NEW YORK – In one week, New Yorkers throw out enough garbage to equal the weight of the Empire State Building, and there's a battle brewing in City Hall to change the way the city gets rid of it.
Each day, 50,000 tons of trash are hauled through the streets and carted out of the city by a fleet of trucks, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search) wants to start shipping it away on barges and move some trash transfer stations out of low-income communities.
The effort has become a sticky, dirty heap of politics, with accusations of "environmental racism" and trash talk from all sides. One city official from a wealthy Manhattan district doesn't want a trash transfer station stinking up his backyard, and some opponents to the mayor's plan say it doesn't address the overall need to reduce waste.
New York City has a scrappy history of waste disposal. Benjamin Miller, author of "Fat of the Land," a history of urban waste and its disposal in New York over the past 200 years, describes it as lurching "from one crisis to another."
"Garbage is always a troublesome thing in New York," he said. "Other cities can sort of sprawl, keep moving out, and their transfer stations and landfills can be pushed out."
But not here, where more than 8 million people live in close quarters in a space that has no spare room around its edges. The eye-popping density also presents unique problems: where weekly trash pickups might be sufficient in most American cities, some New York neighborhoods see their curbs cleared three times a week.
Long ago, this city dumped its trash in the ocean, a practice halted in the 1930s. After that, garbage ended up in various landfills, including one on Rikers Island (search). In those days, city planners also used landfill to fill out nooks, crannies and inlets along the borders of the five boroughs, creating foundations for landmarks like LaGuardia Airport and Coney Island.
In 1948, the Fresh Kills landfill (search) on Staten Island opened as a temporary solution to the city's waste woes, but much to the dismay of residents there, the city kept carting its trash to Staten Island for more than 50 years. It closed in 2001, under a deal reached by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The truck system that followed was also supposed to be temporary, but four years later, it is still being used, taking city waste to landfills in other states.
Bloomberg's new plan — backed by environmentalists and health groups — proposes four waterside transfer stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens where barges would take away loads of trash. He says the plan would reduce pollution from truck exhaust, improve traffic on city streets and help low-income communities now stuck with trash transfer stations.
"You have to be fair," Bloomberg said last week. "Let's spread the pain, if you will, and spread the benefits — everybody's going to benefit from fewer trucks on the streets by using the waterway."
But the City Council voted last week to block the mayor's plan — a revolt led by City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (search). His chief complaint: the Manhattan riverside station is located in his Upper East Side district, next to a park.
"Waste transfer stations do not belong in residential areas," Miller said. "They do not belong where children run and play, they do not belong where our seniors take their afternoon stroll."
Other City Council members who voted against Bloomberg's plan said it fails to address recycling and waste reduction. This week a group of them released a new proposal that, among other things, creates a new office dedicated to those efforts. The alternative plan also suggests that the mayor's proposed Upper East Side station be used only for recyclable paper.
The debate over that station has escalated into claims that opponents are trying to keep trash transfer points out of wealthier neighborhoods, penalizing minority communities.
"Far too long communities of color have carried that burden," said Councilman Charles Barron, of Brooklyn. "It's called environmental racism. We now have a chance to have environmental justice."
Bloomberg has also accused the City Council Speaker, who is one of four Democrats vying to unseat him this November, of tossing campaign politics into the mess.
"We will go ahead with a well-thought out plan ... not a plan made by somebody who's looking at what might sell in an election," Bloomberg said.
The mayor vetoed the council's vote, and unless the parties reach a compromise in the next few days, the measure will head for an override effort. Bloomberg said he was optimistic he would prevail.
"We cannot continue to have certain communities shoulder all the burden here ... and we can't continue to run trucks down those streets and pollute the air," he said. "Shame on us if that's what we do."