Dealing With New York’s “Other” Crisis: The Trash Tsunami

Posted by NYPIRG on March 4, 2024 at 10:20 am

When New Yorkers think of pressing environmental issues, many think of the worsening climate crisis.  And with good reason:  Last year was the hottest in recorded human history and it is deteriorating rapidly.

Yet, there is another environmental crisis that demands attention – the mounting problem of what to do with trash.  According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Americans now generate twice as much waste as they did 50 years ago.  What to do with the trash that we all produce?  Right now, the number one place that residential trash goes to is a landfill, number two is that it is exported for disposal, number three burned, and last recycled.  There is no evidence that the problem is getting better.  In fact, the state’s residential recycling rate has been dropping over the past decade.  By the way, these disposal methods contribute to the climate crisis: Solid waste accounts for 12% of statewide greenhouse gas emissions, most of which comes from decomposing waste in landfills. 

The state’s capacity to take this problem on is dwindling.  Again according to the DEC, “New York’s 25 municipal solid waste landfills have a combined landfill capacity of between 16 and 25 years.”

If the state’s landfills are filled to capacity in a decade or so, what will happen?  Trucking the waste somewhere else is likely to be the option, but that is expensive and who knows for how long someone else will be willing to take New York’s trash.  Actions taken now could extend the lifespan of these landfills, but waiting will make the options even more difficult.

Policymakers have long known what to do about it, but as yet have done far too little to take on the mounting crisis.

During the last week of December, the state’s DEC released its review of how New York handles its wastes and offered a 10 year plan for how to deal with it. 

The “New York State Solid Waste Management Plan” contained six major “Focus Areas” with goals and action items.  Overall, the Plan called for a shift toward a “circular economy.”  A “circular economy” is one in which the manufacturer of a product, like packaging, ensures that it can be reused, repurposed or serve a beneficial purpose upon disposal, e.g., composting.  The Plan’s six major focus areas include:

  1. Waste Reduction and Reuse;
  2. Recycling;
  3. Making Waste Producers Responsible for the wastes they generate;
  4. Organics Reduction and Recycling;
  5. Toxics Reduction in Products; and,
  6. Advanced Design Solid Waste Management Facilities.

But a plan is just a plan, no matter how good.  Action items are needed. 

To that end, last week hundreds of New Yorkers descended on the state Capitol to urge legislative action to curtail a major contributor to the residential trash problem – packaging.  These activists called for action on two major proposals:

First, the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act will reduce plastic packaging by 50% over 12 years to dramatically reduce waste, as well as phase out some of the most toxic chemicals used in packaging, improve recyclability of packaging, and slash greenhouse gas emissions associated with plastic.  It will also make polluters pay by establishing a modest fee on packaging paid by packaging producers, generating new revenue help defray waste costs for local taxpayers.

Second, an expansion of the Bottle Deposit Law.  That’s the law that requires a nickel deposit on certain carbonated beverages and bottled water.  When you return the container, you get your nickel back.  The Bottle Law has been the most successful litter reduction and recycling program in New York history.  The DEC describes it as a “tremendous success.”  When the law kicked in 40 years ago in 1983, carbonated beverage containers were found everywhere; now the overwhelming majority of these containers are redeemed under the program.  But many beverages – most notably non-carbonated sports drinks – didn’t exist four decades ago and are not covered by the law today.  And the nickel deposit was put in place 40 years ago – that 1983 nickel when adjusted for inflation is worth 15 cents today.

The advocates calling for these measures are trying to turn plans into actions — actions that have to be taken sooner if they are to have the effect of reducing the state’s trash problem.  You only have to look at our worsening climate to see what happens when policymakers don’t act.  This year, lawmakers should act and turn those cans into cash to make headway on the threat of the state’s trash tsunami.