The Future of Trash, or What to Do With It All
ON almost any given weekday, legions of garbage trucks sputter and screech down Long Island’s streets, collecting the trash left curbside by residents to magically disappear.
NO TAKERS The Mobro, the garbage barge that went on a five-month odyssey in 1987.
But where does all the garbage go?
Just over a quarter of Long Island’s garbage is recycled. Roughly 43 percent is turned into electricity through incineration. The remainder — roughly 1.1 million tons, or 30 percent of the total waste stream — is hauled off Long Island to out-of-state landfills and waste facilities. That’s about 50,000 tractor-trailer loads of garbage a year — or, 137 big-wheelers barreling past daily on the Long Island Expressway.
More than 20 years after the infamous barge Mobro spent about five months looking for a landfill to dump more than 3,000 tons of garbage, Long Island still has a garbage problem, sanitation experts say.
Long Islanders may not be able to see the problem as residents do in Naples, Italy, where piles of garbage obscure the sidewalks outside the city center. And Long Island doesn’t have roaming garbage barges now as it did in 1987. But it is still shipping tons of garbage out of state, and, with the rising price of fuel and ever-increasing development, some experts say that may not be a realistic solution soon.
“The public doesn’t see this as a crisis yet, but it really could be,” said Jim Bunchuck, past president of the Long Island Sanitation Officials Association and the current solid waste coordinator of the Town of Southold.
More recycling is among the possible solutions, but Long Island’s recycling efforts need a concerted jolt, some sanitation experts say, as participation has been falling.
“If you look at municipal curbside recycling, there are fairly efficient programs throughout Long Island,” said R. Lawrence Swanson, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. “However, the municipalities need to do more to inspire residents to step up to the plate and do more.”
Experts also say businesses should receive better incentives to recycle and more local markets for recyclables should be cultivated to eliminate the need to cart them off the Island.
In addition, Long Island’s four waste-to-energy incinerators have room to increase capacity. Still, some experts say that the added capacity would not be enough and that a new facility should be built.
While state data on local waste management is incomplete (town reporting is voluntary), the Waste Reduction and Management Institute has been keeping tabs on Long Island’s waste. According to the institute’s most recent data, the total waste generated on Long Island increased from 2.85 million tons in 2001 to 3.7 million tons in 2006.
While the amount of garbage incinerated has remained the same (1.6 million tons a year), the institute says the quantity transported off-Island has spiked: from 443,000 tons in 2001 to 1.1 million tons in 2006.
As the amount of garbage transported away has increased, so have the costs.
“We’re incurring greater costs because of our trucks now that fuel is going up,” said Phil Nolan, the Islip Town supervisor. “When the price of fuel goes up 35, 40, 50 percent in a very short time frame, it has incredibly dramatic and deleterious effects. We have a very immovable task, and it’s not going to change.”
Currently, the national average cost of diesel fuel is $4.50 per gallon, which is roughly $1.60 more than it was last year, according to the American Automobile Association. Because of rising fuel costs, Mr. Bunchuck said, “Trucking will put those towns that ship out their garbage in jeopardy.”
The Island’s four waste-to-energy incinerators — in Babylon, Islip, Hempstead and Huntington — could all increase capacity, Mr. Bunchuck said. “But even if they were all fully expanded,” he said, “they couldn’t accommodate everything being shipped out.”
Dr. Swanson agreed and suggested that Long Island look to build another waste-to-energy facility. But Mr. Bunchuck said a new facility would probably not receive public support.
“The perception is that it’s dirty,” he said. “But there’s really no emissions anymore.”
Even working with the resources it has, Long Island could at least save money by working cooperatively, some experts say. Each town controls its own flow of garbage and negotiates its own contracts with carters.
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CONTAIN IT New recycling bins in North Hempstead.
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Phil Marino for The New York Times
WASTE STREAM Workers in Islip separate plastics from food cans.
“Theoretically, we can do much better, particularly as a community in competition with New York City,” Dr. Swanson said. “Right now, we’re bit players — town by town. But together, we might be able to cut better deals.”
He noted that past efforts to unite the towns were unsuccessful. “Waste management is really a cash cow for the towns,” in part because of contracts with carters and tipping fees, he added. “And they don’t want to give that up.”
Recyclables are also a revenue stream for municipalities. Kate Murray, the Hempstead Town supervisor, heads the most populous township in the United States, at about 800,000, and says her municipality has the highest residential recycling participation rate by household in the country. The national average is 49 percent; Hempstead’s is 79 percent.
However, Ms. Murray noted that recyclables do not always render high revenue returns. “From month to month, prices fluctuate daily like the stock market,” she said. “Newspapers sometimes lose us money.”
From 2001 to 2006, the amount of recyclables extracted from the waste stream fell roughly 1 percent, according to the institute.
Meanwhile, the amount of residential waste increased 2.9 percent from 2002 to 2004, said the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group based in Farmingdale. Citizens Campaign said recycling rates on Long Island have declined steadily since peaking in 1997.
In early June, Citizens Campaign issued a report card for Long Island’s recycling, grading the programs of 14 municipalities. Forty-three percent scored below a C, while 21 percent received a failing grade. Only one town, Islip, received an A.
Adrienne Esposito, Citizens Campaign’s executive director, said after the report was published, “Most towns admitted they have put recycling on the back burner.”
However, officials of some towns that scored poorly said that the report card did not accurately reflect their programs.
North Hempstead, which was given an F, has subsequently dismissed the recycling coordinator who provided information for the Citizens Campaign report. Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said that the coordinator did not give an accurate picture of the town’s efforts and that a true portrait of its program should have earned it an A, or “at worst, a B.”
What Citizens Campaign agrees on is that a new school recycling program begun by North Hempstead in mid-June (months after the report card was completed) has provided a model for the rest of the Island. The town distributed about $250,000 worth of containers for each classroom in each school district.
Bob S. DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, a conservation advocacy and education organization in Bridgehampton, said that recycling education and awareness efforts had fallen by the wayside in favor of other missions, like land preservation.
Mr. Bunchuck said that Long Islanders have little to inspire them to do the work of separating their garbage and recycling. Also, governments should try to give businesses incentives to recycle, he said.
“We need more companies engaged in the conversion of recyclables too, instead of shipping them out,” he said. “Long Island needs to find a way to accommodate its garbage.”