NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 29, 2010

Twenty-five years ago, the New York City Board of Estimate, under Mayor Edward Koch's leadership, approved a plan to reduce the need for putting municipal garbage in landfills by developing facilities to burn it to create energy.  At the same time, the city took the first steps toward creating a recycling program.  Since then, disposal costs have risen faster than inflation, and the need to find better methods of getting rid of waste is even greater, say Norman Steisel, New York City sanitation commissioner from 1978 to 1986, and Benjamin Miller, the Sanitation Department's director of policy planning from 1989 to 1992.

That fledgling recycling program evolved into the system the city has in place today, but no waste-to-energy plants were ever built: 

  • Instead, in 2001, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed the city's last remaining landfill, and since then the city has sent every pound of nonrecycled municipally collected trash out of the city.
  • About 15 percent of it goes to a waste-to-energy plant in Newark, but most of it is sent to destinations in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina.
  • In such places, New York's waste despoils the landscape at a rate of 140 acres a year. 

As New York City's garbage decomposes, it releases some 1.2 million metric tons a year of carbon dioxide and its equivalents -- primarily methane -- into the atmosphere.  On top of that, the fuel it takes to haul 11,000 tons of waste hundreds of miles six days a week releases an additional 55,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year, say Steisel and Miller: 

  • When commercial waste collected by private carters is added to the total, hauling New York City's waste to landfills uses half as much fuel every year as the city's taxi fleet running 24/7.
  • The combined annual greenhouse emissions from hauling and putting this waste in landfills amounts to half as much as Con Edison releases to produce the city's electricity.
  • Since New York began exporting its garbage, the Sanitation Department's budget has more than doubled, to $1.3 billion in the current fiscal year from less than $600 million in 1997.
  • In addition, in the past seven years, the costs of the city's landfill contracts have gone up more than $90 million, enough to pay 1,000 full-time firefighters, nurses or teachers. 

Source: Norman Steisel and Benjamin Miller, "Power From Trash," New York times, April 27, 2010. 

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