New York City residents produce nearly 13,000 tons of waste every single day. 81% of this waste ends up in landfills and incinerators throughout the Northeast region. As the garbage decomposes, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The diesel trucks that transport this waste carry it a distance equivalent to driving more than 312 times around the Earth.
To combat these impacts, New York City has been working toward achieving their Zero Waste goal of eliminating all waste sent to landfills by 2030. This goal requires the reduction in volume of disposed goods, as well as the recovery and reuse of their materials.
Nearly one third of the waste New Yorkers produce is organic material. Through the composting process, this food waste is broken down and recycled into fertilizer for plants and farms. Though the city has expanded its organic collection process over the last decade, only a small fraction of our leftover food is actually diverted from landfills.
NYC needs a more robust, reliable, and accessible composting system. This requires long-term commitment and cooperation from public officials and businesses, as well as buy-in from the public. We need to make the separation of food waste convenient and hygienic for the community, and ensure an efficient collection process throughout our neighborhoods. Int-1942, a bill that would mandate that at least three organics drop off sites be operating in each district, has still not been passed.
Another large part of our waste stream consists of plastics such as supermarket bags, straws, bottles and caps, and even cigarette butts, whose filters contain small plastic fibers. Plastics take upwards of 450 years to decompose, and will sit in our landfills emitting methane until they do so. Last year, City Council passed Int-936, which bans food establishments from providing plastic straws without the request of a customer. The city must continue to focus on reducing the consumption of single-use plastics amongst businesses and the community.
Our current waste process has several flaws that prevent the city from reaching its Zero Waste goal, many of which revolve around building design. Buildings are producing more waste than can fit in their waste rooms, resulting in an overflow of garbage that ends up in corridors blocking access to service areas and exits, or on sidewalks, inviting vermin and other hygiene issues. The size of these trash rooms also hinders the construction of a separate organics collection.
Setting size requirements for waste storage areas in commercial buildings, and requiring a waste management plan be submitted before building approval would increase recycling accessibility. Furthermore, the removal of waste chutes and requirement of a central waste zone within both commercial and residential buildings would streamline the process and allow for easier oversight and higher diversion rates.
For the last year, New York has been focused on implementing Commercial Waste Zones (CWZs). The program would divide the city into twenty zones, each of which may only have up to three hauling services contracted. These haulers, once approved, will be under contract for 10 years. Decreasing the number of haulers competing mitigates market saturation, and allows for increased consistency, transparency, and affordability. It will increase diversion rates from landfills, and limit the environmental toll from vehicle transportation. Citywide standardization will also ensure that areas that lack resources are provided with equal opportunities for recycling and waste management.
Our waste management system is nowhere near perfect, but by adopting new policies we can make the changes necessary for improvement. To make real progress in the use, disposal, and diversion of our garbage, we need to see more commitment from the administration and City Council. Passing new legislation to expand these programs will reduce garbage collection costs, increase street hygiene and attractiveness, and benefit the health of our planet and community.
Mayor Eric Adams has also just released this year’s proposed city budget – and while there has been proposed funding for various necessary services, there have been cuts to waste management services. Mayor Adams proposed to stop the expansion of the organics collection program in out years, halting our progress towards zero waste. It’s critical that the Mayor doesn’t decrease funding in this year’s budget for essential sanitation services, when sanitation is affecting public safety, public health, and environmental outcomes in every neighborhood across the City.