Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Durst, Disposers and the DEP

The battle over the city's SWMP has been narrowly focused on the issue of the siting of new marine transfer stations. The thornier issue of waste reduction has been less salient, understandably so from the mayor's standpoint since there is little in the draft plan that offers much in this key area.

As we have been arguing all along, the use of food waste disposers is the only realistic methodology that can reduce waste in the most economical and environmentally effective manner. As it turns out the Alliance has a new ally in this waste reduction fight, an unlikely one given our usual set cohort of belligerents. The ally is the Durst Organization.

Durst is concerned about the siting of a commercial transfer station on the river at 59th Street in Manhattan. Aside from the fact that it has expensive property rights in the area the organization makes a number of good points about the inappropriateness of the site and the existence of a better location near the rail yards a mile south.

Of course what is most heartening to us is the support the company gives to the expanded use, in both the residential and commercial sectors, of food waste disposers. This support, given in City Council testimony and a more comprehensive report that accompanies it, lays out a number of important arguments that mirror the Alliance's position on disposers and waste reduction.

What gives the report heightened credibility is the fact that it was drafted by former sanitation commissioner Brendan Sexton who brings to the task an expertise and understanding of the issues from the perspective of an insider. Brendan not only has been in the middle of the garbage disposal issue he is also someone with a sensitivity to the tendency of city agencies to obfuscate on controversial policy matters.

His take on the disposer issue is instructive and can't be dismissed lightly. In the first place he argues that the expanded use of residential disposers, particularly in Manhattan, can save the city hundreds of millions of dollars a ear in disposal costs (18.5% of the city's garbage is now food waste). Importantly, he underscores the public health benefits of disposer use and the impracticality of composting in a hi-rise apartment environment.

Sexton also points out, and given the hysteria from some quarters you'd be shocked to discover this, that FWDs "are ubiquitous and many large cities-including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Columbus (OH), and Denver, to name a few-mandate their use..." In fact Sexton is so confidence about the efficacy of their use that he advocates incentivizing their installation much like the city has done with low-flow toilets.

What About the Nitrogen?

The great bugaboo on the use of disposers is the danger that nitrogen effluent poses for some of our surrounding waterways. Now Professor Robert Ham has debunked some of the alarmism on this issue but Sexton also effectively addresses this issue. He cites the DEP's own report on the subject and demonstrates that the costs are greatly exaggerated by the agency.

In addition, he also points out that the costs cannot be analyzed without a simultaneous evaluation of the benefits of disposer use. As he says, "While additional costs may well be incurred by DEP in order to handle increased liquefied food waste, this must be properly weighed against the enormous costs the City and its tax payers will incur handling the same material as solid waste."

Most importantly, however, Sexton calls on the city to conduct a "rigorous, transparent and independent study," one that takes into consideration not only costs but also savings. This is precisely what we have suggested on the commercial side and it is integral to Intro 133.

Sexton underscores many of our arguments about the utility of commercial disposers but there is one point he makes that is central to our concerns about the public discussion of this issue and the lack of candor in some of the statements that have been issued by DEP.

The agency has said that it would cost billions to retrofit the waste water system to accomodate disposers. In a letter written by the former DEP commissioner it is stated that in order to handle the nitrogen loading from commercial disposers "an entirely different technology" would be required at an estimated cost of between $4 and $10 billion.

Sexton's take on this is instructive: "We find curious Mr. Ward's suggestion that somehow current goals can be met by retrofitting but that any substantial additional nitrogen loads would suddenly require a completely different technology costing billions; perhaps upon a serious and transparent review, the situation would not prove to be 'all or nothing' in the way that Mr. Ward suggests." Indeed!