Editorial: Long Island's garbage crisis needs action


Bales of trash sit on a flatbed truck waiting to leave a waste processing facility in Suffolk County. Each bale weighs approximately 3,200 pounds or 1.5 tons. Photo Credit: Sam Guzik

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A garbage crisis looms on Long Island. That's not hyperbole.

A perfect storm of circumstances has left key facilities bulging with solid waste as more is collected than can be processed or trucked off Long Island. Some facilities have stopped accepting waste from some carters. And some carters -- on the East End in particular, where the crisis threatens more acutely -- say that by early next week they'll have to tell customers that they can no longer pick up their garbage.

And a public health crisis would ensue, with overflowing Dumpsters and trash cans in places like Southampton and Southold.

A quick resolution is urgently required. Fortunately, a group of solid-waste management companies has come up with a way to ease the immediate backlog. Final details are being worked out, and the plan must be approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC needs to act promptly to make this happen.

Once this crisis is averted, all parties must come up with long-term solutions to make sure this doesn't happen again. Because absent a change in how we deal with garbage, it surely will.

Long Island's latest turmoil with trash -- remember the garbage barge? -- is a vivid example of the law of unintended consequences. One of our most significant recent regional triumphs has been the increase in goods and supplies that come here by rail, reducing truck traffic on our congested roads. But many of those trucks -- empty after delivering their loads -- are then contracted by the garbage industry to haul solid waste off Long Island. The practice, called backhauling, typically uses up to 200 trucks to take as much as 5,000 tons of garbage, primarily commercial waste, off the Island every day.

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But rail success has meant fewer trucks coming to Long Island. And it's proven difficult to entice others in the region to come here for a pickup because of the traffic and the high cost of tolls and gas. Some solid-waste facilities say they get only half the number of trucks they need on some days. And landfills are not an option -- they can accept only construction debris and ash from waste-to-energy facilities.

Now add in the seasonal flux in garbage production -- we make more of it as the weather gets warmer. With this year's short spring, the jump in May was substantial. Right now, 10,000 to 12,000 tons of solid waste are piled up. Most of it is in tightly wound bales wrapped in plastic. And another 1,100 tons of loose trash are crammed floor to ceiling in a large warehouse in Yaphank.

To reduce the backlog, solid-waste companies have devised a plan that uses part of the problem as the solution -- rail. They propose to use a New York & Atlantic Railway facility in Hicksville to take the garbage out by train. Flatbed trucks would deliver the bales, which would be lifted into train cars, then covered with heavy lids. No garbage would touch the ground, and the DEC would monitor the process. The solid-waste group, New York & Atlantic and the DEC need to nail down a few particulars but the plan overall makes sense.

Even then, relief won't be immediate. It could take a week to get the first train in and three weeks to eliminate what's backed up. And once that's done, we need to start developing a plan to address our long-term garbage disposal problems.


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