In the years since a tugboat nosed the last barge full of garbage into the massive Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island when it was officially closed back in March of 2001, the tax burden and environmental impact of dealing with New York City's trash have increased dramatically. City officials estimate that in a single year, tractor-trailers log 40 million miles to haul 3 million tons of trash from the five boroughs to out-of-state landfills, mostly in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The flat cost of shipping trash to landfills has risen from $62 per ton in 2001 to $92 per ton last year. A recent report by the Citizen's Budget Commission concluded that, "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."

To address the growing problem, Mayor Michael Bloomberg included a partial solution in his 30-year master plan for the city, PlaNYC, which calls for the construction of a new Waste-to-Energy (WTE) facility to process trash that cannot be recycled. A Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued in March of 2012 to the private sector to build a facility, "…using reliable, cost-effective, sustainable and environmentally sound waste to clean energy technology."

Among the requirements in the RFP was a mandate that the pilot facility be located either in the five boroughs or within an 80-mile radius of the city. It would have to begin by processing 450 tons per day, with the city making no capital investment but paying a tipping fee once it starts sending trash. The 450-ton per day capacity would have to double if the pilot is successful. The bid went out in March, applications were due by June 5th and the award was supposed to be announced in early September. A Bloomberg spokesman last week said the proposals were still under review and an announcement might be made in November. The administration estimates that over 30 years if expanded facilities could accommodate two million tons of trash annually, the city would save about $119 million dollars per year and combined greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 240,000 metric tons per year.

Almost immediately, environmental justice advocates began protesting, saying the writing on the wall leaned toward a WTE process called thermal processing, which many feel is a fancy code for incineration. The New York Public Interest Research Group reacted to the RFP's announcement by organizing protests and labeling thermal processing as unsafe, unproven and inequitable to communities of color.

Worries about impact on recycling, neighborhoods

The advocates also feel strongly that devoting resources to WTE technology will take away from recycling efforts, where New York lags, ranking 16th out of 27 major U.S. cities in a recent survey. San Francisco, which recycles 77 percent of its household waste, ranked first in the nation, while New York recycled only 15.4 percent in 2011.

"That's just disgraceful," said Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance. "How can it be that with all the wealth and technology available to this city that we can't manage to do better than we're doing today?"

Bautista also worries about who'll be affected most if the city locates a thermal processing facility within the five boroughs: "There are only so many neighborhoods zoned for this type of activity. They're typically located in low-income communities and they're already over-burdened with industrial polluters."

Bautista took part in a protest back in April when city officials took prospective bidders on a tour of potential sites, including the Fresh Kills landfill. And he was not alone.

"We've suffered enough out here and we've suffered disproportionately," said City Councilman Vincent Ignizio of Staten Island at a September meeting of the council's Solid Waste and Sanitation Committee. "When Robert Moses opened Fresh Kills in 1948 it was only supposed to be for three years. It took 50-plus years for us to finally get it closed, and toward the end we were the only dumping ground for all the city's garbage." Ignizio added that he grew up within smelling distance of Fresh Kills and remembers many nights sleeping in his parents' bedroom because they had the only air conditioner which could mask the odor of the dump.

The outcry from residents and Staten Island elected officials was loud enough that the Bloomberg administration removed the entire borough of Staten Island from consideration in the RFP. But the other boroughs are still in the mix.

Technology has defenders

Proponents of WTE technology argue that thermal processing is a form of recycling and that new technologies and EPA regulations have eliminated the odor and air pollution many people connect with the process of incinerating trash. Professor Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, said he thinks that much of the opposition to creating WTE plants in the city stems from people's memories of the bad old days.

"At one point New York had 30 municipal incinerators and about 15,000 residential incinerators with no regulation at all. It was a mess," said Themelis. "There is this kind of animus among people who have been exposed to incinerators in the past. They associate them with black smoke and horrific pollution. But the truth is, those are all gone now. The pollution generated by trucking waste to landfills can't compare to how little a modern WTE facility produces. The people who oppose these technologies are like the Flat Earth Society, they are holding back progress."

Themelis recently completed work on a large collaborative study for the Inter-American Development Bank to recommend the best WTE technology for waste management in Latin America. "Regrettably, we came to the conclusion that the technology we use now is the best to use. Over the past decades roughly 125 plants have been built around the world using thermal combustion … with increasingly strict emissions standards. The data we have collected is, I think, unassailable. These systems produce far less emissions than landfilling."

There are currently 10 WTE facilities statewide licensed by the Department of Environmental Conservation to burn municipal waste and convert it into steam and electricity. One is located in Peekskill, about 50 miles up the Hudson River. The facility is owned by Wheelabrator, a subsidiary of Waste Management, the country's largest waste processor, which serves more than 20 million residential, commercial and municipal customers nationwide.