Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Department of Environmental Protection Loves Garbage Disposers

Some who oppose the legalization of commercial garbage disposals claim that allowing additional waste to be pumped into the waste stream will tax New York City’s sewer and waste water transfer station infrastructure; these costly problems, they say, will negate the possible benefits of disposers. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is perhaps the most vocal trumpeter of this critique, opposing both the legalization of commercial grinders (Intro 220) and, quite possibly, the implementation of the pilot program now before the City Council (Intro 742).

The DEP’s environmentally-based skepticism vis-à-vis garbage disposers must, however, be put in context. As early as 1992, when both residential and commercial garbage grinders were still illegal, the DEP’s Commissioner saw these devices as potentially beneficial. Disagreeing with the environmentalists who supported upholding the ban, DEP Commissioner Albert F. Appleton remarked:

This is obviously an issue we need to take a closer look at. And we are seriously reconsidering our current policy. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were able to make some changes.
Skip ahead to 1995, when the City Council and the Mayor encouraged that the ban on residential disposers be lifted. The same environmental chorus raised its collective voice in opposition, but once again the DEP issued a contrary opinion. Marilyn Gelber summarized her department’s position:

The administration position was, and remains, that expanding the use of food-waste disposals could benefit New York City.
Despite their enthusiasm, neither the DEP nor the Council advocated for the complete legalization of residential disposers right away. Quite prudently, everyone involved agreed that a pilot program should be enacted where a small sample of residents would have access to disposals and the effects would be tested. In other words, the fears of the environmentalists would be analyzed in a scientifically valid, independent manner.

In 1997, the DEP’s report on the pilot program was released and the agency’s chief of staff Charles Sturcken posited that, “The city’s study concluded that disposers would have minimal impact… " [emphasis added]. More specifically the DEP’s finding stated the following:

Based on the analysis, potential future maintenance costs, even if worse case projections prove true, would be considered de minimis, therefore, no potential significant adverse impacts on the City’s sewer system are expected if food waste disposers are permitted in combined sewer areas.
What about the claim that food waste disposers would tremendously increase the costs of removing nitrogen from the waste stream? Let’s turn to the DEP again:

The results show that in the decade after city-wide introduction of FWDs, increases in costs would be relatively small; approximately $4.1 million in 2005 (based on Queens and Manhattan data) for the most expensive nitrogen control measure. Measured against the estimated 1.525 billion dollar cost of maintaining the City’s water and sewer infrastructure, this represents a de minimis impact.
The DEP comes to the similar conclusions about disposer impacts on the water quality in New York’s harbors and bays as well as on water rates for consumers.

These findings coupled with the enthusiasm of various past DEP commissioners and the current installation of grinders in New York City housing projects (backed by the NYCDOH) make two things clear: 1) The Department’s current anti-commercial grinder position is hypocritical and thoroughly disproved by a decade of its own previous findings and statements and 2) The agency and the environmentalists who oppose commercial disposers need to step back and, just like in 1995, allow for the passage of a commercial pilot that would test various assumptions.

Essentially, we are saying that, just like ten years ago, a pilot should be enacted and that this study will eventually prove that the pros of commercial disposers outweigh the cons. If history has taught us anything it’s that the DEP should agree.