How to design a city for waste
A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with historian and recycling guru Benjamin Miller on New York City’s “wasteful” past — and potential future.
At its peak in 1986, the Fresh Kills Landfill received 29,000 tons of New York’s residential waste a day. But in 2001, facing community pressure, the city decided to shut the landfill down, reroute its garbage to other states, and up its recycling game.
“I predicted that it would be very bad, but it’s so much worse,” says Benjamin Miller, who was director of policy planning for the New York City Department of Sanitation at the time. “And I’d like to vent about that.”
Miller is in a good position to vent. An expert on the urban logistics of waste, Miller literally wrote the book on New York City’s history of waste, Fat of the Land — and he’s currently working on a new edition, which will include a new section on the city’s future.
Miller spoke with Sidewalk Talk about New York City’s recycling history (including the biggest mistake he made during his tenure at the NYC Department of Sanitation); his company, Closed Loops, which is hoping to install pneumatic tubes along the High Line; and what he believes is the future of urban waste.
How do you approach planning cities effectively for waste?
The planning has to be based on three fundamentals.
One, garbage is not a pile of something you see on the street. It’s something that moves. And movement, as we know from physics, has a cost. Each step of the way has significant consequences in terms of truck trips, and diesel emissions, and public health, and so on. So, there are lots of costs, lots of frictions, and we need to plan for that movement, so we can minimize the overall economic and environmental costs.
The second fundamental is that every piece of the system is connected to the next. You can’t think about any one component without thinking about how it all fits together. How waste leaves the building, how it’s stored, how it’s sorted, what categories, what it’s put into, when it’s moved to the street, how often it’s moved to the street, what collects it. All of these things fit together.
And the third fundamental is integration. Garbage collection has two parts that are very different. The front end and the back end. The front end is not rocket science, it’s people. And we have to design for how people interact with this stuff. We want to make it simple and we want to make it convenient. We want to make the rules unchanging, whether you’re at work or at home, so that you can just develop habits.
The back end [the facilities where waste and recycling are processed] is the part that has to change — because the materials in our waste stream change, the technology for handling them changes, and the commodity prices for recyclables fluctuate enormously. We didn’t anticipate that newspapers would disappear as material and we didn’t anticipate [the rise of] cardboard. You cannot anticipate the material changes. That’s all you know for sure, that you won’t be able to predict them. So that’s why you have to design a back end that’s pretty responsive, and that does involve mechanization and automation. And that’s where the rocket science, if you can call it that, comes in. The technology. We need to change our collection methods to maximize efficiency and minimize all sorts of costs.
The front end cannot change and must be as simple as possible, as convenient as possible. And the back end must change and we have to apply technological solutions there.
I would agree that the back end must change, but shouldn’t the front end change too? Isn’t there room for improvement on the front end?
Well, back in the beginning of time in New York, for hundreds of years, there was no planning. And so, there was no separation [of waste and recycling] at the front end. Everything was thrown away. There was actually a fair amount of diversion from landfills or incineration because we had humans running over these piles of waste, pulling out valuables. And then that stopped, because the economics changed, and our laws changed, and it was highly undesirable work. But we just continued to dump this heterogeneous mass of garbage in the ocean or incinerators.
Source separation really didn’t start until the ’70s. Of course, there was some in World War II, because the War Production Board was in desperate need of certain materials. It was an emergency, right? We really needed metal, paper, fats. But Mayor La Guardia stopped that program in New York City the instant the board said it was okay, because it was so much more expensive to run these recycling trucks. So, there was never any separation of waste in this country on any reasonable scale until Earth Day of 1970. And we didn’t have separation as a mandatory thing, citywide, until 1989. And that’s where this plan that I was involved in developing came in.
I was director of policy planning for the New York City Department of Sanitation and project manager and co-author of the city’s first solid waste management plan. We had a large computer model that we used to try to play with every variable there was. Different sorts, different market prices, different numbers of trucks. So what materials could we recycle most cost effectively, and with the least environmental impacts?
We also had to figure out how to sort things. What materials in which piles. And we had to balance lots of factors. Wellesley, Massachusetts, separated glass by color, because glass could be put in a truck that didn’t have compaction. In New York, we cannot collect anything without compaction because it takes too much space. It would take too many trucks. So, we needed to figure out a way to compact everything and still have enough value to sell it.
So, we developed a sort, which was metal, glass, plastic in one. Paper in another. The paper was the valuable thing. We didn’t want to hurt it by having shards of glass in it.
We were trying to make things as simple as possible on the front end. And the largest mistake we made was to say, “Let’s do this all in plastic bags.” We tried it, and they worked well — the sanitation union loved them. Fewer injuries, much more efficiency.
So why was it a mistake?
They break open. They attract rats, and our streets have become a complete mess. We have an an enormous pile of bags that need to be sorted out, put in different trucks.
Now, we’ve added another sort for organics. This requires another truck and it is wildly expensive. It costs well over $1,000 a ton to collect these organics as opposed to a couple of hundred dollars a ton for the other materials. It’s incredibly expensive from an environmental perspective as well because you’re using a lot of fuel. And then you have to drive this truck, in many cases, many miles out of the city to a processing plant and pay for that.
Now, the City is talking about a change in the current sort: combining the current two “recyclables” fractions — metal/glass/plastic and paper/cardboard — into a single stream. And that is in part a reflection of advances in processing technology. It’s easier now to pull those combined materials apart, using automation. But what might happen at some future point, because the processing technology evolves, is that we’d make another change in the sorts. Instead of having a single recycling stream plus an organics stream plus a refuse stream, we could go to just two fractions — “wet” and “dry.” The “wet” would contain all the organics and the “dry” would contain all the recyclables. That may be the best overall answer, weighing the cost of the truck emissions.
But we may well, at that point, have other things that we separate that we’re not separating now on a citywide basis. Such as e-waste or textiles. Things that don’t need to be picked up from buildings on a day-to-day basis. They could be picked up at the block or a drop-off kiosk where you have more aggregated collection. So that when you’re doing your normal daily walk with your dog to the corner, or to the subway stop, you would just drop it off. A lot of European cities do that sort of thing.
But you need to design the front end to be as simple as possible.
How would you design our buildings to be easier on the front end, for the user?
We’ve done a reasonably good job with our bio waste. We don’t have chamber pots under every bed or desk! We have a room that’s nicely designed, centrally located in every unit or every floor. You know immediately where to deposit your liquids or your solids. And I’m imagining that in the future, we’ll move in that direction for our waste.
That is to say, we’ll design spaces where you will walk to this room, which is designed as a waste room, and you’ll have however many sorts as the system asks for. And it may well be metal, glass, plastic, paper, textiles, and so on. All of these things will have similar colors wherever you are. They’ll be very easy to recognize. When we’re walking past one of these waste stations, you’ll know within two seconds where to put it. So, the designer has to make it conveniently located, with very good signage, and visual cues. And it has to be the same in any kind of place, and it shouldn’t change over time. And that’s the way we’ll make habits and make this happen in an efficient way.
And why is sorting, separating so important?
You want the highest value commodities you can get. And the ideal way to do that is to separate. The more separations, the better. The less contamination, the better.
There are ways of achieving that. Partly through the design mechanisms I talked about. Partly by incentivizing people. The city is talking about developing a save-as-you-throw system, where you’d be charged on a unit basis for the refuse that you throw away and charged a lesser rate for recyclables or, perhaps, no rate. So, you would have an economic incentive to do the right thing. We have financial incentives for water use and electricity use. We really should be charging for our waste. And certainly conscientious people would save money. The city would also save money. It would be a win-win.
So what does it mean to design a city for waste?
It means designing our interior buildings for waste. Architects can plan for waste, just as they plan for bathrooms, and understand that this material doesn’t just sit in a pile, it’s always moving. You want to minimize the number of times it’s handled. You need to design corridors, the location of your elevators, and your waste spaces, so that they’re all rationally laid out to minimize the number of footsteps, because it’s going out to the street. And reducing these points of friction is really important, because truck trips kill people. The diesel particulates kill people. They’re dangerous. Public health is very much involved, as well as the quality of our lives.
It also means designing our public spaces with the equivalent, with underground submerged containers or drop-off kiosks, so we can avoid sending trucks to every building on every block. We could very easily redesign our parking rules. We have alternate-side-of-the street parking, right now in New York in most places. So, we could have our collection coincide with that. We can use some of the parking spaces that we have on the street for residents to drop off their recyclables. We need to redesign our public space for the movement of waste.
We could use the kind of rollout bins that can be collected with a mechanical arm. Or we could use mechanized collection of containers. All freight these days is moved in containers of one sort or another that can be automatically handled, or semi-automatically. We’d certainly have fewer injuries, and we’d certainly get higher production. And we would have less aesthetically displeasing streets. Moving toward containerization should be a goal of the city.
There are lots of ways we could densify, so we could reduce the number of collection trips. We could reduce the number of buildings that are stopped at. Battery Park City is a great example. Four of the 17 towers have loading docks with compactors in them. The other buildings roll their waste over every day and tilt them into this compactor. So all of the waste from these 17 buildings is in four compactors, and the sanitation department just rolls up with a roll-on, roll-off truck and takes it away. No bags on the street. No traffic accidents due to the collection trucks. That’s the direction we need to move in.
What are some of the exciting projects your company, Closed Loops, is working on?
One of the projects is to develop pneumatic tubes under the High Line that would take waste directly by rail to different types of facilities. Organics, recycling, disposal. Also a separate pneumatic tube just for high quality kitchen waste from the restaurants along the area, which would go straight to an anaerobic digester where it would be digested into biogas that could be used to produce local electricity. So the value of that energy stays right in the neighborhood.
What do you see as the future of waste in cities?
In the ideal future, there would be tubes underground. You won’t see anything but inlets. Like in Barcelona — you have the magic of pneumatic tubes running through the streets down under the Santa Caterina Market, and then it goes outside town to an anaerobic digestion facility. Someday, I believe, just as we have subways, and just as we have sewers, we will have more and more tubes gradually extending around the States. That’s the ideal.