Getting to Zero: A Look at How New York City Handles Waste

I recently attended an event about how New York City is trying to get to zero waste by 2030. Now, I don't live in New York City, but I am a bridge and toll away. I've also worked in the city for over 7 years so I feel like it is my second home. I found some interesting facts about the sanitation system that I thought I would share.


The average New Yorker generates at least 15 lbs of waste at home and 9 lbs at work. I can attest to the 9 lbs being true. I used to buy breakfast, lunch, snacks and coffee in single-use, plastic containers that are then bagged in plastic. I had my own personal trash bin for goodness sake. I've picked up new habits since then thankfully.

One of the biggest challenges the city of New York has is that it doesn't have a say in what they collect. They don't have a voice in how products are designed, what kind of packaging is being used and therefore, the sanitation department must analyze the trash they collect often to see how their collection and sorting process needs to change. For example, newspapers was one of the most popular items they collected, however, the rise of electronic devices decreased this type of trash. Unfortunately though, internet shopping generated an increase in cardboard boxes which is heavier to transport than newspapers so they had to figure out a way to manage this new kind of waste such as where and how to recycle.


NYC made a decision not to host a final disposal site within the city so transfer stations are set up across the boroughs which transfer waste to barges, trucks or rail. NYC waste is trucked as far as South Carolina or 650 miles away from New York. Many of the counties that receive this trash receive high incentives to accept this waste which greatly reduce their own property taxes. Around 12% of New York City's Westside waste goes to Essex County, New Jersey where it is converted to energy. Unfortunately, there isn't not a lot waste-to-energy facilities in the United States because they are expensive to build and maintain. With the price of coal and electricity at very low rates, there is no incentive to build waste-to-energy facilities though these places do produce energy that's as clean as natural gas.

Another challenge of living in an urban, vertical city like New York is that there is no space to store waste for residents. They are working to create single stream collection where they will accept paper and cans, bottles, plastic in one container and sort it at their own facilities. This requires building sorting machines that can process these types of waste that vary in composition, size, and weight.

New York City utilizes around 2200 waste trucks. To help speed up collection, some trucks are split in half so that they can put recycling and refuse in the same truck. For those that have been in New York during a snowstorm, these trucks are also outfitted with snow plows and do double work as plowing machines in the winter. Some of the challenges they have with these trucks is that it takes a while to fuel, fuel is expensive and it's the fuel is not so clean so getting trucks turned around from garbage collection to snow ready can take some time. This is why sometimes you'll either see more garbage or more snow on your streets during a storm. It's one or the other. Partly too because space is so expensive in the city, there is no place to park these trucks so they must limit the number to what they can support.

Waste from commercial buildings are collected by private companies. So for those that work in large buildings, your trash is being shipped by other companies. It appears sometimes that the maintenance department of some of these building do not separate and there's an assumption that trash does get sorted somewhere, but it does not. Additionally, private companies are contracted by different buildings so they sometimes drive around the city collecting as much waste until they are full. This means trucks could be driving around different boroughs for hours until they have reached their capacity wasting fuel, creating traffic and adding emissions to the city air. Thankfully, commercial recycling rules have just been changed so now private companies need to be more accountable for recycling properly.

The city is also doing a lot to educate children on waste and attempting to bring on different recycling programs into the schools. The challenge with all of this is that it requires the participation of the kids, teachers, parents, custodians and principals.


...if people saw what happened to their waste, lived with the stench, witnessed the scale of destruction, they might start asking difficult questions.

Heather Rogers in Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage


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There is currently a resolution in Albany to tack on a fee for plastic bags. This has stalled, but the hope is that a statewide ban or fee will change people's behaviors regarding plastic bags. Plastic bags continue to be a challenge in the waste collection as these get caught in sorting machines, are blown away even if properly discarded and clog up roadway drains or end up in the trees or rivers harming animals. Compostable bags are recommended as they can be composted in the city's compost facilities, but residents need to know how to dispose of them properly.

The good news is that New York City has one of the largest organics collection program in the country. A lot of the organic initiatives have been started by residents which has helped alleviate some waste from the larger system. New York City is also doing what they can to have residents "reuse" instead of buying new through their DonateNYC initiative. This reduces perfectly good items from going to the landfill. They also partner with Housing Works, a non-profit that helps those affected by homelessness and HIV/AIDS, to recycle and reuse clothing, books and furniture. They have a social enterprise–businesses whose profits fund the mission. I've personally shopped at Housing Works Thrift and find they have a lot of good quality pieces.

There's a lot of conversations going on about making waste a resource. There's a proposal to measure generated waste similar to how gas and water are consumed and to provide incentives for reducing waste.



The talk on New York's Zero Waste Program was brought in part by Open House New York. Open House New York provides broad audiences with unparalleled access to the extraordinary architecture of New York and to the people who help design, build, and preserve the city. We recently visited a few of these buildings and sites. This year, Open House New York has a year long series on Getting to Zero: New York + Waste that consists of lectures, public programs and facility tours to help educate the public on what it takes to get New York City to zero waste and bringing waste to the forefront of design conversations.

I'm looking forward to learning more and to see how New York's progress compares with other cities. New York is a thriving, active city and it is amazing to see how much work is being put to make zero waste possible.

The following websites have a lot of good information on how to reduce your waste, where you can dispose of certain items and future initiatives that will allow you to see the lifespan of your garbage.

New York City Department of Sanitation Zero Waste

Open House New York

Housing Works Thrift


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