January 21, 2013

3 Min Read
Circular File: Best Laid Plans


Sweden is running out of garbage. That country is now forced to import trash created elsewhere to ensure it has enough material to burn in its waste-to-energy facilities. Sweden’s shortfall is not small. It will be importing 800,000 tons of garbage a year in order to keep those facilities productive.


Sweden’s success at recycling is taking the blame for its trash crisis. More than half of the country’s waste is recycled or composted, diverting materials away from burning. However, I suspect that changes in the waste stream, including less paper and more plastic packaging, along with successful zero waste initiatives by Swedish businesses, also contributed to the shortfall. Because the waste-to-energy plants produce a significant amount of energy for both district heating systems and residential electricity, Sweden needed to import trash to sustain its renewable energy system.


At the same time, New York City’s Independent Budget Office released data showing the decline in the city’s garbage generation. Per person generation has decreased from four pounds a day to three since 2004. The downturn was blamed on the usual suspects – the economy, less paper, especially newspapers, and product changes such as lighter plastic bottles.


Meanwhile, Ulster County, New York, 60 miles up the Hudson from Gotham, decided it doesn’t have enough garbage to sustain its Resource Recovery Agency. The county imposed flow control in the hopes that requiring trash generated within the county to go to the Agency’s facilities will help the beleaguered authority become solvent. The Agency is more than $23 million in debt and until the imposition of flow control, received an annual $2.4 million subsidy from the county. Now the county’s residents and businesses will be forced to pay the subsidy through higher garbage bills instead of their taxes. In fact, I suspect those lucky people will now get to pay twice. Their taxes won’t be lowered, but their garbage bills will go up.


Three days after the vote, the New York State Office of the Comptroller released an audit that noted numerous deficiencies in the agency’s financial practices. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the county’s decision, or the agency’s claim that its mission is to provide “an efficient, economical” solid waste management system. As one resident noted at a public hearing, flow control removes any incentive to adopt cost-saving efficiencies.


Perhaps the ultimate irony is that the county claims its longstanding priority is to reduce waste generation. Yet, as the local League of Women Voters noted in its testimony at that hearing, “flow control depends upon the generation of waste to produce revenue. This is hardly ideal, since we all need to reduce waste for environmental and economic reasons.”


I have a modest proposal for Ulster County. Flow control will not guarantee enough garbage. Instead, set waste production goals for county residents and businesses and hire garbage cops to enforce them. Fine the slackers who believe that resources should be recycled. Until the agency’s debt is paid off, make more garbage! With any luck, you will also reap the benefit of more sales tax revenue.


Another option is to follow Sweden’s lead and start importing waste. A very small amount of New York City’s decreasing garbage supply should solve the agency’s economic problems and give local taxpayers some relief. Ulster County, tough times demand tough choices.

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