Monday, July 22, 1996


Change Your Lifestyle, Produce Less Garbage - Part III

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

No matter how the garbage situation resulting from the accelerated closing of the Fresh Kills Landfill (rescheduled for year-end 2001 instead of 2011) is resolved, the citizens will pay, because sending garbage by rail or boat out of state is more expensive than sending it by barge to good old Staten Island.

Fresh Kills today processes over 13,000 tons of garbage daily, brought in by barges. That is often expressed as 27,000,000 pounds, over three pounds for every man, woman and child in the city. The numbers do not include the New York Times and the glass, metal and plastic that go into recycling.

The 3,000 acre landfill, the size of five LaGuardia Airports, has some mountains of garbage as high as 150 feet (15 stories), covered with dirt and grass. Confusion and lesser numbers result if an older landfill area and staging areas are omitted from the count. The technology and the area is a tourist attraction, with interested experts world-wide coming to study it regularly. Current dumping is confined to 800 acres. Fresh dumped refuse is covered fast, cutting down on the gull population's breakfast. But there is a decomposition process, emitting methane gas (about 1/20 of the total national emissions), 25 percent of which is captured and converted to fuel use. Nevertheless, the odor persists. There is also leachage (a hard word to pronounce), since the 48-year old dump has no liner, and rainwater brings solubles with some toxins into the surrounding waterways. After closing, the city will spend another $775 million over a 30-year period to stabilize the landfill, which includes some plastic membrane to stop future rain penetration, capturing the leachate and removing the toxins, and capturing more of the methane (it is poison; think of New Zealand, world champion producer of lambshanks, actively suffering from the uncontrollable emanations of its 70 million sheep). Fortunately methane converts into natural gas. Will the process work? Well, the smaller Pelham Bay Landfill, actively accepting 2,600 tons a day for 15 years and closed in 1978, still brings leachate directly into Eastchester Bay at the rate of 30 to 50 gallons a minute. Note that closed landfills become parks and the responsibility for cleanup shifts to the Parks and Recreation Department.

The Mayor's committee of 12, appointed to resolve the problem of alternate ways of disposing the 13,000 tons of New York's residential garbage every day, has to come up with a solution by October 1. The end 2001 closing smells like a real estate speculators' and garbage haulers' dream, and I wish that wisdom would prevail, keeping Fresh Kills open, accelerating the continuing control of methane and leaching processes and offering buyouts to seriously afflicted Staten Islanders at current market prices. But the committee is bound to recommend export, with some pious words involving more citizenly responsibility in recycling. This is a group of professionals from city and state agencies, including ecology, health and economic development people. Names are not available, and no publicity is given to their deliberations, not to speak of hearings. Cost shifting by charging the household (building, coop) for the garbage by the bag may be proposed. Should we the taxpayers not be part of the process of deliberation?

Parenthetically, isn't it peculiar how cost shifting back to the consumer has become the government's answer to social problems? We see that when the Transit Authority charges school kids for subway and bus travel, and when the hospitals put the excess costs of Medicaid and Medicare patients on insured clients' bills, . What is government for, really? Just to pay civil servants' salaries?

The states that take our daily 12,000 tons of commercial garbage - Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana - really don't want an increase in garbage imports, no matter how much a starving locality needs the funds and how environmentally acceptable the imports are.The U.S. Senate has already passed a states' rights act permitting a ceiling on garbage imports, and its counterpart is pending in the House. Guy Molinari, Staten Island's Borough President, who forced the advance in the date of closing Fresh Kills from 2010 to 2001, does not want to be tagged as the assassin who buried New York in garbage, and claims that "we will beat the states in the courts." Yes, there is a Supreme Court decision that garbage movement qualifies as interstate commerce and therefore not within the purview of state laws. States cannot discriminate against chosen exporters or set arbitrary limits. This came up when in 1987 the Long Island barge with 3,100 tons of offal traveled for months through inland waterways futilely looking for a landfill site. Will this decision stand up in today's court?

So, there we are. My recommendation to buy Liberia and ship the garbage across the Atlantic came in a moment of despair over this irresponsible politically motivated government decisions, without plans, without regard for the consequences, pushing the responsibility of digging out from under the garbage on the community. I also blame several prior generations of government who ignored the garbage problem with feeble recycling efforts. But black humor and comic relief do not solve problems. More realistically, can we dispose of New York's garbage within the U.S.?

Well, we can change our ways to produce a relatively garbage-free environment. Will the lifestyles of New Yorkers and all other urban dwellers who do not live off the land have to alter radically to avoid getting buried under reeking garbage? Yes indeed, and the means are there, let me show you.

Most non-compostable, that is non-organic residential garbage comes from packaging. It is often said "Why do we have so much wrapping?"
Packaging came as the result of mass production of agricultural goods, ease of transportation and less dependence on local products, public taste for off-season luxuries, and therefore increased need for better shelflife of food products. It killed Mom and Pop non-agribus small scale farming. As a result of more people and smaller living quarters in the cities, and therefore less shelf space in kitchens, smaller and smaller packages also became desirable.

Some of us still know of "rushing the growler," that is going to a bar to have a reusable jug filled with beer from a reusable barrel. As a young child, I recall having reusable milk bottles filled from a twenty-gallon open-top milk can by a grocery clerk using a dipper (don't shudder, he closed the can between uses, with ladle and funnel inside). And today you can still order seltzer in reusable siphon bottles from a local soda maker. There are also greenmarkets supplying fresh vegetables and fruit all through the year, by storing the harvest in their local cold storage rooms, then bringing out the requisite amount for the market day. That is the way apples are supplied all year long, and the concept can be extended to some other fruit and locally grown vegetables. No need for most frozen vegetables, canned vegetables and fruit. Juices also can be served into reusable jars from reusable barrels. And the Japanese , for centuries, have brought home takeout food in beautiful stacked lightweight lacquer vessels. With that we have the solutions for reducing the need for packaging and garbage in six major areas - beer, soda, vegetables, fruit, juice and takeout. Remember, nowadays we have the miracle of refrigeration at home. And a can of Coca-Cola can be reduced to a large pill, like Alka-Seltzer, plus water. Of course, they would have to change the refrain of their song to "Plop plop, fizz, fizz." Of course, it would hurt, but I'm willing to be brave. The real pain would be going to the Internet for the New York Times.

Of course, it would cost, more labor in the grocery store and less employment in the packaging industry. But it would also reduce destruction of forests and other natural resources. Again, refrigeration saves the day, the one great saving factor in preserving food which our forebears did not have. Everybody knows that the European discovery of the Far East was prompted by the need for spices that would help the taste of food turning rancid in the winter. Salt helped, and salt pork that kept was a major staple, as was smoked meat. This is no longer our problem.

Increasing the size of packaging of goods that cannot be sold fresh will further reduce garbage production. My cat's food now comes in a 15 oz can. In the drugstore, we can get a quart squeeze bottle of shampoo instead of a pint, and squeeze hair lotion instead of spraying it. Squeeze bottles are also reusable and refillable. Think of going back to reusable sanitary napkins and diapers, which should be not all that difficult, since we now have washing machines.

LOOKING AHEAD by Wally Dobelis

Help Staten Islanders, Don't Close Fresh Kills - Part II

Early closing of the Staten Island landfill is not fair to Staten Islanders and to the rest of New York's taxpayers. If that sounds paradoxical, please read to the end.

The Fresh Kills Landfill may well be one of the world's more efficient garbage disposal operations. Functioning on a 3000 acre area since 1948, along Victory Boulevard, traversed by the West Shore Expressway and crisscrossed by Arthur, Fresh, Main and Richmond Creeks, the 2,200 acre actual landfill has four sections, of which two (3/4 and 1/9) are closed and covered, and two (1/9 and 6/7) are active.

Every day some 20 barges (of a fleet of 103), covered with nets to keep the loose bits of their 700 ton payloads confined, arrive from the eight marine transfer facilities in four boroughs (Staten Island delivers by truck) and are guided by their tugs to one of two identical unloading facilities in Fresh Kills, to be emptied with superbooms into containment pits. There front-end loaders move the refuse into huge payhaulers, to be moved to the site, sprayed with pine oil deodorants, compacted by bulldozers and covered, nowadays reportedly within a day. The 1994 deposits of 7.9 billion pounds are a half of the deposits seven years ago, mainly thanks to the recycling program, which, though receiving only 14 percent (of the legally required 25) from New York's 3 million households' waste, compares favorably with L.A.'s 9 percent and Chicago's 3 percent. That's not great - 60 percent of municipal solid waste is deemed recyclable. The 6,700 cities and towns with active curbside recycling programs recover 45 million tons of trash per year, and New York's daily 2,200 ton recovery constitutes 1.4 percent of that, even though we make up 3 percent of the U.S. population. But then there is also the business recycling program. The city's 250,000 businesses do create over 12,000 tons of waste daily, nearly the same as the residential 13,200 tons, which are exported.
to Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

The nature and philosophy of garbage has also changed. Until recently New York used refuse to reclaim land from swamps and create commercial and recreational land. Lower Manhattan doubled in size through landfills - remember Battery Park City. Fifty years ago 40 percent of refuse was ashes and cinders from coal burners; now paper is number one, over 30 percent. Since the 1970s and the Environmental Protection acts, incineration in the U. S. is down to one percent of municipal solid waste; over 60 percent is landfilled, and the rest divided between recycling and conversion to energy. Dumping in the ocean was stopped after a federal law banned it in 1934.

In the Kills, skimmer boats patrol the waterways to pick up stray litter. A crushing facility daily converts 750 tons of construction debris into cover and roadbuilding material for the site. [Please note that commercial construction and demolition material is hauled by private carters to private landfill sites. This is an area where governmental control is needed; some of these sites will cost the nation huge cleanup fees if not watched. The famous billion-dollar Superfund is not sufficient even to handle the legal fees incurred in trying to settle the responsibilities for cleaning industrial waste sites. Private waste carters are not very trustworthy, look at the medical waste disposed on Jersey Shore and dioxin dumped on rural roads, and sneaky deals with impoverished landowners abound.] That could have been worse, because the Barnwell, S.C. low level radioactive waste dump closed in 1994. It reopened, after tripling its charges, in 1995, for 10 years only. But hazardous waste is another topic.

At Fresh Kills, tree branches, leaves and Christmas trees are converted into compost (there is a 40 acre composting facility; you can get some for your garden free of charge) and used with cover material for landscaping. The landfill will be a wildlife habitat. There are methane gas venting pipes and recovery facilities, expected to be enlarged. Refined gas presently brings in $1 million a year when sold to Brooklyn Union Gas Company. But that will not pay for the treatment of wastes, some toxic, emanating as leachate. A new treatment plant is expected to clean 200,000 gallons a day (to be enlarged to 1,000,000 gallons) to prevent surface and ground water contamination. The cost of treating emanations from the landfill over the next 30 years will exceed $775 million.

People who do illegal dumping of toxic and medical waste can be fined. The 150-member Environmental Police Unit in 1994 issued 1/4 million summonses and impounded 295 vehicles for dumping, or stealing recyclables.

It takes nearly 600 engineers, operators, administrators, chemists and geologists to operate Fresh Kills, six days a week, 24 hours a day. The Sanitation Department, founded in 1880, has 7,300 uniformed workers and supervisors, out of a total of 9,500 employees, working out of 59 districts. There are nearly 2,200 collection trucks, of which some 1,000 are out in the streets daily; there are over 1,500 street sweepers, specialized collection trucks, salters/sanders and front end loaders; there are 2,200 support vehicles and nine boats - and 26,000 street corner baskets. The department's budget is $575 million for the upcoming year, and the Commissioner is John J. Doherty, who started with the department in 1960 as a sanitation worker.
Replacing the efficient Fresh Kills Landfill operation will increase the actual garbage disposal costs to between double and quadruple the present figure. "Bail and rail" is the costliest; an efficient disposal via water transportation is best, but who will accept it? Maybe up North, the poor Maritime Provinces of Canada will provide the space (hint: start cranking up Henry Kissinger). Remember the unsuccessful 6,000 mile Long Island garbage barge journey down into the Southern states, in 1987? Knowing Mayor Giuliani's and Governor Pataki's bent for privatization, it may well be that industry rather than government will be called upon to solve the disposal problem. Let's hope not, that would be a cheap trick to avoid the responsibility of governance. The lobbyists of the garbage giants, Browning Ferris Industries, US Waste and WMX Technologies (a/k/a Waste Management) must be rubbing their hands in glee, not to speak of the Mafia, who, despite a series of City and Federal indictments for conspiracy still hold considerable sway in the private carting industry.

Now that the City and the State have declared their intentions, prices for landfills will certainly go up. That was a real smart move, and the New York taxpayer will, as usually, pay for it. We may also have the privilege of footing direct charges per bag or bale from each building, as they do in San Francisco, Seattle and Minneapolis and hundreds of other municipalities. The 26,000 corner baskets will disappear, and people will sneak garbage down to the street at midnight, or throw bags out of car windows. We may yet erect monuments for Messrs. Molinari, Giuliani and Pataki, for burying us in refuse. These monuments will not be in marble.

If the committee of 12 government representatives selected by the Mayor and the Governor has any gumption, it should rescind the decision to advance the closing of Fresh Kills by the year end 2001, and, instead, have the city offer to buy out the residents who need immediate relief from the emanations. The Sanitation Department, as recently as two years ago, saw 20 years worth of landfill space still left in Staten Island. The odor will not cease within appreciable time after the closing. Improvements, such as the increased capturing of the methane and other odor-reducing measures can go on while the landfill is operating, and the Sanitation people, by daily covering of the fill, have reduced the smells and the hungry gull population. It would be much more humanitarian to buy out and resettle the business offices and residents who find the odors unendurable, rather than having them wait for 30 years for the smell to subside. The relief would be immediate, and the cost would be fractional. People who bought property at Fresh Kills did it with their eyes open and accepted its shortcomings because real estate was less expensive. It is common, to buy near an airport or swamp and put up with the problems for the sake of saving money; I spend my vacations in the country next to the township's gravel storage, for the same reason. Do we complain - yes! Did we enter into the agreeement with our eyes open - yes! Do we get community help? No, unless there is a health hazard. Nobody in Staten island has sued sued for misrepresentation, nobody has collected for health damages. If people who bought real property cheap now want to increase their property values at the cost of the rest of New York taxpayers, it is not fair. But the politicos have decided, the political client and, apparently, big business interests have been served, and the public can go hang, both the people on Staten Island who want fair and immediate relief from the odor, and the people of New York City who cannot afford the ever-increasing costs of governance and cost shifting. The solution stinks, I claim foul play. Let's hear from you, City and State, and taxpayers!

Wally Dobelis thanks Lucian Chalfen, Sanitation Department's Assistant Commissioner For Public Affairs, for producing the departmental facts and figures. The speculations and conclusions of the continuing articles are the product of Wally's fertile (some say febrile) imagination, with no official assistance.

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