4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
In 1970, New Yorkers disposed of their garbage in two ways: burying it in landfills, or burning it in incinerators. Most of the landfills were small, leaky dumps, and most of the incinerators were backyard barrels or apartment smokestacks.
Changes in solid waste management since 1970 are among the states biggest environmental success stories. Today, some New York communities recycle or re-use half of their garbage. The last landfill in New York City will close in December 2001, and the number of active landfills elsewhere in the state is declining. Trash incinerators and burn barrels are increasingly regulated. The solid waste story shows how small changes in design and policy can produce big benefits.
In 1973, the state authorized the DEC to develop rules governing landfill operations. In 1976, the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act required all states to draw up plans for the disposal of their solid waste, to make inventories of their dumps, and to meet safety standards for disposal. In 1977, the first state regulations were put on the books to ensure landfill security, monitor nearby water pollution, and properly seal the contents. Each landfills permit spelled out details specific to the site. As these regulations increased the cost of operating landfills, the number of landfills decreased. A growing share of the states garbage was trucked to large regional dumps that served many counties or even many states.
Environmental groups kept pushing the solid waste issue forward in the 1980s, looking for ways to reduce the waste stream. The DEC began adopting annual plans for solid waste management in 1980. In 1982, after a statewide lobbying campaign by the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), a "bottle bill" was passed requiring a five-cent deposit on all beer and soda cans sold in the state. But issuing mandates and writing annual plans are not the same as causing change. New York State was shamed in 1987, when the garbage barge Mobro from Islip, Long Island spent 156 days at sea and three months at harbor, fully loaded, with no one willing to accept its rotting cargo.
In 1989, New York City passed a law requiring residents to separate recyclable materials from their household trash. The citys trash-collecting systems have been slow to catch up with the law, so the citys citizen groups have been leading the way. For example, in the early 1990s a nonprofit group called WE CAN collected recyclable materials from Manhattan apartment buildings, offices, and schools, with the proceeds supporting the homeless.
In 1992, the state DEC required all municipalities in the state to have source separation programs in place. New York Citys trash system is still lagging, but its performance is improving. In 1998, the City recycled 14 percent of its garbage, compared with a state average of 32 percent.
Nationally, the amount of material diverted from landfills and incinerators by recycling increased 67 percent between 1990 and 1996, from 34 million to 57 million tons. And as the decade wore on, the emphasis shifted toward reducing waste instead of recycling it. Often this meant changing individual behavior. New York Citys Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling produced posters in 1997 to encourage two-sided photocopying, for example. In Tompkins County, the waste stream was cut dramatically by combining recycling and public education with a "pay as you throw" tax that required households to buy adhesive tags that go on garbage cans.
One result of the shift in behavior was fewer landfills. Tompkins County was able to cancel a planned new landfill because of its new policy, and switch to a regional dump instead. New York had planned to build a large garbage incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that would burn more than 3,000 tons of garbage a day, plus four more in other city boroughs. None of these were built. The City still produced12 million tons of garbage a year in the late 1990s, but most of it went to a huge incinerator in Bridgeport, Connecticut or a regional landfill in West Virginia.
As more and more urban garbage was shipped to industrial incinerators and rural landfills, new problems emerged. One issue was transfer stations, which are factory-like buildings where the refuse in city garbage trucks and barges is moved to rail cars and tractor-trailers. Low-income neighborhoods are the most common sites for these stations and other urban facilities that have negative environmental impacts. At one time, the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn had 12 waste transfer stations, 10 petroleum distributors, a trash incinerator, the Brooklyn Battery tunnel, and warehouses full of toxic waste.
In 1993, an EPA research paper confirmed what community activists had long been saying: that minority communities were exposed to pollution at much higher rates than white communities. Some working-class neighborhoods had already been resisting this trend for decades. Between 1967 and 1977, for example, residents of Hoboken, New Jersey turned back a half-dozen attempts to build new oil refineries and chemical plants near the town.
On most environmental issues, the activists are middle-class or wealthy white people. But toxic waste made an exception. In Hoboken, working-class black and white leaders from a variety of ethnic backgrounds united in defense of the community. Many activists who got their start in the Civil Rights movement switched to organizing for environmental action in working class areas, and the movement soon gained a name: eco-justice.
In the mid-1990s, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) began organizing low-income neighborhoods that were affected by transfer stations and other hazardous sites. New York City had 85 private waste transfer stations in 1998 that exported 24,000 tons of garbage a day. Sixty of these stations were located in neighborhoods where blacks, Latinos, and other minorities are a majority of the population. The stations brought with them unhealthy concentrations of diesel fumes, water pollution, rodents, and foul odors. Neighborhood activists argued that there was a connection between these sites and local residents high rates of asthma.
In 1997, NYLPI helped start the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods, a coalition of 26 community groups from affected neighborhoods. The group quickly succeeded in blocking a proposed transfer station and holding public hearings in their neighborhoods. In 2000, it had become a player in New Yorks ongoing legal battle over solid waste management. "A community does not plan to fail," wrote NYLPI organizer Eddie Bautista. "It fails to plan."