News Archive

posted 08/26/02

Columbia Scientist Proposes a Solution to New York City's Garbage Crisis

Steven Cohen, director of the graduate program in earth science and policy management at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute, recently published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times proposing waste-to-energy plants as a long-term solution to New York City's garbage problem.

New York City produces 11,000 tons of household garbage a day.

Cohen proposes building plants in some of the depressed localities along the Hudson River. "New York City could build high-temperature incinerators that generate electricity, known as waste-to-energy plants, in industrial sections of these towns. In exchange, the city could offer free or reduced-costs garbage disposal for participating towns and perhaps low-priced electricity (generated by the incinerators) to businesses that put offices or factories in these localities."

In doing so, Cohen believes,"New York could help itself and several cities and towns along the Hudson River that need to revive their economies."

Currently, the city contracts with private vendors to ship its waste and dispose of it in out-of-state landfills. According to Cohen, "This private waste-management business is composed of a small number of large companies and is thus not very competitive. This contributed to astronomical garbage disposal costs."

The Sanitation Department's operating costs reached $1 billion last year.

Waste-to-energy incinerators reduce the volume of refuse that must be placed in landfills by 90 percent. Refuse in landfills eventually releases pollution into the surrounding environment.

When built to be as environmentally protective as possible, these plants "produce less pollution than diesel-fueled trucks and landfills do," writes Cohen.

And according to Cohen, these plants are not the whole solution to New York City's garbage crisis.

"The city must also reduce waste and do a better job of recycling. It can start by raising the deposit on bottles from a nickel to 50 cents or a dollar," he writes."We have tossed out years of effort for short-run budget savings, when in the long run, waste reduction can save dollars."

Cohen believes, "New York City needs to own its entire garbage disposal system to ensure that costs are predictable and as low as possible."

Cohen calls Mayor Bloomberg's recent proposal to develop garbage-transfer stations "a creative step toward solving New York City's garbage crisis." But, he writes, the city needs to find "better destinations for the garbage. "

Cohen contributes to the Earth Institute's four-city study on sustainable development, which includes New York City, where the Earth Institute and local colleagues study the intersection of environment and development to deepen understanding and to develop appropriate policy responses.

The Earth Institute is the world's pioneer academic center for mobilizing the sciences and public policy in pursuit of a sustainable future, especially for the world's poor.