IBO Report Evaluates SWMP’s First Ten Years

Findings Echo Concerns Raised by NYLCV and NYLCVEF

We hate to say I told you so but…New York City’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) just released a report that added weight to two major concerns NYLCV has consistently raised about the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

The report was timed to coincide with the tenth year of the twenty-year Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) adopted by Mayor Bloomberg. Adopted in 2006, the plan was designed to achieve a host of environmental and equity goals, namely shifting the city’s truck-based waste export system to one that relies more heavily on barges and rail. The primary implementation mechanism has been an investment of $910 million in the City’s marine transfer station network, strategically placing them so as not to burden environmental justice communities and to reduce truck traffic.

Evaluating the success of the plan is complicated for a number of reasons. The plan was developed under the assumption that as the city grows, the amount of waste it generates would too. In fact, there has been a downward trend due in large part to digitization of parts of our world. The decline of newspapers, magazines, phone books and catalogues has significantly reduced the amount of recyclable waste we generate, negated only slightly by an increase in shipping refuse as a result of online shopping. At the same time, the percentage of recyclable content diverted has increased even though it is still lags behind the City’s targets. Another piece of good news is truck miles have decreased already even though the buildout of the transfer stations has not been completed.

NYLCV has long said the largest near-term challenge is how to deal with organic waste. In 2014, the NYLCV Education Fund held a policy forum looking at how the City could meet its goal at the time of reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills 75% by 2030. Ultimately, a lack of processing capacity in and around the city was the biggest barrier identified and we recommended that the City work to develop new facilities, while increasing the amount of waste digested at waste water treatment plants such as Newtown Creek.

Just last month, this topic came up again as part of NYLCVEF’s forum series on “Getting NYC to 80 x 50.” Mayor de Blasio has doubled down on the previous goal with an effort to send zero waste to landfills by 2030 and a rapid expansion of the his organic waste collection pilot that will soon go citywide. These efforts are excellent steps forward at increasing diversion rates by the IBO underscored an issue raised in the background paper we released in advance of our Waste Forum: SWMP will need to be revised to accommodate the city’s rapidly growing organic waste collection.

The second major concern NYLCV has been raising, which the IBO has joined the chorus on, is the long term future of the transfer stations that underpin SWMP. They have been challenging to build and at have come at a high cost, yet the city’s Zero Waste goal could render them obsolete in their current form. The reality is the city will still be exporting waste for many years to come but in the remaining years of SWMP, the City and relevant stakeholders must begin a conversation about how to repurpose these to account for the City’s evolving goals and the new realities of how we generate waste. If they cannot be repurposed for organics and recycling export, which do have their own environmental costs, then a creative reuse scheme will need to be developed.

Ultimately, there have been some major successes through SWMP, which put our waste management practices leaps and bounds ahead of where they were. At the same time, we are appreciative of the IBO for its thoroughly researched analysis that will further advance the dialogue on how we can continue to advance concerns of efficiency, equity and the environment through SWMP. Look for NYLCVEF to echo many of the points is raised in its recommendations resulting from last month’s 80 x 50 Waste Forum, which are due out next month.