New York City: Sustainable City?

[This is a guest post by Steve Cohen, Executive Director of the Earth Institute and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. -Ed] New York City is America's largest and most diverse city. Its 2006 expense budget of over $50 billion makes it far and away the largest local government in the United States. While the city appeared under enormous fiscal, political and social stress from the late 1960's to the late 1990's, in the 21st century it has emerged as one of the safest large cities in the United States. New York is a thriving center of media and finance, and a racially and ethnically diverse place where in the 2000 census 40% of its residents reported that they were born in other nations. The city's infrastructure, while aging has also been the object of a multi-billion dollar renewal effort. Each year the city's capital budget is about $5 billion, and additional billions are spent by state authorities and the Port Authority to renew the city's water, education and transportation infrastructure. Billions of dollars in private funds are spent to renew the city's energy and telecommunication infrastructure.

Despite or perhaps because of the city's complexity and diversity it appears to be successful at delivering a high quality of life to most of its residents and visitors.

New York City's infrastructure is large and impressive. About 7 million people are transported over 722 miles of subway track each workday. Over 25,000 tons of garbage is collected each day. Over 1.2 billion gallons of water are drawn daily from reservoirs that are over 100 miles from the city. Over 1.1 million children attend public elementary, middle and high schools and over 200,000 students attend the colleges of the city's public university. New York City has over twice as many college students as any other city in the United States. Over 600,000 people live in public housing. In 2003 the city's public hospitals handled nearly one million health emergencies, and about 5 million walk-in visits to outpatient and community-based clinics, and in-patient care for approximately 210,000 people.

The city devotes 13.5% of its land, or 27,000 acres to parks. Central Park, Riverside Park and Prospect Park are collectively visited 20,000,000 times a year. Writing in the New Yorker, David Owen observed that:

"Most Americans, including most New Yorkers, think of New York City as an ecological nightmare, a wasteland of concrete and garbage and diesel fumes and traffic jams, but in comparison with the rest of America it's a model of environmental responsibility. By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn't matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two per cent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That's ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use." (Owen, David, The New Yorker, October 18, 2004 "Green Manhattan: Everywhere Should be More like New York" p. 111.)

However, while New York may consume relatively less fossil fuels than other American cities and may do a good job in providing clean water, it does a poor job of reducing, recycling and disposing of its waste. Solid waste is a national problem in the U.S. In 1960, Americans generated approximately 88.1 million tons of waste per year, equal to 2.7 pounds per person every day. By 1990 that number grew to 205.2 million tons per year and 4.5 pounds per person per day. During the next decade, per capita waste remained stable at 4.5 pounds per day, while total waste rose to 232 tons in 2000 (U.S. EPA 2002).

New York City's 8 million residents and millions of visitors generate over 25,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day. The city's Department of Sanitation (DOS) handles nearly 13,000 tons per day of waste generated by residents, public agencies and non-profit corporations; private carting companies handle the remainder (DOS 2001).

New York City has a difficult history in solid waste management. With plans for new incinerators delayed by the Depression and World War II, the city struggled to meet its waste disposal needs. In 1947, the Fresh Kills Landfill opened. Initially, the Staten Island dump was only to be used for three years — the time it would take to build a large incinerator in every borough. However, those incinerators were never built. By the 1960s, one-third of the city's trash was burned in over 17,000 apartment building incinerators and 22 municipal incinerators. The remaining residential refuse was still sent to Fresh Kills and the city's other landfills (Miller 2000: xix, 233).

As environmental awareness grew, opposition to incineration and landfilling increased. Old landfills and incinerators were gradually shut down, with the last municipal incinerator closed in 1992. By the late 1990s, all the city's residential waste ended up at Freshkills—which became one of the tallest human made structures on earth. (Earth Institute 2001:A-2).

In 1996, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki announced that Fresh Kills would close by the end of 2001. After Freshkills closed, the city's annual bill for collecting and disposing residential trash jumped by nearly 50 percent, from about $658 million to well over $1 billion today.

These days New York's waste from those ubiquitous white garbage collection trucks is dumped onto the floor of waste transfer stations that are typically located in poor neighborhoods, and then loaded onto large trucks for shipment out of New York City. In 2002, the city began to develop a long-term plan for managing waste. Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to develop waterfront garbage transfer stations in each borough that would compact refuse and ship it by barge for disposal. In mid-2006, these transfer stations were finally approved by the city's government, but had still not been built.

The current system of waste export leaves the city vulnerable over the long run, as both restrictions on waste disposal and its costs are likely to escalate. Landfill space continues to diminish in the Eastern United States, while political pressure from dump site communities builds increases. This may lead Congress and the Courts to allow states to restrict the interstate flow of municipal waste—giving New York fewer places to toss its garbage.

Why do New Yorkers create so much garbage? The use of large amounts of packaging material, and the relatively minimal level of recycling are reflections of the community's collective values. New Yorkers clearly value the benefits of the throwaway society. Moreover, it is hard to get garbage on the political agenda. Let's face it, garbage is physically unpleasant and reminds some of us of our great wealth in the face of poverty. We discard food and clothing from which the world's poor could derive sustenance. We prefer not to think about garbage or where it will end up. This propagates the fantasy that those green plastic mounds of garbage bags on the street are magically transported to some mythical solid waste heaven.

New York's elected leaders know that waste is a no- win issue. As long as the cost increases of exporting waste are gradual, it is unlikely that enough political noise will be generated to induce a sitting mayor to rethink waste export. Any Mayor attempting to site a waste incinerator or landfill in or near the city would suffer politically.

The high population density of New York City would never have been possible without a number of technological innovations: an extensive network of mass transit, the electrical power grid, the water system, modern sewage removal and treatment, product packaging, food refrigeration, preservatives and, of course, solid waste removal. The technology of waste incineration has advanced dramatically since the 1960s. In Japan, 70% of all waste is burned and generates electricity. While incineration pollutes the air, there is no question that it is less polluting than transporting waste in diesel-fueled trucks to leaking landfills. Nevertheless, New York City's public does not trust experts or government to tell the truth on this issue, and the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) syndrome dominates New York's waste politics. Science has a "solution" to this problem, but politics makes utilizing new technology unachievable.


Department of Sanitation, City of New York. (2001). New York Recycling in Context: A Comprehensive Analysis of Recycling in Major U.S. Cities.

Earth Engineering Center, Columbia University (2002) "Energy Recovery from NYC Solid Wastes"

Earth Institute and the Urban Habitat Project, Columbia University. (2001). Life after Fresh Kills: Moving beyond New York City's current waste management plan. New York: Columbia Earth Institute.

McCrory, J. (1998, March/April). New York City: The first regional government still cries for planning: The case of waste management. Planners Network, no. 128. Retrieved 9/14/04 from

Miller, B. (2000). Fat of the land: Garbage in New York: The last two hundred years. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows: Publishers Group West.

U.S. EPA Office of Solid Waste. (2002). Basic facts: Municipal solid waste. Retrieved 9/15/04 from

Steven Cohen works at Columbia University and is the Executive Director of the Earth Institute and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs.

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