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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New York City: Garbage Down the Drain

Air Date: Week of

Concern that organic waste from kitchen garbage disposals will add harmful material to the waste stream in New York City has lead to their banning in most New York neighborhoods. But as Neal Rauch reports, there is growing momentum to trash the law itself.


CURWOOD: These days garbage disposals are standard equipment in most modern American kitchens, but not in New York City. Grinding up food waste and dumping it into the sewer is illegal in most New York neighborhoods because of concerns that added organic matter could foul city waterways. But now, as Neal Rauch reports, there's a new push underway to trash the old law.

RAUCH: The closest many native New Yorkers have come to a garbage disposal is through the television, while watching old sitcoms.

(Gurgling water. Woman: "What was that? Millie, where's my brooch? You don't think -- oh, that's what happened!" Audience laughter.)

RAUCH: In this episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show, the garbage disposal eats up more than food after Laura drops in a family heirloom.

(Van Dyke: "The Petri brooch?" Moore: "Yes, Rob, it was an accident." Van Dyke: "In the garbage?" "Moore: "I didn't do it on purpose." Van Dyke: "Well why did you do it not on purpose?" Moore: "Oh Rob, what kind of a question is that?" Van Dyke: "Well honey, when a wife grinds up the husband's family... -- " Audience laughter.)

RAUCH: Despite the dangers, New Yorkers may soon get the chance to purchase their own disposals. A study by New York's Department of Environmental Protection is underway to determine if legalizing the devices will in fact harm the surrounding waters in this city of islands.

VAN CLIEF: I was just peeling potatoes like this, or carrots or whatever. I mostly eat vegetables.

RAUCH: In a large apartment building in South Brooklyn overlooking the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, Doris Van Clief demonstrates her new garbage disposal.

VAN CLIEF: Open this thing.

(Loud buzzing sound, followed by gurgling)

RAUCH: Ms. Van Clief is one of several hundred participants in the city water quality study who was given a garbage disposal for 10 months. The Department of Environmental Protection will monitor nitrogen levels in the water during the trial period. But for now, department commissioner Joe Miely remains leery of allowing the devices.

MIELY: We're in a major program to keep the waters clean. The perception is that this does not assist us to keep those waters clean but, you know, possibly to the contrary tends to degrade the water quality somewhat because of the nitrogen levels in food wastes.

RAUCH: The problem is that when most city residents flush their toilets or use their sinks, the wastewater flows down the same pipes as does rainwater. In dry weather all the water is processed in sewage treatment plants, but during some storms the plants get overwhelmed and raw sewage goes directly into New York's rivers and bays. It's in this situation that the ground up food waste from garbage disposals could increase nitrogen levels. This can lead to excess algae growth which kills fish by depleting oxygen. Again, Joe Miely.

MIELY: Is it logical to put additional nitrogen into the waters around the city at a point in time when the Federal Government is requiring us to lower our limits on nitrogen that we emit into the waterways around the city?

RAUCH: But while allowing disposals could make life more difficult for Hudson River fish, it's actually made life a little easier for test participant Florence Staderman.

RAUCH: So what do you think?


RAUCH: A garbage disposal is more than a simple convenience for Ms. Thaderman, who uses a walker.

STADERMAN: You don't have to run to the compact room too much.

RAUCH: So not having to lug the garbage out.

STADERMAN: That's right. Big for me. Yeah.

RAUCH: She demonstrates with a banana peel.

STADERMAN: Isn't that great?

(Swirling noises)

STADERMAN: There it goes.

RAUCH: The use of garbage disposals has not been an issue in most other large cities. In some they're actually required. George Whalen is a consultant for the National Plumbing Foundation.

WHALEN: I'm thinking of Detroit was the first city in the country in 1956, said every time we put up a new apartment building or a new office building or a new whatever, we want the restaurant owner or the homeowner to have one of these installed. The history of the waste problems in Detroit are nonexistent because they've been doing this for so many years.

RAUCH: The Plumbing Foundation makes other environmental arguments in favor of garbage disposals. Less food waste rotting in landfills also means less methane, a greenhouse gas, will be released into the atmosphere. And Ethan Getto, who does public relations for the Plumbing Foundation, says less trash will have a more immediate effect on the urban environment.

GETTO: Eventually the garbage bags are waiting out on the street for the Department of Sanitation collection. That is the major source in this city for vermin. Cockroaches are a big problem in New York City. So to the extent that food waste disposers immediately dispose of smelly, wet food waste we think is going to have a tremendous environmental and public health benefit for the city.

RAUCH: Of course, all this depends on how many residents run out and get garbage disposals, and it's in those ghetto neighborhoods where vermin infestations are the worst that residents will almost certainly never be able to afford a garbage disposal. It costs a minimum of a couple of hundred dollars for the device and for a plumber to install it. But the plumbing industry is hoping the city will be so taken with the test results that it will not only allow the devices but consider giving subsidies to property owners in New York slums. Commissioner Joe Miely is not impressed. He says preliminary figures from the Sanitation Department indicate the amount of garbage has not gone down significantly in the disposal test areas. And he's determined that nothing will contribute to a deterioration of New York City's waters, which have come a long way over the last 2 decades.

MIELY: We used to get owners of ocean-going vessels to spend a week in New York Harbor so that their hull could be cleaned because nothing was living. Well, the work that we've done over the past, you know, 20 years or so has had a tremendous impact on that. The quality of the water has immeasurably increased and we're very, very pleased with it.

RAUCH: Environmentalists contacted for this story haven't taken a stand either way yet. But one spokesman objected to food garbage being treated as, well, garbage. He said that composted organic wastes are a valuable resource that shouldn't be simply thrown away regardless of the method.

(Swirling water)

RAUCH: The results of the study are expected by summer. The final decision is then up to the Mayor and the City Council. So if disposals get a thumbs up, that small sucking sound you hear may soon become as common in the Big Apple as it is in most of the country. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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