Is It Possible For New York City To Have Zero Waste?

Reducing trash is easier said than done

There are a few constants in this changing world: death, taxes, and trash. Humans have been producing garbage since the beginning, leaving archaeologists the task of piecing together ancient civilizations not by what they built, but by what they threw into prehistoric landfills called middens. But now a few cities want to change that grand, dirty tradition and move into a future where trash is a thing of the past.

With its One NYC plan, New York City is the most recent (and one of the largest) cities to take on the challenge of producing zero waste. The goal? By 2030, the city of 8 million will no longer send waste to landfills, instead recycling or composting the detritus of our modern lives.

So how is a nearly 400-year-old city better known for garbage strikes (see 1911, 1968 and 1981) going to clean up its act in just 15 years? The city has a number of initiatives planned to reduce its garbage load. By 2018, the city plans to expand its organics program (composting food and biodegradable waste) from serving 100,000 households to serving the entire city. By 2020, there will be single-stream recycling, a method in which all recyclables go into a single bin and get sorted out later. Other initiatives include promises to “reduce the use of plastic bags and other non-compostable waste,” “make all schools “Zero Waste Schools,” and “reduce commercial waste disposal by 90 percent by 2030.”

It’s an ambitious and admirable goal. Many also wonder if it’s a realistic one, especially since other cities have tried and failed to reach a zero waste future. In 1996, Canberra, Australia set itself the goal of becoming zero waste by 2010 but ultimately failed. Canberra did manage to divert a lot of waste from landfills, but the city wasn’t able to meet its own deadline, in part because the amount of waste generated by the city kept going up. Recycling increased dramatically, but the city still fell short.

There are a few glimmers of hope, however. San Francisco is also working towards a zero waste future by the year 2020, and early results are promising. Their focus is on making it easy to separate trash from recyclables and compostables, eventually making it so that everything fits into either of the latter categories. It seems to be working. In 2012, the city sent just 428,048 tons of trash to the landfill. That’s compared to New York’s sanitation department, which carts away about 3.8 million tons of trash annually–76 percent of which ends up in a landfill.

But one of San Francisco’s largest hurdles is laziness. In apartments outfitted with trash chutes, but lacking similar recycling or compost chutes, residents in those buildings have to carry their recyclables out to the street, an unappealing option when the trash chute is just down the hall and so easy to use. New apartment buildings need to have three different trash chutes, but tackling the problem in older buildings is not easy. Essentially, the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment) is trying to convince landlords to close existing trash chutes, making taking out the trash just as difficult as taking out the recycling.

Another of the hurdles is at the very start of the waste process–making sure that the new doodads and thingamabobs we craves so much (and the packaging that we carry them home in) are recyclable to start with. SF Environment is working with legislators and manufacturers to make this a reality.

Will New York end up like Canberra or San Francisco? We’ll get back to you on that in about 15 years. See you in the future.