Landfills have been the talk of the town(s) the past year. Solid waste management on all levels – local, state, national and worldwide – must be taken seriously in 2018. Municipal landfills are reaching the end of their lifespans (see the city of Albany). Privately-owned dump operators are taking in more trash than they are legally permitted to accept (see Colonie/Waste Connections, Inc.). Enormous landfills (many in southern states) that take in waste shipped from out-of-state producers are filling up at a record pace. And, according to a report by Kadir van Lohuizen in The Washington Post, “The world produces more than 3.5 million tons of garbage a day – and that figure is growing.” The divide between the proposed goals set to decrease the amount of waste we produce and the actual implementation of programs to meet those goals is as deep and wide and high as Albany’s Rapp Road landfill.
Locally, both the town of Colonie and the city of Albany landfills are almost maxed out. Colonie, and its landfill lessee and operator Waste Connections, are seeking NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approval to expand the size of the landfill. And, as you have been seeing in the news, this proposed expansion has caused other municipalities to put on boxing gloves and challenge Colonie to a winner-take-all municipal solid waste fight. The sparring match between Colonie in the expansion corner and the towns of Halfmoon and Waterford (Saratoga County) in the over-my-dead-body-will-we-allow-the-expansion-to-occur corner has moved from the early feeling each other out rounds, to the knockout rounds.
This past summer, Waterford, and Halfmoon asked Riverkeeper to take water samples from the Mohawk River, which runs alongside the Colonie dump and separates the County of Albany from Saratoga County. The samples were tested by Sterling Environmental Engineering and found to have PFOA (same chemical found in the water in Hoosick Falls) levels just below the safety standard. The water samples were taken from an area where water drains from landfill drain pipes into the Mohawk. The finding of PFOA in the river resulted in the DEC announcing that it will conduct additional testing. Then, just last week, Brian Nearing (Times Union) reported that City of Cohoes Council member Stephen Napier has joined the Halfmoon/Waterford tag team in calling for a “court-style” hearing on the landfill expansion proposal. Napier is concerned that chemically tainted water could get into Cohoes’ drinking water as Cohoes has water intakes located just two miles downriver from the landfill’s leachate pipes. Another interesting twist to the plot, Cohoes dumps its municipal solid waste in the Colonie landfill. So, is Cohoes potentially helping to poison its own drinking water?
The DEC will soon be making a decision on the Colonie landfill expansion proposal. Colonie needs a “YES” because the landfill could be filled before next summer. Halfmoon/Waterford are looking for a “NO” from the DEC. I’m probably wrong, but I’m guessing the boxing match will end in a “Draw” with the DEC modifying the permit to allow for a partial expansion of the landfill, but eliminating from the 132-acre expansion request, the 50 acres where hazardous waste was dumped in the 1980s. Of course, any of the feuding municipalities could ask for a rematch through the appeals processes if they dispute DEC’s decision.
Colonie’s landfill controversy is not the only local skirmish going on over solid waste disposal. Albany’s waste management woes have also led to some battles. The city is preparing now for when the last load of garbage is dumped in early 2022. The city is looking to develop a transfer station at the Rapp Road facility. The transfer station will be where the city’s trash is brought following curbside pick-up, then it will be ‘transferred’ onto special trucks and hauled to a landfill outside of the immediate area. The battles are over whether or not constructing a transfer station and trucking the waste miles and miles away to a landfill is in the best interest of our environment. A group of citizens concerned about Albany’s proposed transfer station are asking the city to investigate other ways to dispose of its waste, with an eye toward eventually living in a zero-waste community.
On the national level, under the current “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” administration in Washington, the probability of the Environmental Protection Agency taking any action to address solid waste management in an environmentally-friendly way is zero. So, as in other environmental and climate change areas, it will be up to the states to take the lead on solid waste issues.
Thus, with the federal government’s refusal to act on environmental issues, Governor Cuomo and New York State have been handed a golden opportunity to be leaders in managing solid waste. Let’s hope they don’t miss this opportunity. And, to help them along, I offer the following, very basic, blueprint to achieve a goal of “zero waste” by 2035 in NYS:
First: The state will begin to immediately wean itself off its dependency on landfills, by not allowing the expansion of any existing landfill and prohibiting the construction of any new landfills. Instead, the DEC will require that municipalities and for-profit waste management companies invest in constructing and operating Resource Recovery Parks. The purpose of these ‘Parks’ is to separate waste into its usable components, such as: textiles, electronics, plastics, wood, and metals. In addition to eliminating municipal solid waste, there will be the economic benefit of creating hundreds of new jobs to staff these sorting facilities.
Second: Require that organics no longer be accepted in landfills. Food scraps and other organic waste will have to be composted or turned into energy through the biogas process. Start with large institutions like hospitals, schools, grocery stores, and government office buildings, and then expand the program to small businesses and households.
Third: Place a ban on the use of plastic carry-out bags. NYS residents use 23 billion plastic bags a year. Earlier this year, Governor Cuomo launched a plastic bag task force to investigate the plastic bag problem in the state. The task force’s report is due out soon, and it must recommend putting a fee on each bag used, and set an end date for the use of these bags altogether.
These are just a few examples of how we can manage municipal solid waste. If we do not act soon, and treat solid waste as a resource, we will, in the words of Photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen, “drown in their [our] own waste.”