Last week at Brooklyn City Hall, audience members dressed in bright yellow t-shirts that read “O.U.T.R.A.G.E” picked up small plastic bottles of water and snacked on complimentary bags of pretzels while they waited for city officials to show. A panel of veteran community organizers and activists, many of whom had been fighting for their neighborhoods for more than 20 years, were gathered for another battle in New York City’s long-waged war for garbage equity—much of which had to do with the simple fact that, despite laws mandating otherwise, the crowd’s empty snack bags, in addition to 40 percent of the city’s waste, would still be hauled by diesel-combusting truck to waste transfer facilities in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, where communities have been dealing with adverse public health effects for decades.
Marty Markowitz took the podium to rally the troops: “No more exemptions, no more deferrals, no more delays, no more excuses,” he said, addressing the Upper East Side’s opposition to a marine transfer waste station that would significantly alleviate some of the public health burden on Brooklyn. “I have a very positive message: Get over it. It’s going to be done.”
New York City used to dump all of its waste into the Atlantic Ocean before it started using landfills, then burned its garbage in incinerators as those landfills became full. Today, New York City no longer keeps landfills inside its borders—instead, it pays $300 million a year to export garbage to permanent dumps outside the city, by way of transfer stations. Most of these stations, clogged with truck traffic and clouds of garbage dust, are concentrated in just a few working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Queens. Meanwhile, Manhattan doesn’t have a single waste transfer station. The inequality is egregious and obvious—in 2009, the Department of Health found that the asthma hospitalization rate for children under four years old in Greenpoint and Williamsburg is nearly twice that of the Upper East Side.
In 2006, after years of deliberation, the city finally decided on the Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) that would ease the burden on these communities by making each borough partly responsible for its own garbage. The city planned to retrofit four marine transfer stations, including one on the Upper East Side. But, surprise: Upper East Siders don’t want a transfer station, and as part of the community district with the second highest median household income in Manhattan, they have the resources to stall it in litigation. Six years have passed since the SWMP, but Manhattan is still foisting its crap onto the outer boroughs.
“What you see in New York City is what you see in a lot of other areas—this persistent, systemic treatment of different communities in different ways,” said Gavin Kearney, director of the environmental justice program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “In part, I think it’s through this endemic undervaluing of communities that are low income and of color. Oftentimes I think it’s the path of least political resistance.”
Some commenters have noted Manhattanites and Williamsburgers have taken to Facebook, duking it out to garner more “likes” for their dueling positions on the UES transfer station. But don’t mistake these garbage wars for a brief NIMBY flare-up or social media popularity contest—New York has a painful legacy of race and class issues when it comes to waste management. Neighborhoods have been mobilizing for decades under the banner of environmental justice, and they aren’t about to back down. Luis Garden Acosta, who successfully led a diverse coalition of Williamsburg’s minority communities to quash the construction of a carcinogen-belching incinerator in the early 90s, also sat on last week’s panel. On the current waste issue, Acosta related to the audience his own lung problems, and the fact that his doctors tell him they’re directly related to where he lives.
“We can complain about this, but we’ve got to act,” Acosta said. “These are not just statistics. My daughter was hospitalized three times for asthma. She was never expected to live.”
According to the NYLPI, the stalled situation at hand calls for new legislation to reinforce and finish the goals set out in the 2006 SWMP. The NYLPI is currently working with City Council members to draft legislation that would make sure that as the retrofitted marine transfer stations become functional, there is a proportionate reduction in waste in overburdened communities.
As garbage gets harder for any single neighborhood to ignore, what becomes clearer is the desperate need to reduce the amount of waste we have to distribute in the first place. Mayor Bloomberg has pledged to divert 30 percent of our waste from landfill by 2017, but New York City happens to be miserable at recycling. Its steadily decreasing waste diversion rate from landfill sits at 15 percent, which is less than half of the national average. The Mayor has also called for proposals for a “state of the art” waste-to-energy conversion facility, but New York City’s environmental justice communities are deeply skeptical. They suspect that the conversion facility will only be another trip down the path of least political resistance, and that they will be the ones left choking on the dust.