A Landfill Gets a Second Life

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

On top of Section 3/4, a fully converted park mound, at Fresh Kills Park with  the Manhattan skyline in the background. Credits: Apoorva Mathur

On top of Section 3/4, a fully converted park mound, at Fresh Kills Park with the Manhattan skyline in the background. Credits: Apoorva Mathur

By Apoorva Mathur, C+S ’15

This summer I am working at The New York City Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability, helping enroll thousands of buildings in the electronic waste recycling, clothing and textile recycling and the organics collection programs. My week mostly consists of visiting enrolled buildings and the rest in the office doing data analysis and paperwork. I have encountered some interesting personalities while on my site visits, but I will save those stories for another day. I had an interesting experience this week — one that has nothing to with recycling but all to do with other kinds of garbage.

As a part of my internship, I went on a field trip to the Staten Island Transfer Station (SITS), one of the most notorious landfills in the country. Located on the western shore of Staten Island, it covers 2,200 acres of land making it almost three times the size of Central Park. In addition to collecting and transferring household waste, they also process organic waste in open composting rows across 70 acres of land, hand rolling them every few months. This humongous facility is undergoing an extremely expensive but much needed makeover. With only one of the five main sections yet to retire, it is undergoing closing construction, turning into a beautiful state park.

Fresh Kills Park, as SITS is now known, acts as a transportation facility where each garbage truck drops off 6 to 8 tons of garbage a day. Overall, total garbage drop-offs have seen a sharp decline from 1,000 tons of garbage on an average day in 2006 to about 600-700 tons of garbage a day now.

Park officials think it’s mainly because people have become more environmentally conscious by recycling more, switching from physical newspapers to online versions and buying gadgets that don’t turn obsolete as quickly among other reasons.

As soon as we entered the area, I thought I would be hit by a wall of overwhelming garbage smell, but much to my surprise, it smelled like grass and flowers except for when we entered the building where the garbage is dropped off. There were trucks the sizes of elephants hauling bags and bags of garbage from the dumping site onto a conveyer belt that pushed up to 18.5 tons of dry garbage and 20 tons of (even better) wet garbage into containers.

You’d think that it would be more difficult to handle wet (hence heavier) garbage but soggy garbage is easier to compress and they love it! Once the garbage is pushed into railroad containers and transferred to South Carolina, some of it is used to make electricity, some is converted into industrial fuel and some burned.

Me in front of a huge front-end loader garbage truck. Credit: Emma Sykes/DSNY

Me in front of a huge front-end loader garbage truck. Credit: Emma Sykes/DSNY

SITS pays $114 per ton of garbage that it transports. With each machine costing up to $1 a million dollars, their daily cost of operations is a whopping $10,000.

As we exited the garbage collection building, I saw vast expanses of lush green rolling hills and Manhattan’s skyline in the background. These hills — the tallest about 250 feet — were once open piles of trash. Each section ‘completed’ into a park went through a closure construction period. Section 1/9 — the westernmost mound — is the only one under construction now.

Numerous consultants gather every few weeks to monitor the progress of this 300-acre section. In order to properly conduct environmental mitigation and demonstrate compliance, the facility must cap the garbage in the safest way possible. That involves lots of layers including 12 inches of soil, two kinds of liners, stones, sand and fertile planting soil mix above the slowly sinking pile of garbage. Numerous pipes and drainage systems have to be engineered in place so any polluted water that’s percolated through the landfill and gas can be collected and processed for re-use. The entire operation costs $1 billion per acre, ensuring nothing falls out of compliance for at least 30 years. Yes, it’s that expensive.

As if I wasn’t already impressed, facility officials explained that since about 55 percent of the entire land is wetlands and creeks, Fresh Kills helped Staten Island against Hurricane Sandy, protecting much of inland area by acting as a buffer zone between land and water. This truly made me think of how our program connects society and environmentalists in a way that makes a positive, sustainable difference that has tangible and measurable effects.

Once upon a time, Fresh Kills landfill was a horrific sight, causing diseases to living things around the area, deaths in the creeks and rivers surrounding it, spewing stinking odor for miles and miles around, and collecting more trash than it could handle. Today, Staten Island is proud of it, converting it into a park signifies a noteworthy improvement to the quality of life and land use.



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