What happens to NYC’s 3.2 million tons of trash

  • New York City is one of the world’s most wasteful cities.
  • But none of NYC’s trash is processed within city limits.
  • It costs the Department of Sanitation $429 million a year to export its refuse to waste-to-energy facilities and landfills as far away as Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
  • Here’s how New Yorkers’ trash makes it from curb to incinerator.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: This is just three days’ worth of trash – most coming from New York City. And that claw is taking it to
be burned into electricity. But we’re not actually in New
York City – we’re in Jersey.

Patricia Earls: Once the garbageman comes and picks it up, you don’t think anymore about it. But it has a long way to go after that.

Narrator: None of New Yorkers’ waste is processed in the city. Instead, it ends up as far away as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and even South Carolina. So getting trash from here to here takes thousands of workers, trucks, trains, cranes, and even barges operating nonstop to ship waste across the East Coast.

Frank Resto: Rain, snow, hail, storm. There’s no stopping us.

Narrator: And it all costs the city hundreds of millions. Here’s what actually happens to New York City’s 3.2 million tons of trash a year.

New York City’s Department of Sanitation sends its fleet of 2,000 garbage trucks to start picking up at 5 a.m.

Resto: We have to keep active. Some guys like to work out. Some guys don’t. Basically, it depends on you.

Producer: What do you do?

Resto: Me? I don’t work out. This is my workout. This is my daily workout.

Narrator: That’s Frank, a 23-year veteran sanitation worker.

Resto: Well, you get immune to the smell. You don’t smell garbage, you smell money. Checking to see how solid it is. You can tell when the truck is full.

Narrator: Frank heads to the dump station in the Upper East Side. By then, the sun’s coming up.

Sean Brereton: We are currently at 91st Street MTS. Doors will open as the truck comes in. And there’s radiation detectors that will read the truck.

Narrator: Trucks pause at the weigh station to help the city keep track of how much trash New Yorkers produce. Then, handles tilt the hopper.

Brereton: Then she’ll push the blade, and the blade will push the material all the way out to clear the whole truck. It’s roughly 450 to 600 tons a day.

Narrator: Tractors move the trash into the containers beneath the ground.

Brereton: It’s sort of a dance. One FEL will clear the wall,and one FEL will load containers. Getting the material containerized as quickly as possible, and sealed, keeps that smell down.

Narrator: A stamper then packs in the garbage. Mattresses are used like a sponge to sop up anything left over.

Brereton: When we have garbage on the floor, it will take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to load a container.

Narrator: Once the Department of Sanitation seals a container and slides it out to the dock, responsibility then goes to Covanta. The waste-to-energy company handles two marine transfer stations in the city.

Ken Straitz: Containers are picked up by the crane and put on the barge. Forty-eight containers go on the barge.

Gerard Thornton: Every one of these containers represents a truckload that we’ve taken off of the city streets and out of the tunnels, reducing carbon emissions and reducing congestion and wear and tear on the city’s infrastructure.

Narrator: A tug attaches to the loaded trash barge. Tug captain Jason Harris is now in charge. He gets the go ahead for a 9:30 a.m. departure.

Straitz: What you see here is called Hell’s Gate. This is the upper end of the East River. Tides play a major factor in the times that we can transfer barges.

Cpt. Jason Harris: You can’t go against the tide. When it max tide, it’s too strong. We would actually come to a dead stop on this boat and barge. You wait until you can go with it.

Straitz: Quite often, a barge gets filled up and we will have to wait two, three, maybe four hours before
the tide is in the favor.

Narrator: He navigates this heavy load safely along one of the busiest waterways in the world, down the East River, through New York Harbor to Staten Island. Three hours later, the tug and barge back up into the Global Transfer Station.

Thornton: It is an inherently dangerous operation to move heavy equipment overhead.

Narrator: Then a train takes it to one of Covanta’s waste-to-energy facilities. It can also get there via truck. All of Manhattan’s residential trash goes to waste-to-energy facilities like this one to be burned and turned into electricity. This facility processes up to a million tons of waste annually.

Earls: Once the trucks scale in and come up to the tipping floor, they dump in front of one of these bays.

Narrator: Tractors push the trash into a massive storage pit 28.35m deep and 82.30m long.

Earls: Between 8,000 and 9,000 tons are in the refuse pit. It’s about three to four days’ worth of trash.

Narrator: A giant grapple claw descends over the trash. In one swoop, it can pick up as much as one trash truck carries. The claw builds a wall of trash to prevent it from avalanching onto the tipping floor. It also helps to make more space for incoming refuse.

Earls: I do look at garbage a very different way since I’ve been working here. We create a lot of garbage as a population.

Narrator: Two claws work together in tandem, dumping trash into hoppers leading to the incinerator. Romeo’s an expert giant claw operator.

Romeo Academia: Twenty-one years playing the crane.

Earls: There is no shortage of fuel for our boilers. “Toy Story” is the first thing everyone thinks of.

Narrator: Disney actually got inspiration or the “Toy Story 3” incinerator sequence from a Covanta plant. The incinerators burn the trash at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes one to two hours to burn an entire hopper load.

Earls: We have now entered the control room area of the plant.

Producer: So this is the brain of the operation?

Earls: Yes it is. And here’s your brain. He’s got camera views of the combustion zone.

Producer: How important are you for this place running correctly?
How important am I?

Russell Gaston: I am the guy. I am the guy.

Earls: He’s in the hot seat.

Narrator: Russell monitors as the furnace heats up steam, turning this turbine and generating enough energy to power this plant and 46,000 homes in the region.

After everything’s burned, all that’s left over is ash and metal. This magnet pulls off enough metal to make 21,000 cars. The leftover ash goes to cover landfills.

Next, the plant tackles those nasty fumes that burning trash causes. First, leftover gases go through a scrubber reactor. A lime slurry cleans any acid gases. And activated carbon absorbs pollutants. Then it goes through a baghouse, basically a bunch of filters. So what’s left coming out of that smokestack?

Earls: Constituents of the flue gas is what’s in normal air, like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, moisture. The alternative to this would be going to a landfill.

Narrator: Waste-to-energy does produce CO2 emissions, but in a year, this process eliminates a million tons of CO2 emissions a landfill would have produced.

Earls: We generate a very small amount of methane. The methane we offset from a landfill results in an actual decrease of CO2 emissions.

Narrator: The city hopes to keep moving trash on waterways to facilities like this one. It’s all part of its goal of becoming zero-waste-to-landfill by 2030. But that is becoming harder and harder to reach.

Only about 30% of New York City’s waste turns into energy. The rest ends up in harmful methane-producing landfills as far away as South Carolina and Ohio. And it takes a significant investment to move it. Every year, exporting trash costs the city about $400 million.

So why does New York City send its trash so far away?

In 1881, New York City streets were notoriously filthy. So dirty, people were getting sick. So the Department of
Sanitation was established to clean up the streets. And the department did
help mop up the city. But the city quickly ran out of room to put all of its trash.

In the early 1900s, the city turned to dumping trash into the ocean. Even though it was illegal, as much as 80% of the city’s trash ended up in the sea. This continued until 1934, when a Supreme Court case forced the city to stop ocean dumping.

In the ’70s, incinerators used for much of the 1900s were closed down because they didn’t meet the EPA’s clean air standards. So the city opened up landfills across the five boroughs, including at one point the world’s largest.

In 1973, New York even built out Lower Manhattan using trash mounds. But even that wasn’t enough. With nowhere else to put it, the city began sending its waste to other states.

Earls: Most of the landfills in this area have been closed down, so the available landfills are getting further and further away.

Narrator: Exporting trash is a costly practice with a big environmental footprint. And it puts the burden on communities far from these shiny skyscrapers. For now, New York City’s only choice is to keep exporting the trash. But ultimately, the department says the best solution would be getting New Yorkers to waste less altogether.

Harris: Trash is like one of those things that you put it outside and forget about it. I think everybody should know what happens to what they get rid of. If you know where it’s going and then you don’t like where it’s going, maybe you’ll find ways to recycle things.

Resto: I would never take anything home because my wife wouldn’t allow it. But, there will be a but there, if I see something that’s “Star Wars,” I’m going to look for it, and if it’s good, I’m going to take it home.