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.

New York Highline Park

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,” 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.’”

To date, NYCWasteMatch has had 4,518 members, including ABC and NFL Studios in Times Square. Since its inception in 1997 (under I-Tech through 2006), the program has diverted over 25,000 tons of materials otherwise headed for landfills. While the city government’s efforts are perhaps the widest-reaching, neighborhood programs work hard toward environmental sustainability, too. The East Village, a famous haven for alternative lifestyles, is home to the Really Really Free market, a market made up entirely of second-hand goods, currently hosted by Judson Memorial Church. Instead of throwing away or selling unwanted clothing, appliances, baby supplies, etc., residents bring them to the market to share with neighbors. New York also boasts countless farmer’s markets, thrift shops, and high-end vintage clothing stores. According to the DSNY, clothing and textiles make up 5.7% of New York City’s waste. Plastic film, like supermarket bags, make up 7.5% sharing, swapping or purchasing reused clothing, as well as shopping at farmer’s markets and reusing bags, works toward reducing these figures.
While New York produces a staggering amount of waste, it also offers a simple, affordable way for every citizen to reduce their carbon footprint: the MTA transit. By just forgoing the use of cars, New York’s roughly 4.5 million daily subway, train and bus riders reduce the amount of carbon monoxide, soot, hydro-carbons, and other toxic substances released into the air by 17.5 million metric tons per year.

“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.”

Creative waste programs and comprehensive clean transportation set new York apart. However, what is perhaps most unique and promising is New York’s ability to transform abandoned urban spaces into natural oasis. The High Line, a mile-and-a-half long stretch of rusty freight rail turned verdant park, is just one example. Running from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, this park not old provides visitors with much needed open space, but is one giant exercise in recycling and  reusability. The park itself is a recycled industrial structure; its drainage system and “green roof” layer reduces storm-water runoff by 80%, and its vegetation provides a useful habitat for insects and birds who, in turn, help pollinate and maintain the park naturally.
The park’s plants are also selected for sustainability. “The entire garden is planted with perennials,” says Johnny Linville, the High line’s Horticulture Foreman. “There is a plant design, but things don’t get lifted up and taken out, like they do in many plant beds around New York. If you leave perennials, they can come back. ours do come back, and that’s more sustainable than annual replanting.” Given the concern for sustainability then, it’s curious why  many plants on the High Line are non-native. Linville explains; “The plants are selected to be evocative of the original wildlife landscape. But it might be unsustainable to keep a woodland species plant on a rooftop in New York. We have pollution. We would love to have native New York species, but a lot are sensitive to pollution. So relying on nativity alone is not a sustainable practice. It’s about the right plant in the right place.”
Northeast and skyward, in the heart of Midtown, is another roof-turned-green, this one is atop the historic Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In April 2012, their Director of Culinary, David Garcelon, along with a team of chefs, carpenters, and bee-keeper Andrew Cote, created some buzz by converting the twentieth floor rooftop into an apiary and chef’s garden. The apiary holds six beehives with approximately fifteen  to eighty thousand bees in each, depending on the time of the year. The garden is made up of eight 6×4 foot beds and will grow the usual herbs and spices along with unusual treats like alpine strawberries and gooseberries. Planting will begin next year.
The Waldorf bees help pollinate the city’s flowerbeds, gardens, and parks. They also provide environmentally conscious and tasty honey, which is used in the hotel’s restaurants. Because the honey is local, it doesn’t need to be processed or trucked in, saving time, fossil fuel, and cost. According to Chef Garcelon, the bees will produce approximately three to five hundred pounds of honey annually. “We’ll make back our money  in a year,” says Garcelon. “So economically, it’s working.” And the bees are happy, too. “Bees thrive in cities. They don’t just survive. They actually do better in cities than in rural areas.”
“The garden,” says the chef, “is another thing. As far as money goes, it will likely break even. Its real purpose is to make a statement about the environmental possibilities in what is, particularly in Midtown, a skyscraper landscape.

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.