In the spring of 1987, the infamous garbage barge of Long Island roamed the Atlantic coast of North America and the Caribbean in search of a place to dump its load of trash. It became an international symbol of Long Island’s waste-management crisis.
Thirty years later, changes have been made in the way municipalities handle garbage on Long Island. We’ve implemented curbside recycling programs, spent millions on public education and even banned the use of some items to reduce society’s waste. However, this same crisis stubbornly persists.
Unfortunately, little progress has been made since a Newsday editorial in July urged the state Department of Environmental Conservation and local leaders to act before solid waste management reaches catastrophic levels. The remaining useful life of the Brookhaven Town landfill is now less than eight years. A crisis is nearly upon us.
Brookhaven’s landfill provides an affordable on-Island disposal solution for much of Long Island. Nearly 370,000 tons of ash from combustion of municipal solid waste at resource-recovery facilities in Hempstead, Huntington and Islip are disposed of each year in the Brookhaven landfill. Collectively, the facilities process about 1.5 million tons of municipal solid waste per year and serve nearly 2 million residents. By comparison, Oyster Bay and North Hempstead truck their garbage to a landfill 300 miles upstate.
Many Long Island towns and villages use the Brookhaven landfill for their street sweeping and other highway-related debris. In addition, more than 700,000 tons of construction and demolition debris is processed at the landfill each year. While there is still a private facility that accepts that debris in Huntington, it is not permitted to accept ash and would most likely be unable to accommodate all the debris being generated on the Island.
Closure of the Brookhaven landfill will lead to an increased tax burden for many Long Island residents. In addition, the daily long-haul disposal of ash to southern New Jersey or Pennsylvania will produce more wear and tear on our roads and increase air pollution.
In 2014, Brookhaven led the way with single-stream recycling through a public-private partnership and has realized a sustained increase of 22 percent in recycling rates. Since then, Huntington, Smithtown, Southold, Glen Cove and many villages have adopted single- stream recycling. We must continue to improve recycling rates. But despite our best efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, there will always be materials that must go to landfills in the foreseeable future.
Whether waste is collected by a municipal collection vehicle or a private company, it is a labor-intensive, transportation-driven industry that relies on big and expensive equipment.
Waste management is heavily regulated and complying with the rules is expensive. The cost of solid waste services has increased dramatically in communities across Long Island.
Long Island needs regional solutions to its waste-management problem. This can be accomplished through inter-municipal agreements, public-private partnerships, innovative technology such as anaerobic digestion, creation of a regional ashfill for Long Island, and addressing off-Island transportation.
The leadership of the state DEC is critical to the success of any regional plan. It is clear, however, that it’s time for a regional solid waste plan before we face a garbage barge crisis again.
Edward P. Romaine is supervisor of the Town of Brookhaven.