July 28, 2006 – Silky Martinez, a single mother, lives among 15 waste transfer stations in the South Bronx that expel exhaust and kick up dust as they handle a quarter of New York Cityâ€™s waste.
Martinez said just the smell of the garbage is enough to make residents stay indoors; though the endless traffic of garbage trucks barreling through neighborhoods also affects residentsâ€™ quality of life.
"It makes me angry as a parent," Martinez told The NewStandard. The South Bronx has one of the highest asthma rates in the city.
Martinez herself was diagnosed with the ailment as a teenager.
Hope for Martinezâ€™s choked community finally arrived this month when the New York City Council passed a new waste-management plan that will reduce municipal garbage truck traffic and make residential trash removal a responsibility for all of the cityâ€™s five borough governments.
Yet despite the planâ€™s promise, residents in traditionally overburdened communities say it allows private companies to continue to operate at the status quo, leaving many neighborhoods still vulnerable to truck traffic, unsanitary environments, and air and noise pollution. Meanwhile, environmentalists criticize the plan for failing to reduce the amount of waste New Yorkers produce in the first place.
Low-income, working-class and minority communities have traditionally hosted New York Cityâ€™s trash can â€“ the stations where garbage from more affluent city curbsides is deposited before it is exported out of state. Currently, more than half of the city's 69 private waste-transfer stations are located in just four waterfront neighborhoods: South Bronx; Greenpoint/Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Red Hook, Brooklyn; and Jamaica, Queens.
Despite the planâ€™s promise, residents in traditionally overburdened communities say it still leaves them vulnerable to truck traffic, unsanitary environments, and air and noise pollution.
While Manhattan generates 42 percent of odor-causing waste picked up by private companies, there are currently no waste transfer stations located in that borough.
"These communities are where the trash goes when itâ€™s out of sight for other New Yorkers," said Gavin Kearney, a spokesperson for the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN).
A coalition of 20 community organizations, OWN has been lobbying the city government for years to implement a more equitable waste-removal plan, and to reduce the massive truck traffic in their neighborhoods.
As the system works now, garbage trucks from all five boroughs descend on just a handful of sites located mainly in poorer neighborhoods and dump their loads. Then still more trucks drive in, pick up the trash hosted there, and haul it out of town.
The new system will reduce the amount of trash coming to existing sites, and it will render most of the truck traffic one-way by shifting trash's final trip out of town to boats and railways.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who campaigned on the Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), maintains that using the cityâ€™s waterways, rather than its streets, are the key to alleviating traffic congestion and truck pollution. The plan calls for almost 90 percent of the cityâ€™s residential waste to be exported by barge or rail,and is expected to reduce Department of Sanitation truck traffic by 2.7 million miles per year, according to the Department.
Critics are disappointed by the â€œsoft languageâ€ in the plan that lets private waste-removal companies continue to operate in overburdened communities as they please.
And instead of only relying on land-based waste-transfer facilities that have been disproportionately placed in only a few communities, garbage will be stored and exported from marine transfer stations that are more equitably distributed throughout the cityâ€™s neighborhoods.
Under the SWMP, "the great bulk of waste generated in a borough will be taken to a transfer station in that same borough," including one on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
If the SWMP is approved by the state legislature in Albany, it is expected to be implemented by 2009, with a price tag of $400 million annually.
Kearney of OWN said overburdened communities have been lobbying the city council to implement a plan similar to SWMP for years. He said the placements of the marine transfer stations are a victory for his group.
"The fact that this plan commits the city to siting facilities in wealthy neighborhoods â€“ in addition to other neighborhoods â€“ is a major accomplishment, without which there will not be relief in our neighborhoods," he told The NewStandard.
But despite this step, some residents in overburdened communities still feel let down by the plan.
Martinez said the SWMP was "teasing" her community with empty promises. She said she is disappointed by the "soft language" in the plan that lets private waste-removal companies continue to operate in overburdened communities with no forced reductions in truck traffic or garbage capacity.
Constant garbage truck traffic is blamed for cracked house foundations in neighborhoods, while dust kicked up from the trucks is an ongoing problem.
Nearly three-quarters of the waste in the city is handled by privately owned companies using land-based transfer facilities, as well as carters â€“ private truck companies that contract with the commercial sector for waste removal. The Sanitation Department extends waste capacity permits to these companies, determining how much waste each facility can handle.
Rather than forcibly shuttering land-based facilities or making private waste-management to deliver trash to the new marine transfer stations, the Department will only "make its best effort to attract commercial waste haulers to its new marine transfer stations."
"In order to reduce the amount of waste handled in overburdened neighborhoods," Kearney said, "we need to make sure that waste generated in New York City â€“ both residential waste handled by the city, and commercial waste handled by private carters â€“ gets taken to marine and rail facilities as much as is possible."
OWN lobbied for the SWMP to include a measure reducing waste capacity at land-based stations in overburdened neighborhoods. But the city council failed to include such language, leaving it up to the city Sanitation Department to "negotiate" waste reductions with private companies. If negotiations do not take place by April 2007, under the new plan, only then can the Council look to develop local legislation that would mandate capacity reductions for private companies.
Both the Sanitation Department and Mayor Bloombergâ€™s office refused to comment for this story.
Residents fear that any headway made in truck-traffic reduction and the creation of a more egalitarian marine transfer station system will be lost, as private companies can continue to operate as they please.
"This is something that weâ€™re going to have to work on," said Kristine Holowacz, a resident of Greenpoint who has been fighting for a more equitable waste-removal plan for "years and years."
Holowacz told TNS the constant truck traffic is blamed for cracked house foundations in her neighborhood, while dust kicked up from the trucks is an ongoing problem. "Itâ€™s just horrific," Holowacz said.
Holowacz said there was another aspect of the waste removal problem missing from the city officialsâ€™ discourse: how to create less waste.
New York Cityâ€™s 8.1 million residents, along with businesses and commuters, generate 50,000 tons of trash per day, the equivalent to 12 pounds of trash per resident per day.
Although the Solid Waste Management Plan says it is committed to waste "reduction, reuse and recycling," critics say it makes no real steps to encourage the city to think critically about waste reduction or creating a zero-waste emissions goal â€“ a system where no waste is generated,
Barbara Warren of New York Cityâ€™s Zero Waste Campaign said the city shouldnâ€™t be "throwing money" at a short-term waste solution. Instead, Warren said the city should be trying to achieve zero-waste emissions by investing in waste prevention programs, reuse centers for durable goods and composting facilities, as well as creating packaging rules for commercial products.
"I feel very discouraged that the Mayor is talking about sustainability, but after all the work weâ€™ve done, [Bloomberg] doesnâ€™t really understand that we have to change this dynamic," Warren said.
Warren said she thinks residents are ready for a plan that challenges the cityâ€™s relationship with waste, but that many city officials are dragging their feet on making the drastic changes urban environmentalists like her deem necessary.
"Itâ€™s going to take a lot more work to turn this around," she said. "The battle is not over."