Two images of Long Island’s garbage crisis: The Break of...

Two images of Long Island’s garbage crisis: The Break of Dawn tug boat and its barge carrying a load of garbage makes its way out into the Atlantic on May 16, 1987, and inset, the Brookhaven landfill in 2019. Credit: Newsday / Daniel Sheehan, Jessica Rotkiewicz

Long Island’s garbage problems have been piling up for years, just like the mountainous landfills that are now mostly closed and can still be seen from miles away.

With the expected shuttering of Long Island’s last big landfill in Brookhaven by early 2028, there is a pressing need, right now, to find out where in the future we can get rid of our never-ending flow of trash, construction waste and yard debris.

Suffolk County Executive Ed Romaine is taking the first important step toward a sensible regional approach to dealing with this often odiferous problem. Romaine is reaching out to all of Suffolk’s 10 towns to be part of a future meeting to discuss various ways they might deal with the garbage problem together rather than alone. Two of Nassau County’s three towns have also expressed interest in this garbage conclave.

This is an admirable idea worth embracing by all of Long Island’s leaders looking for a solution to the solid waste problem. It’s reminiscent of the regional approach taken two decades ago by then-Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi in seeking local momentum for a cap on rising school property taxes; Albany lawmakers eventually heard the message and put one in place. Last fall, Romaine campaigned on this regional approach to garbage, and it’s good to see him starting to follow through on his promise.

IMPACT ON ENVIRONMENT

On a broad level, the garbage crisis affects the quality of our air and water environment, community health, and the sense of order and cleanliness. On a practical household level, it could even decide new ways we put out the trash and recyclables. Overall, Long Island’s nearly 3 million residents produce about 2.6 million tons of municipal solid waste each year, and another 5.3 million tons from construction, renovation and demolition debris, according to a 2023 private industry study.

Coming up with a broad mutual agenda for solving Long Island’s complex garbage dilemma would be quite a departure from the past, when county leaders generally avoided getting involved in town issues of who picks up the garbage and where they get rid of it, leaving it to towns and villages.

Certainly finding an Islandwide approach to this waste crisis wasn’t helped by the 1987 fiasco of the Islip garbage barge, floating out in the Atlantic without a place to dispose of its 3,100 tons of waste. Nor the 1980-90s federal probe of organized crime’s influence within LI’s carting industry, nor the repeated instances of illegal dumping. While some of those problems have ebbed over time, the overall question about getting rid of our garbage has lingered and arguably gotten worse.

As a former supervisor of Brookhaven, the island’s largest town by waste, Romaine has dealt with this crisis personally, coming up with some progressive ideas, like fostering a big enough market for recycled waste from glass and possible paper to make it economically viable that could be applied islandwide. Romaine suggests it may prove useful to mix grounded glass into the concrete and asphalt of county and local roadways. But that’s only one of the many ideas that this Romaine-led conclave should address regionally.

The most pressing concern is disposal of ash from various waste-to-energy incinerators. Right now, Brookhaven’s still-open landfill accepts ash from other towns like Huntington and Hempstead. But when Brookhaven’s site finally closes this decade, a regional approach will be needed to find the most economical and environmental method of ridding ourselves of this potentially toxic ash. Without a new waste plan, Romaine warned last month at a Stony Brook University environmental symposium, the ripple effect will hurt local businesses, contractors and municipalities forced to haul their waste to out-of-state landfills.

QUESTIONS OF DISPOSAL

Many other major questions need to be addressed. Should ash and construction debris be hauled away on commuter rail lines at night? Should we add to traffic congestion and taxpayer expense by hauling even great amounts of waste by truck to faraway landfills? Could we even revive the idea of shipping it by barge once again? How can we make sure that poor and minority communities don’t bear the unfair health impact of existing landfills and of new proposed waste transfer stations located near their homes?

A regional approach, driven by facts rather than local politics, would move us closer to real solutions. It could also be effective in reducing the sheer volume of needless packaging waste produced by consumers as part of the daily flow of garbage. A regional approach may also lead to better contracts with garbage disposal firms and trucking companies that save taxpayer money as well. By working together, a LI-united approach could also gain greater responsiveness from state officials, especially the Department of Environmental Conservation which hasn’t been that helpful so far in coming up with answers for this growing, unavoidable dilemma.

Romaine’s first meeting about a regional garbage approach — he needs to name a date soon — will hopefully lead to cooperation and some intermediary solutions. That will set the stage for solving longer-term problems. How much Suffolk County gets involved in the garbage business — perhaps by appointing a permanent coordinator or even an agency to coordinate this complex effort — will be up for Romaine and others to decide. For clearly, talking about solutions is better than doing nothing at all.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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