MARKET REPORT: Tracking New York's Trash

Although the final destination of New York City's garbage grabs today's headlines, the Empire State itself has been profiling its solid waste record in a report, "Where Will the Garbage Go?" since 1986.

In its 1999 report, released by the state's Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management, a record 22.3 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) were managed in, or exported from, New York State in 1998 - an increase of 3.5 percent over 1997's tonnage.

This percentage may be an anomaly, however, because the state's MSW has increased only by 10.5 percent since 1992. This large increase may be attributable in part to better accounting practices by reporting facilities and planning units. An improved economy also may be the cause, says Audrey G. Hochberg, assemblywoman from the 88th assembly district of New York and chair of the commission.

"In 13 years of 'Where Will the Garbage Go?' reports, we've found that waste generation rises or falls based on the state of the economy," she says. "Unfortunately, we've found that a booming economy still tends to produce a burgeoning waste load."

The report notes that despite the solid waste disposal increase last year, the amount of waste managed through landfills has decreased by 17,000 tons, or 0.2 percent between 1997 and 1998. Still, 9 million tons, or 40.5 percent of the total waste stream, were disposed at the state's 31 MSW landfills during 1998.

Since the commission began reporting on its state waste management activity and facilities, the number of active landfills has fallen by 90 percent. For example, by the end of 1998, 28 landfills were accepting New York's residential and commercial waste. That year, a landfill in Hyland began operating and three sites closed - one in Essex County and two in Hamilton County.

Most of the state's old landfills, mostly smaller "dumps," have closed during the past 12 years. Increasingly stringent landfill regulations require greater initial investments and higher fixed costs, which leads to larger facilities that can reap economies of scale.

But while landfills and the amount of waste managed through them have decreased, recycling, incineration and waste exports have grown. Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility use has more than doubled since 1986. These facilities now handle 16.5 percent of New York's waste. Burn plants combusted nearly 3.7 million tons in 1998, a decrease of 7,000 tons (0.2 percent) below 1997 volumes. With waste disposed through WTE leveling, and with no other incinerators being planned, it's likely this method will remain stagnant over the next few years.

New York municipal programs recycled 150,000 tons more in 1998 than in 1997, for a total of 5.2 million tons, or 23.5 percent of the waste stream. The main reason for the increase? Yard waste recycling grew by 155,000 tons, or 19.2 percent over the previous year. Separated old newsprint (ONP) and old corrugated cardboard (OCC) also rose substantially from a year earlier; recovered ONP grew by 117,000 tons (43.2 percent), and OCC by 72,000 tons (27.9 percent). Countering these increases were a 73,000-ton decrease in wood recycling and a 58,000-ton decrease in recycling miscellaneous materials.

The report's 23.5 percent statewide recycling rate is based on information from municipal recycling coordinators. This is in contrast to New York Gov. George Pataki's recently announced 42 percent recycling rate in 1997. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) documented percentage satisfies the Solid Waste Management Plan's recycling goal. However, DEC counts some materials not recommended for inclusion, such as "Bottle Law" containers, exported scrap materials and materials reused through the state's Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) program. Using the EPA's model, New York's recycling rate for 1997 would have been 36 percent instead of 42 percent.

Exported waste represents 19.5 percent of the total waste stream and is the highest total identified to date by the commission. The report notes that out-of-state waste exports, those reported and estimated, totaled 4.3 million tons, which is an increase of 630,000 tons from 1997.

Annual sewage sludge generation remains at nearly 360,000 dry tons, the end-product of 583 wastewater-treatment plants.

With variations of less than 10 percent, New York's waste management methods have changed little in the past five years, except in recycling, which has increased by more than 65 percent.

While most activity in the industry remains fairly stable, changes brought about by consolidation are being noted in the report.

Hochberg says that increasing consolidation in the waste hauling industry is a troubling trend. "It means fewer companies have control over more waste, which limits consumer choice and competitive pricing," she explains.

Also, Hochberg states that hauler consolidation has led to questionable tactics in several state regions. She says that some haulers have diverted or have threatened to divert waste from local facilities unless their terms are met.

"These kinds of hardball tactics are creating revenue shortfalls and are hampering special programs, such as recycling, in the process," she says. "This, in turn, is limiting the ability of local governments or solid waste authorities to pay-off their bonded indebtedness, a consequence that ... is not in the public interest."

To receive the commission's report, contact the Legislative Commission on Solid Waste Management, 4 Empire State Plaza, 5th Floor, Albany, N.Y., 12248. (518) 455-3711.