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Get ahead of LI's looming trash crisis

A plow is used to move waste at

A plow is used to move waste at the Brookhaven Town landfill Thursday, May 21, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

Ten years.

That's the latest estimate from Brookhaven officials for when the town's massive landfill could reach capacity and close. Sounds like a long way off? It isn't.

For Long Island's leaders, who need to deal with the solid-waste problem that's coming, 10 years is tomorrow.

The landfill accepts huge amounts of construction debris and ash generated by the burning of trash from Islip, Huntington, Smithtown, Hempstead and Brookhaven towns at waste-to-energy facilities. Its closure will have a major impact. Islip Town's landfill, which is for construction debris, is slated to close next year. Babylon's facility could have a longer life than Brookhaven's but takes in only its own ash. And there is a private landfill in Melville for construction debris.

State legislation enacted in 1983 bars Long Island from opening any new landfills for garbage for environmental reasons. In other words, we've known this problem was coming for 32 years. It's time to get serious.

Two questions loom. How will we get all that waste off Long Island? And, can we reduce the amount we create?

Already, as many as 5,000 tons of garbage is trucked off Long Island every day. It's expensive, batters our roads and pollutes our air. And enticing trucks to Long Island to haul it off is getting ever harder; that was made clear last year when a shortage of 18-wheelers contributed to mounting piles of garbage in late spring and early summer.

Disposal is easier and cheaper if there is less to dispose. Expanding single-stream recycling -- when paper, plastic, metal and glass are put together in recycling cans -- would help. Brookhaven saw a 25 percent increase in paper, plastic and metal collection last year via its single-stream process. Other municipalities, such as Smithtown and Huntington towns, have joined the program. Single-stream should become the norm.

One problem is the lack of a market for some recycled materials -- glass, especially. That's where regional leadership comes in. Long Island could create its own market for recycled glass. Recyclers can partner with our wineries, microbreweries and farms, for example, to produce bottles and jars for their products. Some conversations have begun on what would be a regional win-win.

Another promising development is a large anaerobic digester being planned in Yaphank. The facility, which turns biodegradable organic waste such as food and grass clippings into energy and compost, is in the permitting process and could face a Brookhaven Town vote this summer. Assuming all questions are answered satisfactorily, it should be approved. Organic materials are nearly 30 percent of the waste stream.

That still leaves lots of garbage and construction debris that must be taken off Long Island. We cannot continue to rely on trucks to do it. The future is rail. Trains can haul more and do it more cheaply with less environmental damage.

The Brookhaven Rail Terminal in Yaphank is part of the solution. So is the second railroad track being built between Ronkonkoma and Farmingdale, as well as the long-discussed third track in Nassau County. Some Queens residents have objected to expanded operations at the Fresh Ponds yard through which Long Island freight travels, but complaints about odors and loose trash, if found to be true, can be easily addressed with proper shipping techniques. A deepwater port in Shoreham would provide another exit point and more flexibility.

As with so many Long Island issues, waste removal is handled separately by most towns, villages and cities. But the problem cries out for a regional response, with no obvious body to take the lead. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates this area, should be best-positioned to show leadership but is hamstrung by budget and staffing woes. The agency must be beefed up.

Most important, we need to act -- now. Because this is not a problem we want to face when it reaches a crisis.