Trash and garbage disposal, known as solid waste management, is a component of climate change that sometimes gets overlooked when the larger, global aspects of climate change are discussed. Trash is not a sexy thing to talk about. It’s like that animated toilet paper commercial with the bears where they say that everyone has to go. Well, everyone creates waste, and waste has to go somewhere. The problem comes from the divide between taking the easy way out and continuing to landfill all of our waste, or making the hard choice to establish a pathway to zero waste.
New York State requires all municipalities to develop a Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP, pronounced ‘swamp’). These plans are supposed to be updated every ten years. Albany’s last SWMP was adopted by the Common Council in 2013, so it has a few years left before an updated plan is submitted to the state. In addition, Albany’s landfill has maybe four-to-five years of life left before it is closed for good. Thus, Albany’s next SWMP will have to include the city’s plan on what to do with the trash when the Rapp Road Landfill will no longer be available for accepting our waste.
The current SWMP that Albany is operating under did not adequately consider the closing of the landfill in its ten-year plan. The consultants that helped guide the SWMP process and the Jennings administration sort of, kind of, and actually did just kick the can down the road for the next administration to deal with. And now we have to deal with it.
The Sheehan administration has already taken some steps to get the city ready for ‘life after landfill’, such as the imposition of a trash fee on multiple dwellings; the automated pick-up of recyclables in certain neighborhoods; and decreasing the amount of trash accepted at the landfill from private haulers. But, much more needs to be done by ‘closing time’, be it 2021 or 2022.
While the impending closure of Albany’s landfill is problematic, it should be looked at as an opportunity for Albany to limit its impact on climate change. Albany is going to have to investigate ways to dispose of its waste in the most environmentally-friendly way, while also keeping the cost from overburdening its taxpayers. The balancing act of working toward zero waste and not taxing its citizens out of the city is one of the major issues facing the next mayor. While I don’t have the answer on how to walk this tightrope of dealing with both the social and economic costs of trash disposal, I do have some suggestions.
One. Organics and/or compostable waste program. Composting food waste and other organics will not only extend the current life of the landfill it will also help to eliminate methane gas emissions from the landfill. Organics, according to many in the garbage business, make up to 40 percent (some even say as much as 60 percent) of the waste that goes into landfills. Implementing an organics composting program in the city will cut down on the amount of trash that is headed to our landfill for disposal. I first proposed a compostable waste program for Albany seven years ago while serving on the Common Council. The ordinance I wrote was based on San Francisco’s 2009 law to make San Francisco a zero waste city by 2020. San Francisco’s law required the separation of food scraps and other organic waste from household and commercial trash. The city provides each residence with three cans – blue for recycling; green for composting; and black for trash. They are picked up weekly with the automated-arm trucks. (The program was highlighted in the film “Tomorrow” which I saw last week in Rhinebeck as part of their ENGAGE film series).
Two. Resource Recovery Park/Facility. A resource recovery park is a place where waste is brought to and items that can be reused or broken down into separate reusable components (wires from electrical devices; glass items; metals; etc.) are taken out of the waste stream and ‘recovered’ for reuse. I first saw this in a video from Germany where resource recovery parks are very popular. These facilities also remove compostable materials. It has been estimated that resource recovery parks can reduce landfill waste by up to 70 percent. In addition to the positive effect on the environment, resource recovery is also a job creator. A resource recovery park would probably be more feasible as a regional facility than as a single municipality’s project. Perhaps the Capital Region’s Regional Economic Development Council could fund a study for developing a resource recovery park as part of Governor Cuomo’s seventh round regional economic competition.
Three. Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT). This is a program where residents are charged for the amount of waste they create. It would be an expansion of Albany’s trash fee to all residences, not just multiple dwellings. Some municipalities that have implemented PAYT do it by selling different size bags. Others, offer residents different size trash bins. The cost of the bag depends on the size of the bag, thus the term “Pay-As-You-Throw.” Many municipalities that have instituted PAYT have found that recycling rates go up by almost 60 percent and trash goes down by 40 percent. A win-win all the way around.
Local and state solid waste management plans that include organics diversion and resource recovery can go a long way in slowing climate change. It will take the political will of elected officials to make the initial financial investments necessary to implement organics composting and/or constructing a resource recovery facility. It will take some sacrifice from the general public to reduce their waste, increase their recycling efforts, and to pay for the programs necessary to get to a zero waste society. The advantages of striving for zero waste far outweigh the short–term cost savings of continuing to expand our landfills. After all, there is only a limited amount of available land left on Earth. And that land will be better used to grow food on it than bury food under it.