Nearly 20 years after most Long Island landfills closed under a law designed to protect groundwater, the region's garbage disposal has settled into a predictable groove: Some gets recycled, some is shipped to distant dumps, and the bulk - around 40 percent - gets burned in local waste-to-energy plants.
But a new state plan that aims to dramatically scale back the volume of trash sent to landfills and incinerators could shake up the future of garbage on Long Island, where residents produce nearly 22 percent more trash per capita than the New York State average. Among the proposals to reduce the amount of garbage sent to disposal by 90 percent: expanded compost programs that accept food waste, crackdowns on reluctant recyclers, and scaled-back product packaging.
Responses to the state Department of Environmental Conservation plan have been mixed on Long Island, where advocates' enthusiasm has run up against skepticism from some local solid-waste managers and industry groups. Supporters say composting and other programs are needed to kick recycling into high gear. But others question the need to limit out-of-state trash disposal and say incinerators make sense in a region with no active municipal landfills.
"The state is pushing the towns to think outside the box, and that's good," said Matthew Miner, commissioner of waste management for the Town of Brookhaven and a former DEC solid waste engineer. "But some of their ambitions may be a little lofty."
Calculating exactly how much garbage Long Island produces is a challenge. The region has a mix of private and municipal transfer stations that take waste to recycling centers, incinerators and landfills. Recent estimates range from 3.2 million to 3.5 million tons each year.
According to 2008 figures from the DEC, Long Islanders generate 6.27 pounds of garbage per capita per day, compared with 5.15 pounds per capita statewide. Affluent areas tend to produce more trash, but DEC officials said local figures may be boosted by summer residents and because suburbs produce more yard waste than urban or rural areas.
Some solid-waste managers worried that the state plan will drive up disposal costs - a shift that could exacerbate Long Island's illegal dumping problem, in which construction debris and other trash ends up in woods, fields and unregulated landfills. Others said composting could be hard to do on a large scale in the suburbs because residents already complain about odors from the few existing sites here. The DEC said indoor composting facilities would keep a lid on noxious smells.
A few officials said they were already looking into some of the plan's suggestions, such as pay-as-you-throw programs that charge customers by the volume of trash disposed. But most said they expected that a few decades from now, Long Island would probably still burn much of its trash at the region's four waste-to-energy plants and export the rest.
"I would love to see a greater amount of recycling - that includes composting," said the Town of Islip's Christopher Andrade, who oversees the town's 40-acre compost facility and also heads the agency in charge of its incinerator. "But I believe that if we want to deal with garbage in an environmentally responsible manner, waste-to-energy is part of that."
It's unclear whether existing plants built in the 1980s and '90s will ramp up operations anytime soon. Proposed expansions of the Islip incinerator and the Covanta Hempstead facility in Westbury have been put on hold for now because of the economic slowdown, said John G. Waffenschmidt, a vice president at Covanta Energy, which manages the four local plants.
Some here question the philosophy behind the state's approach - that recycling trash is preferable to throwing it away. "We cannot change the American consumer culture nor alter fundamentals of materials use by banning landfills," David Tonjes, a Stony Brook professor who studies trash and environmental management, said at a recent hearing.
In the meantime, changes are happening town by town as managers tailor solid-waste plans to suit their communities. In North Hempstead, some 500 residents have signed up for town-subsidized compost bins. "I'm not going to create a big compost facility in the middle of Great Neck," said Supervisor Jon Kaiman. "I think I can achieve goals the state is setting - maybe not in the way they set out."