options for disposal, the Sanitation Department is left with what seems to be an even more impossible task: persuading New Yorkers to change their behavior. Today’s technology of waste does a good job of neutralizing one category of waste at a time — recycling boxes, separating metals, composting artichoke leaves, or liquefying plastic into fuel through pyrolysis. But as soon as those streams get contaminated, those procedures break down. A length of plastic wrap carelessly tossed in a recycling bin for rigid plastics can snarl around the sorting machinery until a worker manually hacks it away. If the city’s residents would only learn to throw out less and sort it better, the 24 million–pound question of what to do with one day’s garbage might get lighter by a few million pounds. Yet a system that depends on individuals conscientiously sorting their dregs is a fragile apparatus.

Siting new landfills and waste-to-energy plants “is a battle that doesn’t need to be fought,” says Clare Miflin, an architect who runs the Center for Zero Waste Design. “Food scraps in the trash is the worst part of everything, and it’s the easiest to solve.” Miflin focuses on the minutiae of waste collection, advocating for the adoption of wheeled bins that Sanitation Department trucks can lift with a mechanical arm, for instance, or rewriting rules so large buildings can act as neighborhood collection points, keeping plastic bags off the streets. She’s a big fan of “pay as you throw,” a fee-based system of financial incentives in which a household or a building gets charged for each pound of trash but not for properly sorted recyclables. And yet if the city did roll out a truly popular organic-waste-collection program, that would mean facing the consequences of success: what to do with it all. “You’re not going to locate a compost facility any more easily than you’re going locate an incinerator,” Barlaz says. “You still have to truck it, it’s still going to smell, and someone’s going to protest.”

We know how to reform garbage: Discard less, recycle more, separate better, compost plenty, burn whatever’s left, and dump in landfills as a last resort. (We also need to overhaul the plastics and packaging industries, but that’s a whole other story.) If we don’t do all that, it’s partly because every step of every procedure is fraught, and even the easy parts can be tricky. The apartment building I live in recently signed on to the city’s curbside organics-collection program. Now, in addition to the bins that receive print newspapers and the obscene quantities of plastic and metal that come with every takeout meal, plus the everything-else trash chute that leads to the compactor, we have a line of brown bins in the basement ready to receive food waste — and only food waste — headed for a composting facility, possibly in Staten Island. Using them doesn’t exactly require heroics, and it’s a lot easier than toting a bag of kitchen scraps to the farmers’ market each week, but it’s just inconvenient enough (especially on the frequent occasions when an elevator is on the fritz) that I suspect few of my neighbors will bother.

The curbside composting program, started in 2013, has mixed fitful progress with resounding failure. Halted during the pandemic, briefly restarted in 2021, paused again in the first weeks of the Adams administration, and cautiously reintroduced a few months later, it is now diverting a scant trickle of New York’s organic waste. This month, the city announced a promising pilot program in which it would pick up compostable organics from every household in Queens. Everyone will get a brown bin, though once again participation is voluntary, with all the potential haphazardness that implies. To policy-makers, reluctance to go even a few steps out of the way or to spend a few extra bucks on compostable bags seems like intolerable stubbornness, but reluctance to comply is baked into the history of waste. “Governments have always blamed the people when garbage programs fail,” says Patricia Strach, the co-author with Kathleen Sullivan of the forthcoming book The Politics of Trash: How Governments Used Corruption to Clean Cities, 1890–1929. “In the 19th century,” when municipal governments were trying to institutionalize collection procedures, “civic clubs would have women walk around and talk to householders about how to separate their trash and what kinds of bins to use. There was a lot of education, modeling, and praise.” Today, we have a bulk mailer, “How to Get Rid of Your Stuff.” It goes out with the paper and cardboard in a clear plastic bag.

Minor hitches add up; eliminating them is a finicky but necessary element of any grand strategy. If the city is serious about reducing the waste stream, it will have to comb through its whole intricate system the way an environmental inspector looks for a radioactive diaper in a truckload of trash: item by item. Benjamin Miller, a DSNY planner in the early 1990s and the author of Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York — The Last Two Hundred Years, has written about the many points of friction and inefficiency that slow a banana peel’s passage from fruit bowl to dust: all the handlers, trucks, machines, transfers, and forms of transportation that require energy, cost money, and produce emissions. Then there are the bureaucratic challenges. Waste disposal involves a fistful of agencies — the Departments of Buildings, Sanitation, Parks, Environmental Protection, and Transportation — divided by different cultures, computer systems, histories, hierarchies, and degree of access to the mayor. Commercial waste is picked up by a flotilla of private carters that aren’t required to report where they take it.

“You have to begin by asking, ‘What are the components of trash now, and how is that going to change?’” Miller says. “Then you have to think about what you know and don’t know and work through every step.”

In trying to understand how New York backed itself into a future of filled-up landfills, maxed-out waste-to-energy plants, and an ever-more-powerful torrent of trash, I spent a lot of time hunting for a villain. Was it the politicians congenitally unable to think beyond the next election cycle? Sanitation bureaucrats who have no incentive to disrupt the department’s daily routines? Rapacious companies, shady middlemen, blinkered experts? In the end, I concluded that the villain is the universal desire to repress the unpleasant until the instant it roars into sight. There’s something deeply Freudian about the way we think about trash — or don’t — and it’s getting in the way.

“Covanta doesn’t make the garbage, the Sanitation Department doesn’t,” Castaldi says. “We do. You and I are the problem.”

Voyage of the Gross