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Dateline : Thursday, June 02, 2005
Zero Heroes, or Waste Not....
By Emily Keller
"What if everyone, when you were born, had the rule that you had to keep
everything you ever owned?" asked Mark Gorrell, a designer of resource recovery
parks. He spoke at a National Zero Waste Action conference at Pace University
Zero waste is the concept that materials destined for landfills and
incinerators are actually resources. Resource recovery parks are one type of facility
where those materials can be exchanged. When individuals must process, bury or
burn trash in their communities, rather than dumping on others, pushing for
zero waste becomes much more attractive, Gorrell and others explained. This is
called the proximity principle.
It worked for Chris Burger, whose family has been working toward zero waste
since 1970, and currently creates less than a pound of trash, each, per year.
"What really got us into recycling was they were proposing an incinerator,"
Burger said. When Burger was challenged to come up with an alternative to the
incinerator he opposed in Brune County, New York, he countered that his family
would no longer create trash.
"It's not as hard as you might think as you get in the habit of it," said
Burger, a resource management consultant for Horizon Express. Burger composts in
his backyard, re-soles his shoes, spends more money for products that last,
and avoids buying anything with packaging that cannot be recycled, such as
potato chip bags that fuse paper with metal.
"Landfills are basically storage facilities for some other future generation
to deal with," said Burger, calling landfills giant garbage bags. "They come
and fill it and then they move on and you are left holding the bag." Although
landfill recipients are paid for their service, long term environmental and
health costs are not figured in, Burger said.
"Waste is the result of inefficiencies. It occurs when we lack imagination,"
said David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
The more self-reliant we become, the less pollution we create, and the less we
depend on other nations, he said.
Self-reliance also decreases waste. For example, there is enough sunlight to
light many houses and run electric cars and appliances, and "not to use it is
wasteful," Morris explained.
"Why would you bury a rock in the landfill when you could grind it up,
aggregate it, and make a road out of it?" asked Rick Anthony, an international Zero
The conference, which was sponsored by the GrassRoots Recycling Network and
similar groups, drew participants from as far as Nova Scotia, Canada, and the
Philippines, but its discussions resonated locally, as a debate about the
city's draft 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) has raged for many months
around the corner from Pace, at City Hall.
Conference speakers said that affluent communities tend to produce more
trash, while transfer stations, landfills and incinerators are usually located in
low income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.
In keeping with that model, the affluent Upper East Side is fighting the
proposed reopening of a marine transfer station (MTS) at East 91st Street, while
the four community districts that it would service are known to create more
trash than any others, according to Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner
"These people consume like nobody else," said Timothy Logan, while passing
the East 91st station on a tour of Sustainable South Bronx's office and the
environmentally destructive facilities that surround it, many of which serve
Sustainable South Bronx is working to reduce the presence of more than a
dozen transfer stations, a waste water treatment plant soon to be expanded onto
would-be parkland, the humongous Hunts Point Food Market, the coming Fulton Fish
Market, and a Hugo Neu recycling facility, which together could generate
11,000 truck trips per day. "Until every piece of land is used up they'll keep
coming," said Omar Freilla, who led the tour with Logan.
Several large apartment buildings and a prison are within a 15-minute walk
from the industrial overload, making the South Bronx a residential area.
"Everybody likes the idea of the richest community in the city handling their own
trash instead of it coming to our neighborhoods," said Freilla.
Freilla is the director of the Green Worker Cooperatives, which he created,
and the former program director of Sustainable South Bronx. He has been
lobbying the city's Department of Sanitation to give the defunct local MTS, which it
has no plans to reopen, over to the community so it can be transformed into a
resource recovery park - thereby reducing the tonnage of materials that would
be otherwise thrown away.
Logan is the lead organizer of the NYC Zero Waste Campaign and describes
himself as a civil rights activist who chooses to work on environmental issues. He
has been pushing for years to open MTSs in Manhattan, to relieve the
overburdened neighborhoods where transfer stations are clustered.
Their tour put the conference's academic discussion about the negative
impacts of garbage disposal into real-world context.
The conference included several other tours, one of which traveled to the
30th Street pier in Sunset Park, where Hugo Neu plans to construct a 150,000
square foot recycling facility for metal, glass and plastic.
After the tour van escaped from behind a garbage truck that delayed it, Tom
Outerbridge, a consultant for Hugo Neu, showed a Power Point presentation about
the new facility, at the local community board office.
Creating the facility, which is slated to receive all of Manhattan's
recyclables by barge from the Gansevoort MTS on West 12th Street, according to the
SWMP, would simplify the convoluted journey that recyclables take on their way to
reuse. Items from northern Manhattan are transported by truck to the Hunts
Point facility and then pre-processed and trucked to a facility in Claremont,
New Jersey. "There's no need for it all to get trucked to the Bronx and New
Jersey," Outerbridge said.
However, the opening of the Gansevoort MTS is already the subject of a
lawsuit brought by Friends of Hudson River Park, because it would require use of
some park space and an amendment to the Hudson River Park Act.
And zero waste advocates frequently note that recycling is not enough -
reuse, reduction, and composting are also prime components to reduction of the
waste stream. "We are never going to be able to recycle our way to zero waste,"
said Annie Leonard, of the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives.
The conference comes one week before the council's subcommittee on Land Use,
Public Siting and Maritime Uses will vote on the siting of three MTSs in
Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, and the Upper East Side, contained in the SWMP.
In the midst of restructuring the city's disposal system, the city's trash
plan also contains a few words about zero waste. "While the advocates of Zero
Waste are to be lauded for setting the diversion bar high, the City must be
realistic and recognize that many decisions regarding what individuals and
businesses do with their waste are beyond the City's direct or indirect control," it
But to zero waste advocates, disposal is unrealistic over the long term. "You
cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely," said Leonard.
"No one is saying that we're going to get to zero tomorrow," she adds. Zero
waste is an ideal to work towards, similar to calling for the end of war, she
In Seattle, zero waste was adopted as a guiding principle in that city's 2004
SWMP, and buildings are being constructed with eco-roofs, low energy lights,
and recycled construction materials. "We can transition to a society that
views waste as inefficient uses of resources and believes that most wastes can be
eliminated," said Chris Luboff, the solid waste program manager of Seattle
Similar principles have been adopted in San Francisco, New Zealand, Nova
Scotia, the Philippines, and many other places, and companies such as Aveda, a
maker of beauty products, are responding to a growing contingent of consumers who
prefer ecologically-responsible products, and are pushing for zero themselves.
"I've been in the garbage wars for over 20 years now," said Barbara Warren,
co-author of Reaching for Zero: The Citizens Plan for Zero Waste in NYC. "When
people lead, eventually the leaders will follow."
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