Ah, the sweet stench of a New York City summer!
Yes, it’s that time of year when nearly every New Yorker becomes painfully aware of the abundance of garbage present in the city, which brings us to today’s topic: waste management. Where does it all go??
In the city, residential trash and recycling are collected by the Sanitation Department for residential buildings, while private commercial collection companies are used to collect trash from commercial establishments such as stores and restaurants.
The Sanitation Department collects various types of waste that include trash that can’t be recycled, recyclables (paper, metal and plastic), organic waste (food scraps and yard waste), hazardous products (refrigerators, air conditioners, batteries, medical waste) and electronics. The department also sweeps city streets and collects garbage from litter bins located on sidewalks throughout the city. Aside from managing waste, come winter time the department also takes on the responsibility of managing snow, turning garbage trucks into snow plows and spreading rock salt throughout the city.
Organic waste is collected either by curbside pick up, though that program was put on hold due to major financing cutbacks made during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, or at various drop-off locations around the city – we’ll dive deeper into this subject later on in this issue. When it comes to hazardous products, appointments can be made to pick up larger items such as refrigerators, while other items may be collected at special collection events or at various drop off points. Electronics, such as old computers or television sets, can also be dropped off or donated at various sites.
Once garbage is picked up, it’s sent to various landfills and incinerators, many of which are located in other states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. In fact, since the closing of the city’s Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in 2001, nearly all of the city’s trash is sent outside of the city to be disposed of in landfills and incinerators. The city has been criticized for polluting areas where the garbage goes, many of which tend to be located near impoverished neighborhoods such as Newark’s Ironbound district.
When it comes to commercial waste, however, private and licensed carting companies are used to haul off trash and are known for posing a great deal of risk to those who work for them, as well as pedestrians. These companies are in charge of collecting a little over half of the city’s waste, including garbage and recycling, that comes from privately owned businesses. Many workers at these carting companies may make hundreds of pick-ups in a single evening, causing them to rush and cause accidents, some of which have resulted in fatalities either of workers or city residents. Unlike the city’s fleet of sanitation workers, many workers at private carting companies are often given menial wages – compared to the average Sanitation Department salary after five years on the job: $77,300 a year – few breaks and even fewer allowances for time off. However, city legislation was introduced in 2019, that will attempt to make the industry far safer and less chaotic for workers.
By the numbers
The dirty details
- 2,000 tons: the estimated amount of recycling picked up each day
- 10,000 tons: the estimated amount of garbage thrown out by New Yorkers each day
- 40,000 tons: the estimated amount of compost collected by the city each year before the pandemic, which is sold to community groups and landscapers.
- 1.7 million tons: the estimated amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the city’s trash each year, according to a report from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability in 2017.
- 6.4 million tons: the amount of garbage produced by the construction and demolition industry in 2019.
- $409 million: the cost to ship the city’s waste outside of New York in 2019.
Mini history lesson
How the sanitation department was formed
Before any form of sanitation department existed in New York City, the streets were lined with garbage, human and animal waste and even animal corpses. People became sick with illnesses such as cholera and yellow fever due to the massive amounts of garbage everywhere, which was often discarded in public places, ponds, natural springs and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1832, it was reported that the smell of the city could be detected six miles outside of it. Just imagine how rank summer time was back then!
In 1881, the New York City Department of Street Cleaning was created in an effort to clean up the city after the public expressed dismay over its garbage filled streets and lackluster garbage collection services that were initially managed by the New York City Police Department. In 1895, Civil War Colonel George Waring implemented a much more comprehensive system to remove trash from the city’s streets and even developed a recycling program. New Yorkers were so thrilled by the progress made by Waring that they celebrated him and the city’s sanitation workers in a parade.
Who’s in charge of cleaning up the city?
- Edward Grayson: After Kathryn Garcia stepped down from her role as Sanitation Department commissioner in 2020 to run for New York City mayor, Grayson was appointed as the new head of the department. Grayson has been with the department for 22 years and is now in charge of day-to-day operations, ensuring that city streets are clean – and come winter, are snow-free.
- Antonio Reynoso: Throughout both of his terms on the City Council, Reynoso has chaired the City Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, where he has been able to pass legislation to cap the amount of waste collected in trash-burdened areas and implement a commercial waste zoning system to improve the haphazard industry.
How the city’s waste contributes to climate change
As garbage decomposes, it releases the greenhouse gas known as methane, which is even more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. That means that cutting down on waste is of paramount importance.
Basically since it was founded, the city has been trying to reckon with its waste problem by attempting to reduce waste and implement an organic waste collection system to make use of food and yard scraps, which account for a third of residential waste. While the city’s program was put on pause during the pandemic, it’s expected to return once again in August.
However, even when the program was up and running, the city only collected about 13,000 tons of organic waste, which is about 1.2% of the 1 million tons of organic waste produced by the city each year. The rate at which this type of refuse has been collected has hardly increased since 2017. Part of the problem is that the program is entirely voluntary and requires residents to sign up to participate in it, as opposed to other cities such as San Francisco and Seattle where organic waste separation is mandatory.
“If there were one knock on our sustainability efforts on the waste front it would be the – I was trying to find some word other than dismal – disappointing progress we’ve made in organics collection, despite the commitment of the sanitation commissioner,” Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Politico in 2020.
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