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.

The Peekskill facility processes approximately 700,000 tons of waste per year, or about 95 percent of the household trash generated by Westchester County, according to Operations Manager Brett Baker. Three, nine-story tall boilers burn about 2,250 tons of pre-recycled trash per day, using the trash as fuel. The heat (over 2,000-degrees Fahrenheit) drives a turbine which generates electricity—60 megawatts of electricity per hour.—which is sold to Con Edison via a direct feed to its grid. The ash is cooled and sifted for recyclable metal and the remains, about 10 percent of the initial volume, are sent to landfills. The emissions are forced through a series of filtering systems until they are below state and federal guidelines for pollutants, then released through one large stack.

"We have about a 90 percent reduction rate in the waste stream," Baker told a reporter in September. "And as you can tell when you drove up here, we burn clean. There's virtually no odor at all coming out of the stack and everything is well within EPA guidelines." Waste Management officials claim they operate enough WTE facilities across the U.S. to power 1 million homes and they expect to double that output by 2020.

Of course, not everyone shares a rosy outlook on the plant. A December 2010 report by the Peekskill Environmental Justice Council identified the facility as, "A major source of air pollution." A state permit issued in March 2012 listed the wide ranges of toxic pollutants the plant is permitted to release, including up to 10 tons per year each of dioxins, mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium.

Newer technologies and emissions controls were recently approved at a facility run by one of the likely bidders for the NYC contract, Covanta Energy, which currently burns some of New York's trash for $66 per ton at its facility in Newark. Environmental activists believe those changes would not have been made without public pressure. Industry analysts point out that waste processors are trying to find an economic "sweet spot," where new technology implementation costs don't swallow up potential profits.

Searching for viable options

New York's RFP identified several different WTE technologies that companies could propose besides thermal incineration—like plasma gasification, hydrolysis and anaerobic digestion.

In early September The New York Times profiled a non-profit company with a plasma gasification facility in Florida, one that burns municipal waste at more than 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit then electrifies it. The promoters of the technology claim the process breaks down the chemical bonds of carcinogenic material like PCB's, asbestos and medical waste, rendering them harmless without creating dioxin or other harmful byproducts. But opponents point out that pushing such technology will hinder recycling and the development of ecologically friendly products and policies. Others point out that the plasma gasification consumes roughly half the energy it creates to feed its own power requirements.
The other technologies in the city's RFP, anaerobic digestion and hydrolysis, deal mainly with organic materials and would only handle a small percentage of the city's waste, meaning thermal processing might be the most effective alternative to landfilling.

Proponents of the technology point to several European cities like Vienna, Paris and Copenhagen which have built thermal processing WTE facilities inside their city limits and incorporated them into the cityscape.

But critics like the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives say the higher a country's incineration rate, the lower its recycling rate. The group released a report tracking waste treatment strategies across the 27-member European Union. According to the report, while Denmark had the highest rate of WTE incineration at 54 percent of the country's total waste stream, it only recycled 23 percent. "It is necessary to implement a system that reduces waste generation, reuses and recycles waste, and phases out both incineration and landfilling," the report concluded.

On Oct. 5 San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee announced that the city had reached an 80 percent landfill diversion rate through aggressive recycling, reuse and composting initiatives making it the "greenest" city in North America and moving it closer to the goal of "zero waste"—a target of which Themelis is skeptical.

"There are people who talk about ‘zero waste,' but zero waste is not a reality, it's a fantasy. True, we should recycle as much as is practical, but you cannot neglect that you must do something with what can't be recycled."Themelis added that America's comfort level with landfill arises partially from an excess of open space that few other countries enjoy. "New York City sends 100,000 truckloads of landfill out of state every year, but sooner or later the state borders will be closed, that's not going away."

According to recent EPA data, there are currently 87 facilities in the U.S. burning trash to generate electricity. The combined output of these facilities amounts to approximately 2,500 megawatts, or 0.3 of total national power generation. The agency cites the high construction cost of such facilities as one reason that the public will and financing to build them has been lacking.

It's unclear if the city's fiscal challenge and growing concern about its carbon footprint will create the political support necessary for WTE in New York. Councilwoman Letitia James, who chairs the Sanitation and Solid Waste Committee, said she supports the RFP initiative, but under the conditions that minority communities are not disproportionately impacted and the economics make good sense. "I'm open to examining it," said James during a recent interview. "Not necessarily supporting it, but examining it. Because there's just no way we can continue to afford to ship millions of tons of garbage out of the state."