Getting To Zero | Open House New York

When you throw something away in New York City, where does it go?

Waste Journeys is a series of side-scrolling digital features created to help New Yorkers understand where waste goes when it is thrown “away” and how it gets there.

Different types of waste follow very different paths depending on where they enter the waste stream. You are likely most familiar with what is called the residential waste stream. On average, each New Yorker generates about 15 pounds of waste each week at home, adding up to around 3 million tons of waste citywide each year. This residential waste stream is handled directly by the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), along with waste generated by municipal and many non-profit sites. In all, DSNY is directly responsible for collecting around 3.6 million tons of waste each year, including residential waste.1 This is the part of the system addressed by the City’s 0x30 campaign to eliminate waste to landfills by the year 2030.

But the residential and institutional waste handled by DSNY represents just about a quarter of the city’s overall waste stream.2 Waste generated at commercial, industrial, and construction sites is not collected or disposed of by DSNY, but by hundreds of private carting companies. For every pound that DSNY collects from residential and institutional sites, another three are generated at sites outside of the municipal system. Commercial sites in the five boroughs generate 3.5 million tons of waste each year—or roughly 10 times the weight of the Empire State Building.3 The largest part of the waste stream, however, is construction debris, which accounts for a staggering 6 million tons of waste each year. New York’s goal of becoming a truly zero waste city will require innovative approaches to the three-quarters of the waste stream not currently handled directly by DSNY.4

Further complicating matters, the private carting firms that handle commercial, industrial, and construction and demolition waste rely on long-haul trucking to transport waste, and many have located their transfer stations in industrial areas. Approximately 60% of the city’s waste is carted by companies located in one of just three areas: the South Bronx, the North Brooklyn neighborhoods along Newtown Creek, and Southeast Queens.5 All of those trucks transporting waste from various sites to transfer stations, from transfer stations to far-flung landfills, and the methane emitted at these landfills, together, generate an estimated 5 million tons of carbon emissions every year—10% of the city’s carbon footprint—disproportionately affecting the largely low-income communities that sit directly adjacent to the industrial areas where transfer stations are clustered.6 For our city to even begin to address this massive environmental challenge, we must first understand how the current system works.

Seven Waste Journeys will be released over the next few months that help explain where different kinds of waste go when they are thrown away in New York City. The series starts by tracing the journey of the everyday trash we throw away at home and on the street, and will continue in the coming weeks by looking at how the city handles recyclables, organic waste, commercial waste, and more.

1: OneNYC, 2014.

2: PlaNYC, April 2011; NYSDEC C&D Processors and Transfer Stations Annual Reports.

3: New York City Commercial Solid Waste Study and Analysis, 2012 Summary Report.

4: PlaNYC, April 2011; NYSDEC C&D Processors Annual Reports.

5: NYSDEC Transfer Station Annual Reports.

6: Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 2014. Figure is estimated from the 2.1 millions that only include DSNY managed waste.

Waste Journeys was created for Getting to Zero, the third installment of Open House New York’s Urban Systems Series.

Getting to Zero is made possible by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Digital content and research by Bernardo Loureiro.