Latest N.Y.C. Gridlock Threat: A Rise in Exports of Garbage


Tractor trailers now carry so much trash up and down the East Coast on Interstate 95 that solid-waste officials have dubbed it "the Great Trashway." That handle is likely to be reinforced in the years ahead since New York has recently announced that over the next five years it will close its landfill, the largest in the country.

When the huge, but politically controversial, Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island closes, the Big Apple will become the nation's largest garbage exporter. The city, however, is only the latest in a long line of communities to ship their trash out of state to so-called megadumps or high-temperature incinerators. The trend, prevalent in the Northeast and the West Coast, however, could increase highway congestion as more trucks haul trash. The cost to dispose of trash could likely increase, as well, and cities will face added pressure to recycle.

Producing more than 12,000 tons of garbage a day, New York will have to face up to these problems relatively quickly.

"It will be quite a management job," predicts Tom Kennedy, executive director of the Association of State and Territory Waste Management Officials in Washington. He says New York will have to send its trash to landfills and incinerators around the East Coast.

Despite the volume, the city should have no trouble finding dump space, says Lanny Hickman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. "There's lots of capacity out there," he says. In the Virginia area alone, he says, there are now dumps with a combined capacity of 10,000 to 12,000 tons of garbage a day. "But if you dump that much on the marketplace, you could possibly drive prices up," warns Mr. Hickman.

The prospect of New York's trash heading across state borders already has some trash-importing states leery. Indiana's US Sen. Dan Coats (R), says, "It certainly doesn't give Hoosiers, or a lot of Midwesterners for that matter, greater peace of mind knowing that the country's largest landfill is closing."

And if the city uses a fleet of trucks to haul its trash, the decision could add significantly to highway congestion. It would mean a truck would be leaving the city about every 15 minutes for out-of-town landfills. "It is too painful to contemplate, the congestion level is already world class," says James McGowan of the Automobile Club of New York.

Residents living in towns surrounding dumps frequently complain about the traffic. For the past two years, Senator Coats has introduced legislation that would allow local communities to have some control over landfills. The Senate approved the legislation last year but the measure stalled in the House Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia. Mr. Bliley's office did not return phone calls.

Environmental groups hope that the decision to close Fresh Kills means the start of an aggressive program to encourage recycling. Currently, the city recycles only 2,000 tons of garbage per day. Private carters recycle 35 to 40 percent of the 12,000 tons of commercial trash they haul. "If Fresh Kills gets closed, the question is realistically how much can be recycled or how much can be eliminated through waste-prevention techniques so what is left is manageable?" says Jim Tripp, general counsel of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Mr. Tripp says he believes the city must increase its recycling by 75 percent. This would leave it with 3,000 to 4,000 tons per day of trash to export. But no city in the United States currently recycles at that rate. New York would have to do a much better job of educating the public about composting. Yard waste from Queens and Staten Island currently makes up about 3 percent of the city's waste. An additional 15 to 18 percent is leftover food. Tripp says this can easily be composted if the public understands the process. New York could make further gains if it started to recycle "mixed paper," not just white paper. But Lucian Chalfen, a Department of Sanitation spokesman, calls these suggestions "patently unrealistic."

Resource-recovery advocates, however, are worried because the city's new budget, passed last week, has cut recycling funding by nearly 40 percent. "It will reduce the amount of recycling and the people's enthusiasm for recycling," predicts Chris Meyer, staff attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

But Mr. Chalfen counters, "What is being done in the current budget has no implication or effect in the next 4-1/2 years as we go to close the landfill."

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