The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation held an informational webinar (presentation slides and recording) on April 11, 2023 on the proposed solid waste management plan for New York State. This post looks at the relationship between this plan and the Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (Climate Act). The Climate Act mandates emission reductions from all sectors of the economy but has not provided analyses supporting the feasibility of achieving those reductions on the schedule required.
I have been following the Climate Act since it was first proposed. I submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan and written over 300 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good. The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.
Climate Act Background
The Climate Act established a New York “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050 and an interim 2030 target of a 40% reduction by 2030. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.” In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible and power the electric gride with zero-emissions generating resources by 2040. The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies. That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan. After a year-long review the Scoping Plan recommendations were finalized at the end of 2022. In 2023 the Scoping Plan recommendations are supposed to be implemented through regulation and legislation.
Solid Waste Proposed Plan
This section lists material from the DEC Draft New York State Solid Waste Management Plan website. This plan is subtitled: Building the Circular Economy Through Sustainable Materials Management (2023 – 2032). DEC writes:
To protect communities and mitigate the effects of climate change, the New York State Solid Waste Management Plan (Plan) builds upon sustained efforts to reduce waste and advance the state’s transition to a circular economy, helping to change New Yorkers’ understanding of waste and their relationship to it. The Plan intends to guide actions over the next decade, from the beginning of 2023 to the end of 2032, and builds upon the State’s 2010 Beyond Waste Plan.
The Plan sets forth six major Focus Areas with goals and action items to move the circular economy and materials management industry forward in New York State:
- Waste Prevention, Reduction, and Reuse
- Recycling and Recycling Market Development and Resiliency
- Product Stewardship and Extended Producer Responsibility
- Organics Reduction and Recycling
- Toxics in Products
- Design and Operation of Solid Waste Management Facilities and Related Activities
View the Plan
The DEC also noted that people wishing to comment on the draft New York State Solid Waste Management Plan have the opportunity to submit written comments until May 15, 2023. Comments can be submitted by email to NYSSolidWastePlan@dec.ny.gov. Please include “Comments on SSWMP” in the subject line of the email.
Waste Sector and the Climate Act
The following graph lists historical and projected waste sector GHG emissions using two global warming potential accounting approaches: one over 20 years and the other over 100 years. More details on the differences and the data source are provided in a recent article. In the graph historical data are used from 1990 to 2020, there are a couple of years that mix available data and projections, and from 2023 to 2030 the projected values assume a linear reduction each year to meet the 2030 Climate Act target of a 40% reduction in GHG emissions from the 1990 baseline. The waste sector emissions trends are interesting. Note that a 30% emissions reduction (12.6 MMT CO2e) is required from 2020 to 2030 in order to meet the 40% reduction from the 1990 baseline mandate. Note, however that while the GWP-100 required emission reduction is only 4.6 MMT CO2e it still represents a 30% reduction. I am not aware of any control technology that can be expected to provide that kind of reduction. The question of the day is whether the DEC’s solid waste management plan provides a strategy to meet these targets.
Overview of the DEC Plan
At 16:02 of the meeting recording the DEC describes the “vision” of the plan shown in the following slide. The presentation said they think we can achieve these visions. Subsequently, the presentation expanded on the “climate change mitigation is fully implemented” component. In 2020 the waste sector emissions were 12% of the total so reductions must be implemented in order to meet the Climate Act targets. Also note that a major point of emphasis in the presentation was the point that solid waste facilities are located primarily in disadvantaged communities.
J.D. Allen writing on the WSHU radio website did an excellent job describing the plan and the current status of waste in the state. He explained:
New York is hearing feedback from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by waste disposal and transfer facilities. It’s part of a solid waste management plan the state works on every 10 years.
The plan is intended to guide the state over the next decade — from the beginning of 2023 to the end of 2032 — to reduce waste and advance the state’s transition to a circular economy, said David Vitale, division director for materials management at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The public is allowed to comment on New York’s solid waste management plan through May 15. However, environmental advocates, municipal leaders and the private sector are dubious about some sections of the proposal.
Allen went on to quote David Vitale:
“Waste management is different in different parts of our state,” Vitale said about the plan based on statewide data from 2018 — well before the pandemic disrupted the system and information collection. “We have different programs, we have different needs and different challenges. And so all of that is captured in there.”
“[But] waste is a concept of the past,” he continued.
He said that will mean changing New Yorkers’ understanding of waste and their relationship to it by reducing the amount of plastic, paper and organic waste that enter the waste stream, while finding innovative ways to reuse and recycle waste that would typically end up in landfills and other facilities.
Allen also explained:
This is compounded by state goals to protect communities and mitigate the effects of climate change. By 2030, New York seeks to curb greenhouse gas emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and 85% by 2050. Waste makes up 12% of the state’s contribution.
Vitale reminded New Yorkers during an informational meeting on the statewide draft plan on Tuesday that it’s also important to get involved in conversations about how trash is handled locally.
“The primacy for solid waste management rests with local governments,” he said. “We are a home-ruled state. That’s how the laws are set up; That’s where the authorities are. The state doesn’t have that particular authority.”
“So it’s most important to have this information available and to be used as part of that […] local solid waste management planning process,” Vitale continued.
Towns on Long Island have been critical of the state Department of Environmental Conservation for not taking a more active role in creating regional waste management plans. Vitale said it’s a responsibility that falls on towns on Long Island — and counties in the rest of New York, under state law. Six of 13 towns on Long Island have yet to update their expired local waste management plans.
More than half of New York state’s waste stream — and nearly 90% of New York City’s total waste stream — is managed in facilities located in disadvantaged communities. Last month, the state identified these communities to steer millions of dollars in funding to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. “The concerns from some of those committees now have data to validate those issues that they have dealt with,” Vitale said.
Among the more than 1,700 disadvantaged communities statewide are coastline neighborhoods of New York City, central Brooklyn, and portions of northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
On Long Island, most of the 85 U.S. Census tracts selected are communities of color, and have existing or remnants of waste infrastructure. This includes around the Brookhaven Landfill, one of two facilities remaining in the region that handles the disposal of waste from more than two million residents — and which is scheduled to close over the next few years.
Residents have organized to call for the town to open hearings to brainstorm around a zero waste and equitable waste management. Yet, the Town of Brookhaven’s local solid waste management plan expired in 2009. According to freedom of information requests, the town has no record of any zero-waste planning between January 2020 and March 2023.
Vitale said unburdening these communities of waste infrastructure could be considered as part of state and local solid waste management planning. By 2050, New York has a goal to reduce landfilling by 85%. “It’s intended to be as open and transparent as we can with our processes. And the data that we have in these plans, hopefully can be used for that purpose,” he said
Statewide, the draft plan recommends 33 legislative actions aligned with the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The plan calls on New York to expand existing law to require smaller businesses to donate food and scrap organic waste, and adopt an Extended Producer Responsibility law to shift the responsibility of reducing paper and plastic waste to manufacturers.
Another proposal would create a surcharge on the thousands of tons of waste being landfilled or burned into ash in New York and all waste generated and being sent out of state. Several projects statewide — including four waste transfer stations that are in different stages of approval on Long Island — seek to haul garbage to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states.
Allen went on to explain:
“There needs to be a state plan for organics composting to avert combining clean organics with inherently contaminated sewer sludge and spreading/generating pollution through landfilling and burning,” Mary Arnald, co-founder of Civics United for Railroad Environmental Solutions (CURES) in Queens, said in a comment during the video conference. “This can’t be left to the private sector because that’s setting up a wild west of competition.”
A surcharge — at least $5 per ton — could not only “help disincentivize disposal, but also generate $133 million per year” to provide financial support for reduction, reuse and recycling projects, according to the draft plan. Over 30 states already use some form of fee structure.
“Without industry within New York state to create the circular economy to process, and little literature published or released from the state-funded education institution research,” Brookhaven Town Waste Management Commissioner Christine Fetten warned that a per-ton disposal disincentive surcharge “would result in an increase in illegal dumping.”
Professionals and everyday New Yorkers alike want an extension to the comment period to allow testimony for a few more days to an additional month.
My first impression is that the Solid Waste Management Plan proposal is long on slogans and short on action items starting with “Waste is a thing of the past”. For example, the presentation says it will “empower residents to compost at home or through community programs”. This is a needed to reduce organic material methane emissions. That sounds great but in practice it is a gigantic pain in the neck based on my personal experience. In order to compost you must have space for a separate container to collect compostable material, space for a separate container for pickup for a community program or your own personal compost bin, and time to work the compost and use the composted material. Oh, by the way, if not done correctly, compost making can create odors and spread disease and weeds when used. The thought that this be universally adopted so “waste is a thing of the past” is magical thinking.
Allen described a couple of the recommendations. The first is for New York to expand existing law to require smaller businesses to donate food and scrap organic waste, and adopt an Extended Producer Responsibility law to shift the responsibility of reducing paper and plastic waste to manufacturers. He also noted that there is a proposal to create a surcharge on the thousands of tons of waste being landfilled or burned into ash in New York and all waste generated and being sent out of state. In both instances those plans would necessarily add costs for consumers.
This is not the first solid waste management plan. I would bet a lot of money the last plan had many similar goals and targets. There was no documentation provided that showed how well New York’s plan has been working to date which suggests they had nothing to show. Why in the world do they think it will work as planned this time?
This is yet another component of the Climate Act that is long on slogans, wishful thinking, and magical solutions but totally devoid of realistic plans with supporting feasibility analyses and cost estimates. This will come to a head as soon as the cap and invest program starts tracking emission reduction progress against the Climate Act mandates. When that happens the gap between observed reductions and needed reductions can no longer be ignored. Reality will eventually win.