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The Garbage Burden
photos by Chris Shields

Trash is treasure to Albany, but the city is running out of places to put it


There is this scene in American Beauty. You probably know the one. That scene where the troubled teen, played by Wes Bentley, shows his love interest, played by Thora Birch, a video of a plastic bag being tossed about by the wind. You might remember the line he delivers—something about being overwhelmed by all the beauty in the world.

This is not that scene and this is not that movie, but there are plastic bags out here on the edge of Albany’s Pine Bush preserve—dozens of them. These bags don’t dance. Instead, they swarm. They attach themselves like flying jellyfish to the branches of pine trees. They dangle from foliage like ornaments on a dumpster-trash Christmas tree. They hover high in the air like hollow seagulls, and then quickly plummet as if on some kamikaze shopping-bag bombing mission.

How did that line go?

“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”

Here at the point where Albany’s unique Pine Bush habitat is consumed by Albany’s trash mountain (known as the Rapp Road Landfill), Save the Pine Bush’s Lynne Jackson feels her heart ache as well, though not exactly from beauty. “This is all perfect, pristine Pine Bush and it’s all going to be buried under trash,” she says over the roar of machines that push through mounds of torn plastic bits and rotting things.

Jackson is interrupted by the approaching thunder of engines. Trucks headed toward the dump with more trash from who knows where tear through the brown earth on trails only a few feet from us. “It’s probably time to go,” says Jackson.

Garbage is always on its way somewhere, but if you see garbage in Albany County, it is probably on its way here.

The landfill was not supposed to consume more of the Pine Bush, at least not this time. After winning yet another expansion of the Albany landfill into the Pine Bush, the city of Albany began the process, through the Department of Environmental Conservation, of starting a new landfill on a plot of land in Coeymans. That was in 1994.

Twelve years later, after three lawsuits by Coeymans residents attempting to stop the landfill, Albany has yet to finalize its plans for the parcel. According to a recent report by the Army Corps of Engineers, one third of the 363-acre Coeymans property has become federally protected wetlands. It is becoming less and less likely Albany will ever have a landfill on the property. However, it is virtually certain the city will have spent nearly $5 million on the property when it finally takes ownership later this year.

Oh, and by the way, the current landfill in the Pine Bush, which was supposed to last 10 to 15 years from the year 2000, according to the DEC, is going to be full in 2009. Albany Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) points out that Albany has been taking in the absolute maximum amount of garbage it is allowed to by the DEC.

You may be wondering why Albany has so quickly overfilled its landfill, why Albany is covering a home for endangered species in piles of its own trash.

Well, actually, it’s not.

The Pine Bush is being covered in piles of other people’s trash.

More than 90 percent of the garbage brought to the Albany landfill comes from either other communities or from companies that make a living hauling trash. In 2004, Albany’s landfill took in 140 tons of municipal garbage per day (residential and city government waste). That is a tiny percentage of the overall landfill intake.

Through the Capital Region Solid Waste Management Partnership (a state-mandated waste-planning unit that was put together in the ’80s, formerly known as ANSWERS), Albany takes trash from the cities of Cohoes, Rensselaer and Watervliet; the towns of Berne, Bethlehem, Guilderland, Knox, New Scotland and Westerlo; and the villages of Green Island and Altamont. In 2004, Albany took in 125 tons per day from these municipalities. The fees are reviewed yearly, and the agreement is reviewed every few years.

But the bulk of the volume comes from private haulers, who in 2004 brought in nearly 800 tons of garbage per day. Bruce says these haulers bring in waste from large residential apartment buildings as well as businesses and institutions such as state offices, colleges and hospitals from around the Capital Region. As with most of the country, construction waste forms a large majority of the volume of the waste entering the landfill.

Hearing about a filling landfill, some people suggest that Albany needs to increase its recycling. But Albany already has one of the better recycling rates of upstate New York cities, and while reducing that 140 tons further would certainly be a good thing, it will not address the underlying reason Albany has a trash problem.

Calsolaro says he has a different idea of how to expand the life of our current landfill without eating into more of the Pine Bush. “I suggest we take less garbage in from outside,” says Calsolaro. He says it would extend the expected fill date of the landfill from 2009 to somewhere between 2012 and 2015.

Why doesn’t Albany kindly ask people to stop burying our city under mounds of garbage?

Because Albany is in the garbage business. According to Bruce, Albany brings in nearly $13 million annually from the tipping fees the landfill charges haulers to dump trash.

If land for garbage in Albany is so scarce that our current options for a suitable new landfill are a globally rare habitat that hosts endangered species and a wetland in another community, why don’t we simply raise the price of dumping garbage in our city? “Because,” Bruce says, “The private haulers will go somewhere else.” Given that there is only one other landfill in the area—in Colonie—this would probably mean trucking waste long distances to Western New York or even Pennsylvania.

According to Bruce, Comptroller Tom Nitido and Budget Director Christopher Hearley, funds from Albany’s landfill are and have been a major source of income for the city for some time. In fact, the $13 million the city takes in annually is 10 percent of the annual budget.

“People have blinders on when they look at that number,” says Calsolaro. Calsolaro insists that he hasn’t seen a full accounting of what it actually costs to run the city’s garbage operation. “I don’t think they really want you to know how much it actually costs,” he says. He notes that there are considerable expenses every year to put a cap on the landfill, to option the Coeymans land and to maintain the dump. “They can pay for a study of the convention center, how many rooms it needs and how many jobs it will bring in,” he says, “but we can’t do it for the landfill?”

Bruce insists he has given council members a full accounting of the landfill’s costs and earnings. According to a spreadsheet that he says is the same as was provided to the council, the money the city takes in from the landfill far outstrips its costs. The 2004 Rapp Road Operating Costs and Revenues report shows that the costs incurred for running the landfill—$2.74 million—were nearly completely negated by the costs avoided by the city being able to take care of its own trash. The estimated annual cost of hauling Albany’s trash to another dump would be $2.39 million. This leaves the landfill operating with a net profit of $12.17 million.

“For better or worse, the revenue is critical to the city to continue to compete and be healthy and viable,” says Bruce.

Calsolaro, however, insists that the report disregards the extra cost of needing to find new landfill space earlier because the current one has been filled at maximum alotted speed and costs the city faces in dealing with the wetlands at the Coeymans site, something Calsolaro says he has been told could cost “$30 million or more.”

City officials insist that if the landfill expansion is not approved, city jobs will be lost and services will be cut. “Relying on a garbage dump to save jobs kind of worries me,” responds Corey Ellis, Ward 3 councilman. Ellis proposes bringing people into the city to create revenue rather than garbage. He says the city needs to focus on homeownership programs to increase the tax base. “It’s scary that we have a dump site we rely on to make money and for people’s jobs. There has to be a better way to generate money. There is lots of potential we are not tapping into.”

Calsolaro agrees. In fact, Calsolaro thinks the city is burying a lot of its potential under mounds of imported trash. “If the Pine Bush was marketed right it could bring in more money than the landfill!” he declares. “It could be sold as a special place, one of a few left in the world. It could be used it to bring people into the city. Buses could come in with tourists. I think we could turn it into something that could show off conservation methods. We could use it as an attraction, a destination place, instead of a dump.”

Calsolaro and Ellis both feel the city is simply taking the easiest way out, using the “quick fix” instead of a facing the problem that Ellis says, “is being pushed off for four or five years for someone else to deal with.”

A number of citizens who are concerned about the Pine Bush think that not enough has been done to look for alternatives to landfill expansion, so they have begun looking themselves. Members of the Avila retirement community, a community that was built in the Pine Bush and near the landfill despite protests from Save the Pine Bush, say they don’t want the landfill any closer to them and have championed the idea of creating a burn plant instead of expanding the dump.

Ironically, the current Rapp Road Landfill was opened after an incinerator in Arbor Hill that was burning trash for the ANSWERS consortium was closed a decade ago. Still, Jack Lauber, a proponent of modern incinerators, or burn plants, told members of the Save the Pine Bush that the ANSWERS incinerator, which was shut down after years of citizen outcry for polluting too much, was built with technology from the ’60s and that modern-day technology is much cleaner.

However, getting a burn plant approved in New York would not be an easy task. The DEC approved the last one in the early ’90s. Bruce notes that despite claims of increased environmental sensitivity, “Not too many people are buying into it.”

Laura Haight of NYPIRG says she is concerned that the community “in our despair at potential loss of these unique places will be clutching at straws that would damage the environment. . . . There is no magic bullet. . . . Garbage incineration is not acceptable.”

Lauber points out that landfills are not themselves particularly benign. Landfills can leak contaminants into the water supply (Albany’s landfill is built near an aquifer), and they are said to release carcinogens and increase global warming through the methane gas that is burned off and turned into carbon dioxide.

University at Albany professor of biology George Robinson has proposed another idea. Robinson says that the old Albany landfill could be mined; scrap and materials could be processed and sold off, thereby making room for new trash. As odd as that proposal may sound, the technique has been used in many other communities around the United States and the globe. However, Bruce says that mining was done on the old landfill during the 1990s and that mining the newer areas would be impossible because of “the maze of leachate and gas collection lines that are now part of the newer landfill systems.” The short answer, says Bruce, is, “We already did it.”

Robinson also has a simpler suggestion for increasing the life of Albany’s landfill. He notes that his institution could do a much better job at recycling and says that local universities and state offices (whose waste makes up some of that 800 tons of privately hauled garbage) should be working to drastically reduce their waste.

The signs are there that city officials might also be grasping at straws to keep a hold on their cash flow. Last year, the city proposed to take 20 acres of land that an agreement with DEC required to be dedicated to the Pine Bush, start a landfill on it and then dedicate it to the Pine Bush, once it was full of trash. That plan was scrapped after advocates raised a fuss in the Common Council and Save the Pine Bush filed lawsuits.

The city then returned in February of this year with a push for the current landfill-expansion plan, which would simply take land already in the preserve. This time, though, the city seemed a bit more organized. It launched a Web site detailing “the need for a landfill expansion,” and made an apparently stronger pitch to the Common Council. It even took the Common Council on a tour of the landfill. The Council later approved the expansion plan and, to the surprise of some, Calsolaro voted for the expansion, a move Calsolaro says he made because “they added a measure saying this would be the last expansion into the Pine Bush.”

Bruce says the real issue behind the immediate garbage problem is that it cannot be dealt with on a city level. “There are larger issues about America, way beyond what the city can deal with,” says Bruce. “It’s comparable to the energy crisis.” Bruce says the real problem is the amount of packaging that companies insist on forcing on the consumer.

On March 30, Lynne Jackson, residents of Coeymans and others concerned with Albany’s landfill problem found out that Heather Rogers, author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, basically agrees with Bruce.

During a presentation at the Center for Independent Media, Rogers detailed how American companies slowly forced responsibility for their packaging onto consumers. Refillable milk bottles were replaced by throwaway cartons. Trash pickers who used to sort through dumps to find anything reusable were shooed away with the introduction of large machines and landfills. Through ad campaigns that focused on littering, companies such as Coca Cola slowly brainwashed the American public into believing they were responsible for the creation of litter and that they simply had to accept single-use containers, fast-food wrappers, six-pack rings and yes, those plastic shopping bags that have become a part of the American landscape.

At the end of Rogers’ presentation, both Lynne Jackson and representatives from Selkirk Coeymans Ravena Against Pollution stood to ask Rogers what they could do about their local problem. “I used to think Coeymans was the answer,” said Jackson. “But then I realized they weren’t going to let it happen. So what is the answer?”

Rogers’ reply? “There is no quick fix. Change has to take place on a national level.” Rogers explained that garbage crises like the one Albany is facing can spur people to try to make a larger difference, to petition government for change on a larger level, to force legislation that can limit packaging and to inherently change capitalism.

Such changes are possible. Bruce says he was struck during a visit to Dresden, Germany, by the absence of litter. “It was mind-boggling to me. We went to a street fair and you go and get a drink or fried potato pancakes, you don’t get it on a paper plate or in a plastic cup. You get coffee in a real mug or food on a real ceramic plate. You put a euro down as a deposit and you get your euro back when you return them.” Bruce says the effect of those policies is immediately obvious. “The litter is almost nonexistent. You just don’t have those disposable products everywhere. It’s that kind of cultural thing that’s built into the society that we don’t have. There aren’t even those ubiquitous plastic bags you see on the roadside.”

Bruce notes that Dresden is able to reuse and recycle 80 percent of its waste and landfill 20 percent, in comparison to America’s 80 percent landfilling and 20 percent (“If they are lucky”) reuse or reprocessing. “Please bear in mind there is no technological quick fix. Their biological/mechanical waste-recycling plant, which is at the heart of their system, is just one piece of an integrated waste-management process that starts with federal legislation, incentives for waste reduction, reuse, development of recycling markets, etc.,” says Bruce.

Faced with the need for all these big changes to American capitalism, things might seem futile for Albanians concerned with their local garbage problem. But in a way, the emphasis on these big-picture ideas may be obscuring the obvious truth in the same way that companies have been able to shift responsibility for their packaging onto consumers. Albany’s officials seem to be telling their citizens they are helpless and at the mercy of America’s trash problem, all while continuing to balance the budget on trash imports.

Alice Green, director of The Center for Law and Justice and a 2005 mayoral candidate, says that the city of Albany can make the style of changes that have been made in Europe as long as citizens are willing to make strong commitments and our leaders are willing to take strong steps. She proposes that the city first shut off its imported garbage spigot and then focus on reducing its own waste. Her plan would see residents being charged for trash picked up based on the amount of trash they have. However, recycling would be free. “I think we can do it, but there has to be that commitment and leadership to get the community in the spirit of reducing garbage.”

Green points to the Zero Waste program that was adopted in Seattle in 1998. The program changes the approach from waste management to resource management and sets goals for significant recycling increases. During her run for mayor, Green called for the city to reach 50 percent recycling of solid waste by 2006 and 60 percent by 2008. Green insists that businesses can also be integrated into a Zero Waste program so that the weight does not rest on the shoulders of residents. As for the loss of revenue from the landfill, Green says the mayor’s office needs to think creatively and stop relying on a revenue stream that is destroying our environment. She says her proposed commuter tax would bring in revenue to allow Albany to deal with garbage created by commuters. Says Green, “It can be done; the alternative is just too bad to think about.”

Bruce insists that Albany’s recycling program is a strong one, with the city recycling 30 percent of its trash, and that despite Albany’s success, recycling in general is becoming less and less easy. According to Rogers and Bruce, the market for recyclable material is shrinking. Even if consumers want to recycle certain things, there are no longer markets for them. Says Bruce, “We have had to send out flyers telling residents things that were recyclable are no longer recyclable. The markets for recyclables are actually slipping.”

Bruce also says that a “pay to throw” program would cause concerns with “public health and keeping the city clean.” “We have people now that drop garbage off on the curbs from multi-unit buildings who are trying to sneak their trash off for free,” he says. “We have people from the suburbs drop stuff off on the curb to avoid paying their community’s dumping cost.”

However, Albany has taken it upon itself to bear the burden of the trash from a number of surrounding communities, as well as waste from private companies. Sure, Albany needs the income produced by absorbing the area’s garbage, but that leaves the question: How did Albany allow itself to get hooked on trash in the first place? How has importing garbage become one of the biggest cash makers for New York state’s capital city?

“How do you make up a budget that’s not so reliant on it [the landfill]? You control costs in a variety of ways,” says Nitido, adding that when council members vote on a budget the “revenue numbers for what we plan on taking in from the landfill are right there.” Budget director Hearley says the city relies more on the revenue from the landfill because of “rising expenditures,” including the rising cost of pensions and health care, while he says, “other revenues have become stagnant.”

Bruce says that Albany’s trash problem is not entirely Albany’s. “We’re going to have to, as a part of this, in the next two years revisit our management plan with all the parties that are part of the system. Update it. Take a fresh look at not only alternative sites like Coeymans but alternative technologies and solutions. We need to do it as a consortium. This is a huge issue for Albany, but it’s a huge issue for the region, too,” he asserts.

Haight says she thinks Albany simply should not be able to profit from garbage, and waste management should be in someone else’s hands. “We need a different structure. This is a regional problem and there needs to be a regional solution,” she believes. “As long as they see garbage as a commodity, we’re profiting from the region’s garbage. If the county were taking the lead, you would remove that profit motive and support for the whole waste-management program.”

Although the expansion of the dump may seem imminent to some, Calsolaro is not so sure. He insists that “The mayor is taking advantage of Pataki being governor to get his expansion through.” However he also notes that the process to get approval for the expansion will likely have to go through “two state legislatures.” In the end, although Calsolaro insists he has no inside information, he says he does not believe the expansion will be approved. In the meantime the discussion of what to do with the Capital Region Solid Waste Management Partnership trash will continue.

As Jackson and I trudge on our way to the top of the garbage hill through the weeds that have grown up around the dump and are slowly intruding on the Pine Bush’s natural habitat, the air begins to get heavy, and I’m reminded of the rest of that quote: “It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me.” For a second we pause to watch bags dance like the lustful souls forced to sway with the winds of passion in the second level of Dante’s hell. And then it begins to hail. We pick up our pace, urged on by the sting of frozen darts. Jackson is done lamenting her loss, done admiring the beauty here on the edge of so much ugly. She turns back toward the expanding pile of debris and asks, “It really does smell up here, doesn’t it?”

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