Just off of Hunts Point Avenue in the Bronx, in a warehouse the size of a football field, Morgan Powell and Tom Morgan pore over bins full of old motherboards, cracked monitors and defunct graphic scanners. “That’s sure an antique,” Morgan says, gently kicking one gape-faced TV.
Despite its appearance, this isn’t a dump, but a recycling center where Morgan and Powell are working on innovative programming designed to reduce the amount of toxic electronic waste that passes out of the city each year. Per Scholas, a nonprofit that has been collecting e-waste from businesses since 1999, refurbishes salvageable computers and then sells them for less than $300 to low-income families in the tri-state area.
Electronic appliances that cannot be saved are sent up a 50-foot-long conveyor belt, where they are crushed and shredded for safe recycling. “This way, we keep some of the toxics, like lead, from ending up in the ground somewhere,” says Powell, who works as a waste prevention community coordinator with Sustainable South Bronx, an environmental group in Hunts Point that is partnering with Per Scholas on this project.
Morgan and Powell’s project is part of a new $1 million trash reduction program that the City Council is funding over the next year.
The program had its genesis in 2000, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani closed the Fresh Kills landfill. While the move won the mayor big applause from the residents of Staten Island, home to one of the nation’s largest dumps, it created stinky politics for many other city neighborhoods–the plan redirected city waste, by truck, to waste transfer stations in Red Hook, Williamsburg and the South Bronx.
“A lot of community groups got together and said that simply moving the garbage problem to our back yards was unacceptable, and that the city must make a concerted effort to reduce waste,” says Eve Martinez of INFORM, Inc., an environmental research group that is helping administer this year’s funding.
Members of the City Council agreed and called for the city to invest about $6.5 million over two years in community trash reduction. “We knew we needed to lessen the impact on communities where there are trash transfer stations,” remembers Carmen Cognetta, a lead staffer on the Council’s sanitation committee.
But the Department of Sanitation was slow in awarding the contracts for the waste reduction program, and after September 11, New York’s downward economy pushed it even further aside. By the time the program launched this year, funding had shrunk to $1 million–$285,000 for the Council on the Environment, which will focus on waste reduction in the public schools, and $715,000 for INFORM.
To make their funding go as far as possible, INFORM chose seven community groups like Per Scholas that already run trash reduction programs. Now, these groups only have until the end of the year to show that their innovative recycling efforts could save the city money while helping the environment. Breaking even alone would be no small feat: To recoup the $715,000 City Council grant, INFORM’s programs will have to divert a total of 11,171 tons of waste this year. (The city currently pays its garbage haulers $65 a ton.)
Martinez, for one, is skeptical that one year is enough time to do that. “It takes people time to change their habits, and it takes time for the effects of any outreach to show,” she says. That said, she hopes this grant from the city can serve as a catalyst for future support.
For now, in Manhattan, the Lower East Side Ecology Center is zeroing in on food scraps with a $90,000 grant from INFORM. The group plans to expand its 15-year-old program of collecting vegetable waste from neighborhood residents, and transforming it to rich potting soil and garden compost, which the organization then resells at farmers’ markets. “We call it pay dirt,” quips Christina Datz-Romero, who leads the effort.
Compost education programs at the botanic gardens in Brooklyn and Staten Island–slashed in the latest city budget cuts–will get a revival and new direction from the INFORM funding. Their focus: grass clippings. “Since lawn clippings are mostly water, they are heavy and very expensive for the Department of Sanitation to haul away,” says Mark Vacarro of Staten Island. “But if you just leave them be, they make great lawn mulch.”
And in Queens, the community group Astoria Residents Reclaiming Our World has teamed up with entrepreneur Nicole Tai to create a drop-off center and pick-up schedule for the city’s myriad construction and demolition wastes–everything from doors to doorknobs to bricks. [See “Material World,” page 22.]
Whatever happens with next year’s budget, leaders of the sponsored groups are determined to keep their operations going. “We see it as crucial to begin modeling other ways that the city might dispose of its goods,” says Omar Freilla of Sustainable South Bronx. Especially, he says, since a recent transportation study of the area found that his neighborhood of 10,000 residents is visited by 11,000 diesel trucks a day.
Tess Taylor is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer