Hanging Onto the Trash

One would think we were dealing with a major national security issue considering how worked up New York politicians get about garbage. But that's what happens when you have a government-controlled garbage market. New York manages the state's waste with 20-year plans — much like the economic plans that the former Soviet Union used to “manage” their economy. The waste plans work about as well as the economic plans of the former Soviet Union. They are subject to never-ending political wrangling that constantly places hurdles in the way of rational options. In the late1990s, the closing of the city's “Fresh Kills” landfill on Staten Island led to an uproar as New York increased trash exports to Virginia landfills.

Virginia's governor, James Gilmore, was so exasperated that he called a press conference. There he held up pieces of New York's trash, encased in clear plastic bags, suggesting it posed a dire threat to public health. Freddy Krueger couldn't have inspired more horror. Like Freddy Krueger, Mr. Gilmore's tale was pure fiction.

Virginia landfills offered state-of-the-art, safe, and efficient disposal options without adverse impacts on Virginia. Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island had none of these amenities.

When I went to visit one of these landfills in Virginia, I had to ask people in the community for directions, but few seemed to know it was there. Finally, one person pointed me to the entrance, which led me down a long road through some woods to the landfill site. It wasn't unsightly. Even close up, it didn't smell. This community — like many others — wanted the trash because the landfill company paid them for the use of their land. Such hosting fees enabled communities to upgrade and build schools, buy fire trucks, and even cut taxes.

Virginia's seven regional landfills employ hundreds of residents, pay out millions of dollars in annual wages, and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars to the state annually. Not long after landfills opened in the 1990s, landfill fees enabled one county to build a courthouse and a school while cutting property taxes by about a third.

Despite claims to the contrary, the risks posed by these landfills are almost zero. Using Environmental Protection Agency data, one study found that 60% of the landfills in existence in 1991 pose a minute cancer risk — one in 10 billion over a 70-year lifetime. For more than 80% of the landfills, there is less than one in a million chance of getting cancer — a level equivalent to the risk of getting cancer from drinking a half liter of wine or eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter, in a year's time.

To avoid enraging politicians, though, New York wants to export less garbage. Among its plans is an overly expensive recycling program, which claims to “divert” waste from landfills. It's not clear whether or not diversion really means if the materials get recycled. If the city does not find markets, the “recycled” materials eventually end up at a landfill or incinerator.

Sometimes, the city cannot find markets for many materials, particularly if the cost to recycle them is higher than buying virgin materials or if the recyclables are not good quality. For example, it can be cheaper and more energy efficient to make glass from sand than to try to use glass bottles collected in the city program because bottles of various colors are often broken and mixed together with ceramics and other materials. The New York Department of Sanitation has admitted in the past that about 40% of New York's glass, metal, and plastic waste is not of suitable quality for recycling. Thus, much of it goes to the landfill.

To help the city budget, Mayors Bloomberg, Dinkins, and Giuliani all tried to halt or downsize the program. Their rational plans angered other state and city officials. After all, it's not politically correct to curb the “sacred” recycling program — no matter how inefficient or costly.

This year, the debate revolves around locating a new site for a trash recycling station. In an attempt at fairness, it was slated to be on south of 14th Street on the West side of Manhattan.

In the past, such facilities resided mostly in poor areas. But as you would expect, three state assembly members who represent the West side are holding up the project.

If New York is ever going to have a rational waste disposal market, it needs a free market for waste disposal rather than a political one.

There are many businesses that will happily accept the waste for a fee: recyclers, landfillers, waste to energy facilities. Let them compete without subsidies or anti-competitive city programs. Competition would drive the system toward the lowest-cost and most resource-efficient mix of options. That is largely how 75% of the city's waste from the commercial sector is managed now.

But for some reason, garbage is an emotional issue for New Yorkers — and politicians are unlikely to let it go.