New York City's trash dilemmas—and opportunities

New York City’s trash dilemmas — and opportunities
Bags of trash and recycling spill out onto a New York City street. Credit: Jess Hawsor/Wikimedia Commons

Steven Cohen has been working to improve waste management both at the federal and local level for over 40 years.

Hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1980, at the inception of the agency's Superfund program, he helped develop policy to guide public awareness and input in the hazardous clean-up process.

For 12 years, Cohen was executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Currently, he is the senior vice dean of the university's School of Professional Studies.

In addition to being a lifelong New Yorker, Cohen has co-authored three books and authored numerous articles detailing New York City's solid waste management challenges and strategies since the closure of its last landfill, Fresh Kills, in 2001.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has seen increases in household garbage produced by New Yorkers under lockdown. Meanwhile, a pandemic-related city-budget shortfall resulted in a $106 million cut in the Department of Sanitation's budget that led to a city-wide waste pile-up.

I engaged Cohen in some "trash talk," discussing shifting trends in how the city has dealt with its garbage, and what could be done to equitably improve its environmental impact. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When did you first notice that waste management was a problem in New York?

The section of Brooklyn where I'm from is called Flatlands, and a lot of Flatlands is actually landfill.

In fact, when I was growing up, there were two landfills still in Brooklyn: Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue. The reason they had to stop using them is that they had gotten so high, they were concerned it would interfere with navigation into Kennedy Airport.

When I was growing up, I saw those landfills. I would ride my bicycle along the Belt Parkway. There was a bike path, and you would see them getting higher and higher.

There was this story, I don't know if it was apocryphal, but the story was that astronauts could see two human-made structures from outer space, the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kills Landfill. Both emblematic of their civilizations, right?

What then drew you towards waste management professionally?

When I was in graduate school in Buffalo, the toxic site at the Love Canal became a political issue. I followed it pretty closely as this woman Lois Gibbs was the head of the Homeowners Association there, and she organized very effectively.

First, there was no federal Superfund yet. The State of New York came in, and they were discovering that toxic waste from this abandoned canal was leaching into people's basements. In the winter of '77-'78, there was a lot of ice and snow. During the thaw, there was a tremendous amount of water, and [leaking waste-disposal] barrels came out [of the formerly drained and soil-covered canal]. People were getting sick, really sick, in this working-class neighborhood. That made me aware of the problem there.

By coincidence one of my professors, Marc Tipermas, was on Jimmy Carter's transition team and he hired me to go work in EPA while I was still in graduate school, first in the water program and then eventually in the Superfund program, where he was the head of policy analysis.

In 1981, you returned to New York City to work at Columbia. How did you engage with waste issues through your work at the university?

Early in 2001, I worked with an engineering colleague, Nick Themelis, and we did an analysis on what to do with New York City's waste after Fresh Kills closed later that year. The rollout of our proposal and its visibility got obscured because we were going to release it in September of 2001, but something else happened in September of 2001 that got a lot of attention for good reason. So, we didn't release our report until January.

It got less attention than it should have. New York City now exports all of its garbage, and the issue is waste transfer stations. All the garbage must be taken from the garbage trucks to waste transfer stations, where it is shipped out of the city, and nobody wants waste transfer stations in their neighborhood.

I've read that you were appointed to the EPA's Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology in 2002. How did this inform your work?

It's really one of the places where I learned how quickly the technology of pollution control was advancing. That's really been the story of the United States—we've increased our gross domestic product since 1970 and reduced the amount of pollution that Americans are exposed to. A lot of that has been through the application of technology.

The two major sources of air pollution are and motor vehicles. We have many more of those today than we had in 1970. The , the stack scrubber, and converting from coal to natural gas have had a tremendous impact on air quality, and I think now that we're going into the decarbonization era, we're going to have and electric cars. There'll be far less air pollution than there was before, and that's all the application of technologies.

With a mayoral election coming up, do you see an opportunity for a new administration to make progress on this issue?

Well, I think Mayor de Blasio hasn't paid any attention to it, so you couldn't do much worse. They did pick up the food waste, and then he ended it when the pandemic started.

When Bloomberg was mayor, at first, he also shut down recycling, but then after a couple of years he started to understand the importance of sustainability, and so things changed. I think in most elections, it's not a particularly hot issue. But I think at some point, this issue comes back because you have to do something with the garbage.

When you export all of your garbage to landfills and to facilities that aren't under your control, you're at the mercy of the market. If the landfill in Alabama wants to raise their tipping fee, you have to pay it. That's an uncontrolled cost the city really doesn't want.

In the time that you've lived in the city, have you seen changes in everyday New Yorkers' relationship with garbage?

When I was a kid, litter was still a problem. They had a whole campaign where they said a cleaner New York is up to you. They would put up little posters just to get us to throw trash into garbage cans. Over time, of course, there's more of an emphasis on source separation and things like that, but you know New York is a very fast-paced place and people don't often pay that much attention to the garbage and to the waste treatment.

At the household level, there's been a lot of change. There's been an increase in recycling. For a while, although they've stopped it for now, they had food waste recycling, and about half a million people were doing that. There's been some greater attention paid than before.

In general, the cost of waste disposal has gone up, largely because we have to transport it and bring it someplace. But the other thing is that the value of land in New York City has gone up. Things that we used to do in New York when it was a manufacturing city, you would never do now because the land is simply too valuable.

The cost of transporting the waste is still probably cheaper than the cost of land. One thing I wrote in an op-ed in the Times, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, was what we really ought to do is barge the waste up to river towns in New York that were depressed, like Poughkeepsie and Peekskill, and build for them a waste-to-energy plant. In return for giving them free garbage disposal and energy, we would have a cheaper place to bring the garbage.

Politically, of course, nobody wants New York City's garbage, so that was never going to go anywhere, but I think environmentally it was probably one of the better ideas.

In your 2008 article for the Observer, titled "Wasted: New York City's Giant Garbage Problem," you proposed a similar solution that would equitably distribute waste-to-energy plants throughout New York City so we could manage our own waste.

It turns out, now with computers, cheap communication, and cheap information, you could actually have 59 waste-to-energy plants in every community board in the city and have it controlled in a control room in downtown Manhattan. You could completely automate it, maybe one or two people working in each place. In 10 to 20 years from now, using artificial intelligence, you might be able to have the whole facility built that way.

The issue would still be though the value of the land. It still might be too expensive to do it that way, but what I was attracted to is then every community would have its own, and so the issue of equity wouldn't come up because you have to treat your own garbage. The argument would be that it might be more expensive, but it might not be.

When reading that waste-to-energy plants can reduce waste sent to landfills by 90%, turning it to ash, it seems like this technology is the future.

You could also use the ash as construction material for streets and for sidewalks. The problem with waste-to-energy is that if the plant isn't well-run, it can pollute. You can have dioxin emissions from the stack. You have to work really hard to make sure that it's under control.

Locally, We Act, a community-based environmental justice organization in Harlem, and nationally, the Sierra Club, have come out against the combustion of waste. However, the New York League of Conservation Voters states that waste-to-energy could be a viable option for waste management.

In Japan they've developed a way to treat garbage where you don't burn it, you chemically transform it. It's still pretty expensive, but there's no stack. Essentially you break down the chemical content of the garbage and you can still generate some energy from it, but there's no combustion.

What you really want is something where the raw materials inside the garbage are pulled out so that you can develop a circular economy. When burning , you end up taking finite resources and destroying them.

A more sophisticated way would be to mechanically and automatically separate the different substances. The stuff that's most usable, you use, and the stuff that isn't, maybe you would burn.

Combining municipal waste facilities with amenities, like the state park on top of the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, seems like an encouraging way to expand newer technologies into dense cities like New York.

We've built a water filtration plant underneath a golf course in the Bronx in the last decade. The community didn't like it, but now it's there and it's hard to know it's there. I think you'll see again, through the use of technology and design, there are ways to make these noxious facilities less noxious.

By creating amenities, even Fresh Kills is going to become Staten Island's major regional park. It'll be like Prospect Park, or Van Cortlandt or Central Park. That's going to be Staten Island's park in 20 years. It's a huge expanse of land, and once they get enough separation between the toxics and the people, it'll be a very popular place to go.

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This story is republished courtesy of Earth Institute, Columbia University

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