Friday, June 1, 2012

Taxes In, Garbage Out: The Need for Better Solid Waste Disposal Policies in New York City

Executive Summary:
This year, New York City will spend over $2 billion in tax dollars to throw out its garbage. More than $300 million of the bill represents the cost of disposing of the garbage – usually in out-of-state landfills. About three-quarters of city garbage goes to landfills, with 98 percent of that shipped to Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. In a single year, tractor trailer trucks travel 40 million miles to dump New York City’s garbage. Not surprisingly, shipping and burying garbage hundreds of miles away is not cheap – $95 per ton for the three million tons the City exports to landfills.

Beyond the financial burden, exporting garbage does enormous environmental harm. The trucks and trains that carry residential and commercial waste emit a large volume of greenhouse gases, and putting the garbage in landfills generates additional emissions. The waste that New York City sends to landfills generates about 679,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases per year – the equivalent of adding more than 133,000 cars to the roads.

This report makes the case for a significant change in New York City's solid waste disposal practices, a shift from heavy reliance on long-distance exporting to landfills to greater reliance on use of local waste-to-energy facilities. The case is based on three fundamental points.
  1. Waste-to-energy technology is cheaper and environmentally better than long-distance exporting. From a fiscal standpoint, the benefits are substantial. Currently the cost of sending a ton of garbage to a regional waste-to-energy plant is between $66 and $77 per ton compared to $95 per ton for long distance landfilling, and this differential is likely to grow in the future. From an environmental standpoint, use of local waste- to-energy plants reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 0.36 metric tons per ton of garbage converted to energy rather than shipped to landfill. At this rate, every 14,400 tons of garbage shifted to local waste- to-energy plants is the equivalent of removing 1,000 cars from the road.
  2. Waste-to-energy technology is now underutilized in New York City. Currently the City sends only 9 percent of its municipally-managed waste to waste-to-energy facilities. New York lags far behind other environmentally-sensitive metropolises in its use of waste-to-energy. Within the European Union, 16 countries convert an average 28 percent of their waste to energy, with Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland converting about half. In the United States, Connecticut sends 63 percent of its garbage to waste-to-energy plants, and Massachusetts has a rate of 37 percent.
  3. Opposition to expanded use of waste-to-energy technology is rooted in misunderstanding its impacts. Resistance to new plants is based on two myths, each of which is refuted in this report.
  • Myth #1: Waste-to-energy plants displace recycling. In fact, jurisdictions with the highest recycling rates are those which also have high rates of energy conversion.
  • Myth #2: Waste-to-energy plants are a threat to local residents’ health due to the air pollution they create. In fact, modern waste-to-energy plants pose no meaningful health risks.
This report recommends that the City make waste-to-energy conversion a much larger component of its solid waste management strategy. Toward this end, the City should foster the construction of waste-to-energy plants sited and designed for city needs and should partner with owners of existing facilities within the region to expand their capacity and willingness to process New York City’s waste. Thirty-three facilities operate in New York and adjacent states, and they may have the ability to take additional supply, either in their current configuration or through adding capacity. Locating a plant within city borders poses significant hurdles, but other cities, including Paris and Copenhagen, have surmounted these challenges by using innovative designs that fit into the urban landscape.
If new and expanded facilities accommodate two million tons of New York City waste – or one-third of the garbage currently disposed of by the public and private sectors – the City would save $119 million annually; over the next 30 years, the present value savings would reach $2 billion.

This policy change would also yield important environmental benefits. The reduction in annual greenhouse gas emissions would be 35 percent or about 240,000 metric tons annually; this is the equivalent of eliminating all current vehicle traffic through the Holland Tunnel.

Waste reduction and recycling remain at the top of the waste management practice hierarchy, and this report also identifies ways to promote those practices. However, New York City will continue to generate significant amounts of solid waste for the foreseeable future, and municipal leaders should give high priority to managing it in a way that is fiscally and environmentally sound. Waste-to-energy plants represent the best solution – on both scores – for a significant portion of New York City’s solid waste disposal needs.


The full report is available free of charge at

The Citizen's Budget Commission May, 2012

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