Getting To Zero | Open House New York

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From ocean dumping, to building land, to building mountains, to sending it elsewhere.

What we do with our waste in New York City has changed dramatically over the last 120 years.

Find out how we got to where we are today.

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When streets were filthy

In the late 19th century, New York City's streets were incredibly dirty. Food scraps, horse manure, ashes, and other types of waste were common obstacles to pedestrians and carts on the streets.


Colonel Waring and the "White Wings"

The story of New York's modern waste system starts with the creation of the Department of Street Cleaning (DSC) in 1881, which would become the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) in 1929.

During its first years, the DSC was unable to offer a solution to the pressing issue of street cleaning. This was because it shared responsibility for cleaning with other City agencies, and had very little oversight of its contracts.

It was only in 1885 when a Civil War Colonel named George Waring took over the DSC that things began to change.

Sweeping and collection

Waring's first challenge was to ensure that the DSC was actually cleaning the streets and collecting garbage. To do this, he reorganized DSC's labor force and its practices.

Waring instituted a military-like hierarchy, with a clear chain of command and well-defined responsibilities for workers.

The transformation was so quick and dramatic that within a year, Waring had organized a parade where sanitation workers were cheered as heroes.

Waring also issued white uniforms to sweepers, who became known as the "white wings." He had them work alongside drivers, quickly loading the garbage into horse-drawn carts.

Transferring waste to boats

Carts were driven to wharves on the waterfront. There, they tipped the waste onto large, flat bottomed boats, called scows.

Loading the scows

Men, known as "scow trimmers," manually shoveled waste on the boats, so that the load would be evenly distributed.

New York City Dumping Wharf, 1903

Disposal: ocean dumping

In the very early days of New York City, waste was disposed of in the Hudson and East Rivers, sometimes being used to expand the shoreline.

When Colonel Waring took over the DSC in 1885, New York City's waste production had grown so much that almost all of it was dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.

(Click on the map to replay the animation)

Dumping off Sandy Hook

Tugboats pulled the scows loaded with waste to the Atlantic Ocean, right outside the Lower New York Bay. There, scows were emptied manually.

Looking for alternatives

To move away from ocean dumping, Waring specified that waste should be separated into three categories that could be disposed of using other methods. He even created one of the city’s first (if short-lived) municipal recycling programs.

Organic material was turned into fertilizer; paper and rags were recovered for their market value. The resulting material was either incinerated or landfilled along with ash.

Disposal: building land on waste

Despite the increasing reliance on ocean dumping, the use of waste as fill to expand shorelines and create islands remained common throughout the first half of the 20th century.

This method, called "land reclamation," had a double benefit: it was perceived as more sanitary than ocean dumping, and created land which could be used or sold.

Landfilling at Rikers Island, 1903

Much of New York City is built on waste

As a result of land reclamation practices, many parts of the New York City that we know today are built on waste. *Daniel C. Walsh and Robert G. LaFleur, via Darcy Bender.

(Click on the map to replay the animation)


From ocean dumping to a network of landfills and incinerators

In spite of Waring’s early efforts, ocean dumping of municipal waste was only banned in 1934 by a New York court order, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Following the ban, New York had a network of 89 active landfills and 22 incinerators that it would come to rely on for decades. *DSNY Annual Report, 2005.


The creation of Fresh Kills landfill

One of these landfills was Fresh Kills, which was created by the City in 1947 on a Staten Island marshland.

Initially meant to be a temporary solution, Fresh Kills would eventually outlive all other landfills and incinerators in the city.


Separation of private waste

In the 1950's, the City stopped collecting waste from businesses, and continued to collect only from residents and public institutions. This created a private market for waste collection in New York City.

50 years later, when the City had no landfills or incinerators left, it would become reliant on private companies for waste disposal.


Increased environmental regulations

In the 1960's and 70's, the federal government enacted a series of environmental regulations regarding solid waste.

The Clean Air Act of 1970 led to incinerator closures because of stricter emissions standards.

Acts from 1965 and 1970 regulated sanitary landfills and led to the closure of several open dumps such as this one off the New Jersey Turnpike.


Growing dependence on Fresh Kills

Fresh Kills landfill increasingly became the only in-city disposal option with the closure of other landfills and incinerators in New York City.

Despite not being up-to-date with new environmental regulations as most of the other city landfills, Fresh Kills was allowed to remain open through a Consent Order between the City and the State, while being retrofitted.


At the peak of its operation in 1986-87, Fresh Kills received up to 29,000 tons of waste per day. Today, it occupies 2,200 acres and holds about 150 million tons of waste. *Fresh Kills Park Site History.


A fundamental split

With Fresh Kills landfill almost full in the 1990's, the city decided to raise costs for private companies to dipose of their waste there.

These companies reacted by creating a network of in-city "transfer stations." In those transfer stations, waste was placed on larger trucks and then sent to cheaper landfills outside of the city.

Clustered transfer stations

These private transfer stations were built on land zoned for industrial use, concentrating truck traffic in the adjacent neighborhoods, which are largely home to low-income communities and communities of color.

To this day, despite efforts by the City to pursue a more equitable distribution at the urging of the residents of these neighborhoods, most of the private transfer stations are still clustered in a few areas of New York City. *U.S. Census Bureau, 2006-2010 ACS;
NYSDEC Transfer Station Annual Reports, 2015.

(Click on the map to replay the animation)


The closure of Fresh Kills

In 1996, the City pleged to close Fresh Kills landfill in five years, due to intense community pressure

After Fresh Kills was finally closed in 2001, the City began using private transfer stations to send all of its waste outside of New York City. This meant increased reliance on trucks for waste export, leading to more traffic and air polution.


From landfill to park

Since its closure, Fresh Kills has been slated to become a park, which will be approximately three times the size of Central Park.

Designed by the landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, the park is expected to be completed in 2037.

Transforming the waste system

Today, the City is trying to deal with the legacy of its waste history.

It still sends all of its waste outside the city (and mostly to landfills), but is increasing the use of rail and barge transportation to reduce pollution.

The City is also building new marine transfer stations to reduce truck traffic and related air pollution in the city.

But this is just a part of the story.

In 2015, the City pledged to to eliminate all waste sent to landfills by the year 2030. This will require a great increase in alernatives to landfilling, such as recycling and composting.

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.

Photos by Bain News Service/LOC; George Waring/; Elizabeth Alice Austen/LOC; DSNY; Thomas Edison/LOC; Robin Nagle; Gary Miller/DOCUMERICA; Fresh Kills 2030. Special thanks to Michael Anton/DSNY for archival phorgraphs and Darcy Bender for landfill mapping data.