MARKET REPORT: New York Reveals Its State of Garbage

With N.Y.'s Fresh Kills landfill closing in July 2001, the newest New York State Assembly Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management report, “Where Will the Garbage Go? 2000,” should interest environmental officials in several other states. After all, according to the report, nearly 5.1 million tons of New York's 23.6 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) was exported in 1999.

While these numbers are the highest ever identified by the report, they likely will rise even more for 2000, and again in 2001, once the Fresh Kills landfill is closed, says Richard Morse, executive director of the commission. Originally, Fresh Kills was slated to close in December, but it will be ready to close in July, he says.

“We've always exported [garbage] — we've been exporting commercial waste for the past few years,” Morse says. “Obviously, it will be increasing dramatically [after the closure].”

Landfills in Pennsylvania reported the most MSW from New York, receiving almost 4 million tons in 1999. Virginia disposed of 1.2 million tons of New York's trash, while New Jersey took in 600,000 tons and Ohio received 400,000 tons.

States receiving New York's MSW identify approximately 1.3 million tons more than the state reports exporting. This discrepancy possibly is due to the nearly 514 transfer facilities — particularly those in New York City — that under-report the amount of waste they manage. For example, a facility limited to transferring 100,000 tons per year might report 100,000 tons, but may actually be transferring 120,000 tons per year, Morse says.

According to Patrick Golden, senior research associate and author of “Where Will the Garbage Go? 2000” the DEC is investigating why companies under report. Some facilities already have been fined for providing inaccurate numbers. “How frequently they are doing this also is something we're trying to get at,” Golden adds.

Meanwhile, the recycling industry received a boost from New York in 1999 — 5.9 tons of MSW were recycled, representing 25 percent of the waste stream, which is up from 12.7 percent in 1998. Waste disposed in 28 New York landfills totaled 8.9 million tons, a 1.3 percent decrease from the previous year.

Some smaller upstate communities have been struggling with recycling programs, Morse says, citing one municipality that abandoned recycling last year. New York's attorney general sued them because state law requires recycling, and the community was forced to reinstate it. The law does not state what must be recycled, he says, so “people [in different areas of New York] may do it differently, but generally the same group of items are collected.”

Materials recycled in the largest amounts include:

  • Yard waste: 920,000 tons or 15.6 percent of total recycled material;

  • Miscellaneous paper: 773,000 tons or 13.1 percent;

  • Construction and Demolition (C&D) debris: 650,000 tons or 11 percent;

  • Scrap Metal/Ferrous: 573,000 tons or 9.7 percent; and

  • Commingled material: 399,000 tons or 6.8 percent.

  • To collect recycling data, Golden surveyed solid waste managers and recycling coordinators throughout the state. He says gathering such a large amount of data can be challenging, especially because there are no requirements for reporting recycling data.

    “You're trying to squeeze information out of municipalities that might not be compiled yet,” he says.

    Although reported recycling has increased each year in the state, many municipalities say its recycling programs have leveled off during the past three years according to “Where Will the Garbage Go? 2000.”

    “Local solid waste officials are discovering, and including in their reports, greater amounts of private sector recycling,” the report states. “As more data becomes available, this report will more completely represent [New York's] total public and private sector recycling.”

    As of the latest figures, landfilled waste has declined 46.2 percent since 1988, but during the past six years, the decline was only 4.8 percent. However, more data has become available on the types of waste being landfilled. By far, the largest tonnage of waste landfilled in 1999 was MSW, with approximately 6 million tons. At 1.2 million tons, C&D debris had the second highest.

    No new landfills were opened in 1999. However, the DEC has issued permits to four entities looking to build or open landfills in the near future. Since 1986, when the commission was created and began reporting on the state of waste, the number of active landfills has fallen by 90 percent.

    In 1986, there were 294 landfills compared to 28 active landfills in 1999. Similar to what occurred in previous years, the report attributes the decrease to smaller landfills closing and larger landfills prevailing due to economies of scale.

    Of the 28 active landfills in the state, 11 landfills, which accept 10,000 tons to 100,000 tons, managed 6.6 percent of the landfilled waste. Eleven landfills that accept 100,000 tons to 500,000 tons managed 27.8 percent of the waste. Five landfills, which accept more than 500,000 tons, managed 65.5 percent. One landfill accepted less than 10,000 tons of waste.

    Nearly 3.7 million tons of waste were processed at the state's 10 waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities in 1999, an increase of just 0.2 percent, or 8,000 tons from 1998. Morse attributes the stagnant numbers to cost. The last WTE plant built in the state was in 1993, he says.

    “They're expensive. Nobody's building them,” Morse says, adding that several have to upgrade their facilities due to regulations. “If the energy situation changes, maybe we'll see a new generation of WTE facilities.”

    Nevertheless, the amount of waste processed by WTE facilities since 1986 has more than doubled — approximately 1.5 million tons were burned for fuel vs. almost 3.7 million tons in 1999, according to the report.

    In contrast to the decline of MSW landfills, C&D landfills have more than doubled within the past six years to 92 active landfills at the end of 1999. This is 13 more than the previous year, the report states.

    While the report held few surprises this year, Morse says it is a crucial document to policymakers.

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