Where Does the Garbage Go? New York City's Recycling Programs

Where Does the Garbage Go?

Think about this the next time you throw that banana peel, plastic packaging and junk mail away: residents of New York City and its surrounding boroughs are responsible for generating 12,000 tons (that’s right…tons!) of garbage each day. Picking up this mammoth daily load are 2,230 collection trucks. The collected waste is then moved to transfer facilities and carted off to landfills—located in various surrounding states—which are now nearly all at capacity. Prior to cutting back recycling services, it has been reported that New York spent almost $1 billion per year on trash and recyclables collection.

Finally, New York City is figuring out that there must be a more convenient, economically sound, and environmentally safer way to get rid of its refuse. In a recent radio address, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg talked about the passing of his administration’s long-term plan to achieve the goal of becoming “more environmentally responsible, economically sound and equitable across all five boroughs.”

How it Was…and How it Will Be

Many years ago, trash was burned in incinerators, but they didn’t meet the air standards of the EPA and they didn’t generate much power. “They were also an annoyance to people in the area,” says John Doherty, commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation.

“Then there were landfills, but we had to close many of them down because they were filled.”

Currently, the process is as follows: the city’s Department of Sanitation trucks pick up the garbage and transport it all to transfer facilities in surrounding states.

“We have one transfer facility in New Jersey that is a waste energy facility, but most of the waste ends up in probably a dozen or more landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia,” Doherty explains.

Soon however, each borough will be responsible for transporting their own garbage to their own transfer facilities.

“[In this] new solid waste management plan with the city council, it will provide for transfer station facilities in all boroughs,” says Doherty.

Bloomberg explains that under the new plan, there will be four new marine waste transfer stations built and up to five rail waste transfer stations activated.

“This will allow us to transport nearly all of the city’s residential garbage, and more of our commercial garbage, by barge or rail. As a result, sanitation and tractor-trailer trucks will travel nearly six million fewer miles every year—and New Yorkers will have cleaner air and safer streets.”

One advantage of the water-based system, says Doherty is that it will minimize the truck traffic in and out of the city.

“A more modern facility would have the trucks come into a containerized facility and then they would barge away,” says Doherty. “A really well-designed system these trucks would come in indoor facilities, such as tunnels and not clog up traffic.”

Health Concerns

However, according to Steven Cohen, the executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York, it’s not the transfer facilities or the garbage that causes the most environmental and human health concerns.

 “It’s the movement of the thousands of diesel trucks that have the most negative effects,” says Cohen. “Some of the ingredients of diesel fuel are carcinogenic.”  

Providing an alternate fuel source for these toxin-spewing vehicles is an option to reduce pollution, but it is not one that will likely happen soon.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is bringing in cleaner-burning trucks than we have now, but the existing trucks have to die first—and that’s 10 to 20 years before they get off the road,” says Cohen.

New York is catching up to the rest of the country, according to INFORM, the national environmental research organization, who released its latest report, Greening Garbage Trucks: Trends in Alternative Fuels Use, 2002–2005 in February. The study found that robust growth in the use of alternative fuel refuse trucks in the U.S. and internationally.

INFORM’s new report, authored by senior fellow James S. Cannon, documents that since 2002 the use of alternative fuel refuse trucks—nearly all powered by natural gas—has doubled from 697 to as many as 1,496. The number of cities in which these trucks operate has also doubled, from 26 to 57.

Their reports find that, “Refuse trucks have become the most rapidly growing natural gas vehicle sector in the US. Their use has expanded more rapidly as a percentage than any other vehicle sector. Its 89 percent increase was four times the overall 20 percent increase (between 2002 and 2004) in natural gas vehicle use nationwide. New natural gas fleets have come into operation in Paris, Madrid and Mechlun, Belgium. Other clean fuels and advanced technologies are emerging: use of biodiesel (San Jose, CA) hydraulic hybrid technology (in Los Angeles) and use of bio-methane fuel, a win-win strategy capturing a powerful green house gas that was escaping from landfills for use as a clean renewable refuse truck fuel (with projects in Burlington, NJ; Los Angeles Cty., San Diego, and Gothenburg, Sweden.)”

Not In My Neighborhood

There are other alternatives for getting rid of garbage too, including the use of waste energy facilities. The Integrated Waste Services Association (IWSA) describes what waste-to-energy facilities produce: “Clean, renewable energy through the combustion of municipal solid waste in specially designed power plants equipped with the most modern pollution control equipment to clean emissions.”

“These facilities, like the one we have in New Jersey, will receive the garbage and burn it at high temps to generate steam or electricity,” says Doherty. “The waste energy generates electricity and you don’t have to landfill it, but some areas don’t want to accept these facilities.”

These facilities produce an ash that can be used in construction, and Doherty explains that while it’s a good way to process trash—because it does meet the federal and state requirements for clean air—it’s very objectionable to the communities in which the facilities are located.

“Everything we do with garbage will cause pollution, but we’re trying to create plans so that it doesn’t impact as many people. When you have a sanitation facility—garage, transfer, landfill—there is also the objection being in a particular neighborhood,” he says.

Not all the time. Sheila Callahan lives on West 60th Street, just a few blocks shy from the Hudson River Barge where garbage trucks deliver their goods. “It has zero impact on my life,” she says. “I don’t really see them delivering their stuff, so I don’t get troubled by diesel fumes. Garbage trucks tend to move, rather than idle—like other trucks that sit and run their engines to keep food refrigerated, for example.”

Even still, Doherty and Bloomberg hope that cutting the emissions and cost will save on the financial and economic health and well-being of the residents and the community.

“Finally, our long-term plan also includes a new and ambitious recycling plan,” says Bloomberg. “Soon, the city will enter into a 20-year contract with a private company that will invest in a modern recycling plant in Sunset Park, which will create 100 new jobs on the Brooklyn waterfront.”

Recycling in the City

New York City did attempt a recycling program, but in 2002, facing a severe budget crisis, the city stopped recycling plastic and glass, while continuing to collect paper and metal. Now the earth-friendly practice is in full force again and Bloomberg hopes that it will be far more economical than it was just a few years ago.

“Our recycling plan will create a new waterborne network of transfer facilities that will accept recyclable material for shipment by barge to and from the Brooklyn plant,” he says.

Other new concepts being reviewed include composting and what Doherty calls gasification. “If you burn waste at a very high temperature,” he says, “there is little exhaust.”

Composting is defined as the controlled microbial decomposition of organic matter—such as food and yard wastes—in the presence of oxygen, into humus, a soil-like material. Humus (not to be confused with hummus, the tasty spread made from chickpeas) can be used in vegetable and flower gardens, hedges, and so forth.

“We’re looking at that, because we have yard waste in the city,” says Doherty. “Picking up leaves in the fall, grass in the spring. We do that out in the open with the leaves, turn it over and residents come and pick that up once or twice a year. The bottom-line success of this new management plan is that each borough is becoming responsible for handling its own waste and, as we get new technology, the city will have to approach it the same way. Accept the new technology and find a site to handle waste in the future.”

So the next time you consider throwing away scraps and trash consider where it might end up.

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer based in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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  • Marine waste transfer stations, what are they? you mention them in this artical but you dont explain what it is. A professor of mine had mentioned that the garbage from Nwy York City was dumped onto barges, shipped out to sea and DUMPED! I could not believe that Americans would consiously make a decision like that. Just because other countries dliberatly pollute doesn't mean that upstanding Americans need to do the same. If this is true i am completly disgusted with the american society and hope for some REAL change. thanks
  • cool
  • Nice
  • i feel the same way. we need to care about our envoirment because who esle will. what other forms of dumping trash pollute our envoirment and how can we stop it.
  • i think that you are correct. and hi Jasmine!! see ya later! :]
  • Marine waste transfer stations might be a good way for American, but, to picture with long term ...We only have one world, how selfish the US government officers are.
  • I read the article because me and my dad were having a dispute where trash goes. He had said landfills and I had said and island. I forgot who told me but that's what I heard. I have no idea how they would do that but is it true?
  • isn't that gong to lead to Global Warming?? People should take the food that's in the garbage, like banana peels and other stuff that could discompose into oil for the future, so they should put all that food.. into a place that animals won't reach and we should stop using plastic bags, because it ain't healthy. You EMOS are destroying this planet!!!!!
  • EVERY1 RECYCLE FOR THE GOOD OF OUR PLANET!!!! when u recycle, the stuff we used before gets used agian and then we don't have to cut down so may trees for more paper or endager anymore of our resorces.
  • I agree with you, instead of putting our garbage on landfills, we should put it in the fire and let all of our waste products burn.
  • cunado leas este articulo encontraras muchos articulos interesantes
  • Somebody should do a investigative report or even a documentary to help open up people's eyes. Many people do not know, or havent even thought about where the garbage goes. By showing what we throw out, and how we deal with the garbage directly to people, IT WILL IMPACT (preferrably change) THE PEOPLE. Education is the key to fixing this issue.
  • :)) i agree....we need to use our brains more often
  • Anything and everything, no matter how big or how small, should be recycled. From paper, plastic, styrofoam, glass, metals, to food waste, yard clippings, water, and the like, and it should be required and enforced by set laws. But it is not just the US that should be required to do so. Every country should have the same, enforced laws as the US. If need be, a representative of each country or several reps of each country should come together to create the largest coalition in the world to set down laws, that can not be changed, and reinforce those laws agressively.
  • you wrote alot of information but thats good because u are helping me out with my project for class so who ever u are thank you so much for all ur help,........
  • u wrote alot of information for people to learn how to recycle at or outside to where ever we go with our parents and we people need to stop littering outdoors because the only person your hurting is your self because the more u litter the more your hurting the environment.......
  • thanks you tought me alot today
  • "Everything (up to 90%) has a second life at least, why don't we keep it that way? Also, why can't we be more responsible and recycle more even if it costs a little bit more to help the environment and to save God's awe-inspiring creatures? Maybe you will think about the world twice if there is nothing left to enjoy? What kind of a life are your children going to have? Are they going to follow in our footsteps? Most likely. So you can teach them good habits instead of bad ones, so we can help get our world to be a cleaner, healthier, and greener place. Right now the world is not. We could all stop wasting and reusing in the smallest way like, by not buying plastic and using glass instead or donating usable items to a thrift store (for someone else to help go green too, like i do) instead of tossing in the trash. See, even you, can help not to pollute."
  • nice
  • you know people don't care about anything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!:(
  • Recycle please! I will help save us and better yet it will help save the world.
  • plzrecycle4thisplanet:> on Friday, May 7, 2010 12:18 PM
    people need 2 start caring 4 this world or its gonna end up sooooo trashed! we cant live in a trashed worl!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • man we need to stop polluting, the numbers of litter keep on going up!
  • pollute keep on polluting just kiddin do not do this u are killing are planet people
  • isnt this gunna lead to global warming??????? we gotta stop this!!!!!
  • People are retarded, we are slowly killlng ourselves!
  • I live in Hoboken NJ and I'm sick of NYC sending all their garbage down to Jersey. It makes the whole place stink. Sometimes when I go to work in NYC I feel like people can smell the garbage on my clothes and can tell I'm from Jersey.
  • WOW! I never Knew Garbage had so much impact in the country. So much money to remove garbage only. Interesting garbage comments guys. LOL.....
  • Manhattan co-op resident on Tuesday, June 29, 2010 11:49 AM
    Where garbage goes and recycling efforts are just part of a bigger issue.NYC pre-war building were not set-up fo store mountains of recycled materials and furniture etc that's only picked-up once a week. Some buildings store this stuff in a courtyard, under residents windows. Others store it an service area thats visible to anyone passing by their building. Doesn't the fire and health departments have any rules for containerized thjis garbage? t the health departmentd have
  • @Jackie Haynal "Just because other countries dliberatly pollute doesn't mean that upstanding Americans need to do the same." LoL - we ("upstanding Americans) are BY FAR the biggest polluters in the world, bigger than countries with far larger populations than our own. Don't put down other countries, most of which have done much more for the environment than we have or will do.
  • I remeber the days when soda pop came in glass bottles with a deposit on them. You returned the bottles and got your two cents back. Most of my pocket money as a kid came from collecting and returning pop bottles to stores. Most foods could be stored in perhaps 30 or 40 standard sized bottles and jars with a deposit on them. The bottles and jars could be recycled and that would cut down on landfill waste enormmously. In Japan, you cannot throw anything away. Everything MUST be recycled. Western nations had better wake up soon and realize that recycleing is not a luxury but a necessity.
  • "we (upstanding americans) are by far the biggest polluters in the world"? How do you qualify this statement. China has very few restrictions on the damage they are causing to the environment. India and other countries with large populations pollute the environment as they industrialize with utter recklessness. How about we don't just assume that America is the only or biggest problem because we feel bad about our position of influence in the world. Can we do more, of course, but get real.
  • Stop procreating. Produce humans at a lower rate than the death rate and the problem will resolve itself in 1000 years.
  • We pollute indirectly by buying products from these companies in foreign countries that do not regulate pollution.How many things do you own that were made in India or China? We need to become educated about the real cost of items that we purchase (real in terms of environmental damage. We have become a consumerist culture and we need to change.
  • I believe it is time for people to be responsible after they reach the age of 18, therefore we should each be responsible for the trash we individually create. The richer you are the more trash you waste and the more responsible you should be held. Or we can store it in politicians mansions since they are responsible for managing each city.
  • I thank that is a geate so think you
  • Has anyone been to Europe? They have so many great recycling programs and produce so little waste.
  • Jackie, Your professor is only partially correct. NYC does not ship trash to be dumped but it did unitl very recently ship sewage out into NY harbor and dump that in the sea. THE EPA finally outlawed this practice. A marine waste transfer station is simply a place where trucks haul trash to. The trash is loaded onto ships/barges and transferred to another location for disposal/recycling or some other form of waste management. The greatest concern is that despite considerable improvements in recycling schemes in the US the amount of waste going to a landfill per capita continues to rise. Unless everyone cuts down on their consumption and businesses make serious efforts to reduce packaging the problem of what to do with all the waste is only going to continue to get bigger and bigger.
  • woah.
  • yes! i really do think that we need to save our environment because after some years we will have no oxygen
  • Hopefully with true help of the smart us citizens in this world we can put a stop to this. We need to stop just thinking of ourselves and think about the ones who made it here for us all these years and be more respectful. It would be wonderful if everyone all over could come outside and smell fresh air everyday.
  • Have you guys ever read something that supposes to answer your question yet you get nothing out of it? After reading this entire article, where is the answer?
  • This was a nice tribute to Bloomberg our Emperor and Dictator. Doesn't really answer the question of whether NYC's recylcing program pays for itself.
  • cool
  • hahah, it wont stop.
  • the unknown users brother on Thursday, December 9, 2010 11:49 PM
    How would YOU know??? huh ?
  • well we gotta do sumthin to stop iit then stop talkin nd start doin
  • The PRESIDENT has to make RECYLING LAWS MANTORY.And make co and people follow them.WE CAN PAY ALITTLE NOW OR We will pay with our health later.Just look at outher countres DISEASES AND FAMINE.
  • We all used to eat food from the earth sans packaging. The simplest solution is to go back to it again. Everything in a package is made from ingredients you can buy separately. If you skip the packaged products, your garbage and recycle cans will be empty, your wallet likely more full (especially if you grow some food and shop at farmers markets), you'll be supporting local farmers, and contributing less to shipping and industrial pollution. A win win for us and the planet. I've pared down to a breadbag full of garbage per month. It feels great.
  • A Person (Of Course!) on Monday, January 31, 2011 9:37 PM
  • u should know that no one care about all this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • dear someonesomeone, why r u reading this article then, if no one cares about this? i think its very important and while some people dont care, they should it is their and their childrens happiness and health that is at risk. just saying.
  • how do medc countries deal with garbage?
  • i love this website is really great
  • If all of us were responsible for are own garbage there would not be 10 percent of what there is now.
  • this is when we ask our selves "what do we do now?", ill tell you we find a better way to dispose of the trash then the way we have now
  • I work for a leading trash company in the industry and right know were buying up every recycling center we can and sorting through everything and recycling everything its saving the enviroment which always the top priority.
  • In my opinion (and that of many, many other RSA citizens), the only people in the world who actually believe that Americans care about anything other than money and their own self-interest are Americans. We in the "third world" know better! I am 99.99% sure this won't get approved. Freedom of speech is only allowed if it favours the USA.
  • why wont people star cleaning the earth and stop dirting it so we can be safer.
  • person u don't know on Tuesday, May 24, 2011 12:51 PM
    ya I think it is a really good idea
  • Hey guys, the marine transfer station is simply a way to remove the garbage out of the city without using deisel burning trucks. The garbage would still go to a landfill site. And yes NY use to dump huge volumns of garbage into the ocean many yrs ago.. But nice to hear all your comments and concerns. Recycling is the way of the future, catch up NY.. Vancouver might be a good example.. Cheers
  • hi every one .......
  • i dont think people should make fuss over garbage, and i also think the federale goverment shouldnt pay so much attention to where we throw our garbage...im done...!
  • i think that all this people are right. We do care about our environment!!!!!..... :P :) :}
  • Stop poluting save ther world people this will lead to global warming!!!!
  • Someone told me a rumor that plastic food containers I bring for recycling are put on a barge to China and burned as fuel there, and now I'm attempting to find evidence for or against it. If it is so then it is an example of Idiocracy, isn't it?
  • I find it amazing that folks just breeze past the numbers given in this article. If the numbers are accurate (12000 tons of garbage, NY spending 1 billion to dispose) that means that NY is claiming they spend more than $41 dollars to dispose of each POUND of garbage! That would seem to be a clear sign of possible corruption in awarding of City garbage contracts. Figuring that an average 30 gallon garbage bag has maybe five pounds of garbage in it, that means that NY is claiming they are spending over $200 dollars to dispose of that garbage bag. And another $200 dollars for *each *and *every *garbage *bag like it. The quickest way to either cut down the cost of the garbage service, or to reduce the amount sent to the landfill would be to bill the citizen directly for each pound of garbage they put out. When the family of four learns that they will have to pay $600 dollars *each *week for the three bags of garbage they put out each week, things will change. I have more to write but I can't quickly figure out how to fit the following snippets and phrases into concise meaningful sentences: Insider trading; smoky back-room deals; extremely lucrative, blatantly overpriced contracts; crony-insiders; possible illegal kickbacks; etc. Wow! $41 dollars for each and every pound of garbage -- and no one even blinks an eye!
  • but if it goes there thats wasting paper to or sav ing it
  • im kinda wondering how far they go out before they dump the trash in the ocean because im doing a essay on pollution in english and i think it would be interesting to know!
  • First of all, we as citizens need to reduce how much crap we buy. We don't need all that s**t. Secondly, companies need to reduce their packaging. For example, a plastic bag within a cardboard box within a plastic bag is completely unnecessary. Also, companies need to create packaging that is completely biodegradable, or at least recyclable. Thirdly, all US cities need to implement composting and recycling programs and figure out ways to persuade citizens to actively participate in discarding their trash accordingly. Check out San Francisco, we have a pretty good system, although we could probably do a better job of getting all citizens to participate. Could be better, but it's a start, at least.
  • Joe Hepperle's mom on Wednesday, May 9, 2012 3:07 AM
    thats a silly idea Joe, we already pay for garbage infrastructure through taxes.
  • What is the point in recycling if everything gets dumped together and is mechanically sorted somewhere and probably shipped overseas for recycling?
  • A closed loop energy generation Refuse incineration facility is the best way to go. It doesn't vent directly from incinerators to the atmosphere it uses the heat energy the turn turbines that create electricity and contaminants are eliminated at 2000+ Degrees F* and ash is the waste product that is a by-product that is reuseable as fill or in farm use. Recycling is still needed before incineration to eliminate the burning of plastic and other oil and chemical based products that polute the air. Most other countries are already doing this. We are of course once again last in developing a technology that is benificial to our country instead of creating toxic landfill that cant be used for anything for decades or longer in most cases with chemicals called Leachate that ouze out of the ground and into our streams and rivers. I am sure the American Public Works Association and the EPA and DEQ already know all about the whole operation of Generation Facilites of this type.
  • People should stop freaking themselves out over things they think they know and understand but don ot have the slightest comprehension of.
  • Do your math right, Joe .H. 12,000 TONS per day = 24 millionpounds per day = 8.76 BILLION pounds per year... at nearly one billion dollars per year ~= 11.4 CENTS per pound. A far cry from your scary $41 per pound...
  • I am sure the surrounding states enjoy dealing with new yorkers trash. That is absolutely bulls!*t deal with your own trash.
  • In my country, north of Spain we have on the streets near to our houses several containers intended for the disposal of various families of garbage. Blue container receives paper stuff like journals, magazines, carton board packages en so on. Yellow containers receives all kind of plastic and metal packages. Green container accepts all kind of glass recipients and finally same other big container is intended to deposit the rest of garbage, which is emptied on a daily basis. The blue, yellow and green containers are emptied from time to time when they became full. Besides of that in my city there are tracks placed periodically on a monthly basis at the different boroughs where you can deposit from used cooking oils, batteries, fluorescents bulbs and lamps, toner and ink cartridges, paints and dissolvent, little domestic appliances, cellular phones, radiographies, cleaning chemicals, electric and electronic toys, CDs and DVDs, computers, monitors, keyboards and much more so that a lot of responsible recycling is possible. But if you need to get rid of big appliances like refrigerators, air conditioner, washing machines, driers, tv sets, car wheels and accumulators, furniture and a lot of things there are special sites where you can left such things. The reduced quantity of garbage resulting from this procedure is object of several processes before going to a landfill which shall be closed when the incinerator be operative. If Spanish people is able to do this, why you US citizens couldn't be able to walk on this way?
  • Freshman in high school. on Thursday, May 29, 2014 1:23 PM
    The easiest way to get rid of this problem is to recycle, there is no other option that is safe for the environment. Burning the garbage will just create air pollution, the chemicals that are put into plastic material will escape while being burned. As the chemicals turn into smoke, the ozone layer would be damaged. The only way is to recycle.
  • where garbage gose it is bunt?please ansere
  • A lot of the rubbish that is / was dumped in the sea off your coast eventually ends up being deposited unfortunately on our European shores. Thanks for nothing America !
  • It infuriates me that the city could not find a Local Company to contract with for the Recycling Center. They didn't even use anyone in the United States. Why does New York have an Australian company under contract when there is plenty of able and willing company's here in the United States.
  • New York City is made up of five boroughs. It is not a city surrounded by boroughs. Manhattan itself is a borough.
  • I'm an Australian, I stumbled on to this sight while researching New York's rubbish disposal policy. Sounds like it's not being dumped in the ocean any more, but disposal remains an ongoing problem. Reducing waste is key to the problem. There are some great initiatives in New Zealand and here in Australia. NZ has banned plastic bags, and here, as in NZ, many uses for recycling plastic into other products, have been found. In Bali (Indonesia) villagers are embracing the recycling initiatives and taking part in the beach clean ups. It's good to celebrate these good things, but we can't lose focus on the massive challenge that remains ahead.
  • I was born & raised in NYC 1940 til 1972. As a kid growing up in a neighborhood called Yorkville on the upper eastside I would go to play at Carl Schurz Park , the location of Gracie Mansion home of the NYC Mayor. At 91st street there is an FDR Drive overpass which enabled 10 wheel garbage trucks loaded with NYC garbage to drive into a huge building and dump their loads into waiting garbage barges which were then towed out into the Atlantic Ocean. Once far enough out to sea the bottoms of these barges would open like the bombay doors of a B17 and all that garbage would just fall out and sink to the bottom. Most of it anyway. I doubt this system is in use today though. This was a very efficient way of disposing of the cities garbage but of course if was a horrible way to treat the planet. New Jersey had a different way of dealing with garbage. They had square, acre sized dumps along the Hudson River just west of midtown Manhattan where NJ would simply burn the garbage. How well I remember watching these garbage dumps burning in the evening from the safety of the east shore of the river. I'm sure they waited til the wind was blowing from the east before setting fire to this mountain of garbage cause I never smelled it. I can't say the same for people who lived over there.