Opinion: We need legislative reform to address our trash problem

We can only fix our trash problem by cutting down on the amount of waste we produce, which will require legislation like the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act.

Trash bags are piled up on a Manhattan street.

Trash bags are piled up on a Manhattan street. Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress

New York City has a trash problem. It’s everywhere, and it’s unavoidable. Our sidewalks are piled high with garbage bags and overflowing bins, and the stench lingers over the city. How can the greatest city in the world – filled with influential movers and shakers and so much capital – manage its waste so poorly? 

Over the years, city officials have made big promises to better handle New York’s garbage problem. From new garbage container designs to more efficient trash trucks, it seems we’re willing to try anything but confronting the problem head on. To get to the root of our trash crisis, we need to reduce the staggering volume of garbage we produce each day. 

This is no small feat – New York City produces about 3.1 million tons of residential waste every year and another 2.8 million tons of commercial waste annually. The city spends about $450 million annually to ship its trash elsewhere, to landfills or incinerators sometimes thousands of miles away – money that could be invested in sustainable waste management practices if our quantity of trash wasn’t so staggeringly high. Cutting this down will require radical behavior change, driven by legislative reform, enforcing sustainable waste management responsibility on top producers, and incentivizing a robust transition to a zero-waste, circular economy. 

The New York City Council just passed a resolution that I introduced calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature to pass the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act this session. This bill would require that companies which make or distribute a product in New York bear the responsibility to properly dispose of or recycle that product. It can provide an estimated $150 million in revenue for New York City to help offset the cost of waste and recycling operations. 

Rather than just focusing on the types of containers our mountains of trash are collected in, which is what the Adams administration has been laser-focused on this year, we need to implement a strategy to fundamentally reform our relationship with trash and what we do with it. 

There’s a long way to go. We’re plagued by a throw-away culture where consumerism, disposable packaging, and single-use consumer products are the norm. Without government intervention and real incentives to break this cycle, our waste production problem has become one we simply can’t keep up with. 

In an attempt to right these wrongs, last summer, I led the passage of the Zero Waste Act, the most ambitious waste reduction legislation of its time in the nation. These laws paved the way for diverting organics and recyclables from landfills and incinerators, reducing waste export costs, maintaining cleaner streets in our neighborhoods and mandating Zero Waste reporting. But we’re now coming up on one year since we signed this landmark bill into law, and the budget cuts that slashed our composting programs and the massive piles of trash throughout the city tell the story of a city that’s not ready to face its trash crisis. 

Beyond the unsightly piles of trash – which should be reason enough to reduce our waste production – it’s important to understand the impact our trash has across the state and beyond. Communities around the country are suffering from the consequences of our constant stream of garbage, as well as from the unchecked production of fossil fuel-based plastics. 

Take Seneca Falls, NY – the picturesque town in the Finger Lakes region that is known as the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement. Today, it’s also known for a different legacy: home to New York’s largest landfill. The dump stands 30 stories high – taller than the Statue of Liberty – and accepts up to 6,000 tons of waste each day, 30% of which comes from New York City. 

Living in the shadow of the dump, residents of Seneca Falls and surrounding communities are suffering. The odor is debilitating – local businesses have cited employees going home sick with nausea or headaches on days that it's especially strong, and teachers say the smell prevents students from playing outside. These negative impacts are not just concentrated in one community; wastewater from the dump’s runoff is contaminating waterways across the state with PFAS, toxic “forever chemicals” that are found in household products like nonstick pans or paint. In addition to contaminating our drinking water sources, landfills are a known driver of climate change, emitting massive amounts of methane and other fugitive emissions into the atmosphere. 

The Seneca Meadows landfill demonstrates all the worst ways our throwaway culture harms New Yorkers across the state and permanently alters our environment. Downstate, we need to take responsibility for the damage that’s been done and strive to be better neighbors and stewards. 

It’s time to get serious about our trash. The status quo just isn’t working, and it’s not an issue we can ignore anymore. We need substantial investments in our zero waste future and leadership from both the city and state to guarantee a more sustainable and healthy future for New York.