Life After Fresh Kills:
Moving Beyond New York City’s Current Waste Management Plan

A joint research project of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Earth Engineering Center, and the Urban Habitat Project at the Center for Urban Research and Policy of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Policy, Technical and Environmental Considerations, November 2001

Columbia Study Finds a Solution to NYC Deficit in the Garbage.

With New York City facing a $4 billion budget deficit, it’s time to start looking in the garbage for cost savings, according to the Columbia University Earth Institute in its 2002 report, “Life After Fresh Kills: Moving Beyond New York City’s Current Waste Management Plan.”

With the closing one year ago of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, and in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the Columbia report comes at a critical time for New York. During the next few years, the report argues, the City must go beyond temporary measures and devise a permanent garbage solution to avoid falling victim to financial and political problems, and even to possible hazardous environmental disasters.

“Right now, New York City’s long-term plan is to transport three million tons of waste each year to landfills in Virginia and Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Nickolas J. Themelis, professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering and director of the Earth Engineering Center of the Columbia Earth Institute, who led the technology team in the study. “As our report shows, this is a dangerous course of action, both economically and environmentally. The City needs to start gearing up now for material and energy recovery from municipal waste, the same as is being done in other developed countries like France, Germany and Japan. Our proposals can help New York meet this major challenge.” They include:

  • Waste-to-energy (WTE) technologies plants that convert carbon-containing garbage to energy. We can burn garbage to produce energy – lowering the cost of electricity and reducing our need to bury garbage by over 90%.
  • Bioconversion of organic wastes to natural gas. We can also produce natural gas from garbage – further reducing the cost of energy.
  • Materials-recovery facilities (MRF) that increase the rate of recycling of materials, such as plastics, metal and glass, that cannot be converted to energy
  • Use of landfilling only for materials that cannot be recycled or converted to energy. New York City has closed its last landfill and the costs of landfills are no longer under our control. We are at the mercy of landfill operators in other states. The cost of garbage disposal has increased dramatically over the past five years and we will see more substantial price increases over the next decade.

“The Bloomberg budget cuts recycling because it costs too much for the benefit it brings,” said Steven Cohen, co-author of the study and director of Columbia University’s Graduate Program in Earth Systems Science, Policy and Management. “The same could be said about the city’s entire waste management system. Waste export is a short- run strategy that will only get more expensive over time. We need a region-wide solution to solid waste that includes waste-to-energy incineration, recycling and a limited landfilling of ash and similar materials.” Cohen calls for the kind of forward-looking civic spirit that brought about the city’s water system 100 years ago.

Columbia’s Earth Institute, Earth Engineering Center and the Urban Habitat Project undertook the research project, combining policy perspectives with technical perspectives, at the Center for Urban Research and Policy of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

In May of 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki announced that Fresh Kills, where most of the City’s trash had been dumped since 1947, would be shut down. Over the next five years, the Fresh Kills Closure Task Force developed a short-term plan for reducing the 13,000 tons of waste delivered daily to Fresh Kills. After the final closing of Fresh Kills, the Department of Sanitation (DOS) adopted a 20-year interim plan that disposes of waste by moving it out of the state by truck, rail and barge, the transportation being handled by private contractors.

While accepting the interim plan as necessary for the time being, the report observes that if a better solution is not reached in the future, New York City will be vulnerable on several fronts:

  • Financially, taxpayers will suffer from the increased costs of waste transportation; dumping at Fresh Kills cost $42 a ton, but with waste export, the cost rises to an estimated $70 to $100 a ton. Furthermore, exporting waste puts the City at the mercy of an increasingly consolidated waste transportation industry.
  • Politically, the City will be vulnerable to legislation that seeks to restrict the flow of garbage across state lines. If such legislation ever passes Congress, New York could face an emergency. And, as the events of September 11th demonstrated, terrorists have the ability to cripple the City’s transportation infrastructure. If another such attack disrupted rail and truck transportation for any significant period of time, New York could face a waste disposal crisis of enormous proportions.
  • Environmentally, too great a reliance on long-distance trucking could lead to increased air pollution from fuel burning, and if a truck or barge failed to reach its destination safely, environmental calamity might result. Also, a continued focus on exporting waste outside the City may lead to an out of sight, out of mind attitude that neglects the need for recycling and waste diversion.

The report urges City planners to “think big” and think creatively to devise a permanent solution to New York’s waste disposal problem. Fresh Kills, a makeshift solution born of crisis, was intended to be temporary but ended up lasting for 53 years. The process of creating a new waste management plan will take time, and the report urges that it begin as soon as possible so as to avoid another Fresh Kills.

download the report