by Brittany Farmer
Inhaling gyro in Rockefeller Center, you stare out at the yellow cabs honking, gassing, crawling bumper to bumper, wrenched in tight by intransigent roads. The city lights burn fast around you. The skyscrapers close in from above. You toss your sauce-soiled wrapper into an overflowing trash bin and make your way to the subway, heading home. As you step onto the train, noting the station tracks caked in discarded Metro cards, you might be shocked to learn that this grungy metropolis, this urban center of excess, this concrete jungle—New York City—is turning green.New York is home to over eight million people. It attracts approximately 50 million tourists annually. According to New York City’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), residents and those who use public spaces produce approximately 12,000 tons of solid waste per day. Businesses contribute another 13,000 tons. The city has no place to put it.
While much of the waste is shipped to landfills and incinerators out-of-state, this model of disposal is environmentally and, increasingly, politically unsustainable. To avoid living in a trash heap, New Yorkers are forced to find innovative ways to recycle, reduce, and reuse.
The Department of Sanitation has created several programs to combat waste, including NYCWasteMatch, a service which helps businesses donate unwanted used material—like desks, carpeting and flat-screen TVs to organizations in need. Program Manager Adanna Roberts explains; “It’s like Match.com,” she laughs. “We match people up. We say, ‘Hey! Don’t throw this out!’ We know of non-profits and other businesses who will take this stuff for free.’”
“Every trip on the MTA helps prevent about ten pounds of carbon or greenhouse gas emissions from going into the atmosphere,” says MTA Director of Sustainability Projjal Dutta. A trip, or “linked ride,” as the MTA officially calls it, includes all MTA transportation—bus and subway transfers included taken to reach a final destination point. The sustainability efforts don’t stop there. From comprehensive recycling to the ingenious energy-saving design of the new 2nd Avenue subway line (“It’s a mitigated version of a roller coaster,” Dutta says), the MTA is transforming the entire transportation system into an eco-friendly powerhouse.Among the MTA’s more creative recycling programs are its Memorabilia and Collectibles store, which sells everything from old bus parts to stations signs, and its Artificial Reef Project, which from 2001 to 2010 sank 2,580 cleaned and stripped subway cars provide habitats for marine life and answer, at least in part, the question of what to responsibly do with 175,000 feet unwanted trash. “Anything that has a possible second life is re-used,” Dutta explains, “if for nothing else than the metal. Even what’s being ‘thrown away, like the Artificial Reef subway cars, has a second life.”
There’s space up there that’s not being used,” says Garcelon. “We have the capability. It’s easy to do this. We have a responsibility to do this.” New York City is one of the most impressive urban centers in the world and can feel at times like an industrial madhouse. But alongside its trash, beneath its streets and atop its concrete frame is a growing green environment, ready to thrive.