Los Angeles 21, New York 5

By Ryan, Megan | World Watch, March-April 1993 | Go to article overview

Los Angeles 21, New York 5


Ryan, Megan, World Watch


When city planners examined the waste stream at Los Angeles National Airport, they came to a startling conclusion: out of every ton of Los Angeles municipal garbage dumped at the city's landfill, four pounds consists of disposable paper pillowcases from airplane pillows. This was an exorbitant use of landfill space, but may soon change because the city is arranging to intercept the discards for recycling.

Pillowcases will soon join soda cans, newspapers, and used fast-food grease among the growing number of components being separated out of L.A.'s - and America's - garbage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recently released progress report on waste management shows that commercial and residential recycling efforts diverted more than 17 percent of America's trash from incinerators and landfills in 1990 - up from 14 percent in 1988.

That's an impressive gain for a country where as recently as three years ago, many communities had no recycling programs at all. But as dumps fill up and close, and new landfills or incinerators are blocked by increasingly fierce resistance, it's still not enough. The recycling rate will have to leap - not creep - to a much higher level if it is to take up the slack. The trouble is, while few people seem to oppose the idea of recycling in principle, making it a central rather than peripheral part of the consumer economy is not proving easy.

The difficulty of making large-scale changes in the way we manage - and think about - trash is dramatically demonstrated by two cities, New York and Los Angeles, which between them generate more than 8 percent of the nation's garbage. Each is facing a garbage crisis, and each is aggressively trying to promote recycling. But the ways they're going about it are quite different, and so are the results. As of 1990, Los Angeles boasted a 21-percent recycling rate, while New York was creeping along at around 5 percent. Both have a long way to go, and not much time to get there.

One reason progress is slow is that Americans still tend to think of garbage as undifferentiated waste - not something they wish to closely examine in its particulars. But whereas municipal planners have looked at garbage as something to burn or bury, recycling requires re-focusing on the stuff as a resource. Instead of looking at how much mass it displaces in a landfill or how many calories it generates in an incinerator, planners need to analyze what is actually in the waste stream. What can be done with used airplane pillowcases? With unsold magazines, or congealed fried chicken grease?

A Tale of Two Cities

New York has been slower than Los Angeles in making this conceptual shift. With rapidly diminishing capacity to landfill a substantial portion of its daily load of 25,000 tons of garbage (its mammoth Fresh Kills Landfill will be full sometime between 2003 and 2010), New York has focused on incineration. The city's Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan, passed in March, 1992, calls for new construction of 3,750 tons per day of incineration capacity by 1996 and leaves open the possibility of dramatically more. The city is actively seeking permits for these incineration projects. In contrast, it calls for new recycling capacity of 3,500 tons per day over the same period - but it has only, begun the permitting process for 500 tons per day of capacity.

City plans to expand incinerator capacity - especially the proposal to construct a new incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard - met with outraged opposition from citizens in 1992, and the decision was delayed. But even if the Navy Yard facility is built and existing plants are retrofitted, it won't be enough to make up for the 15,000 daily tons of trash headed for Fresh Kills. A large quantity of resulting incinerator ash will still have to be buried somewhere.

Opponents of additional incineration have argued that it would be an economic boondoggle - not only because it would divert money from recycling to begin with, but also because a study done by the city comptroller shows that recycling would be cheaper per ton than incineration. …

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