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New York City moved a step closer to building its first municipal incinerator in over four decades with the announcement by the Department of Sanitation last week that it would entertain proposals for “alternative” technology to handle Staten Island’s trash and recycling. The October 1 announcement represents a complete about-face for the department, which until last month insisted that no existing alternative energy plant could handle the city’s trash.

It also opens the way for Staten Island-based Visy Paper, which handles 40 percent of the city’s paper recycling, to make the leap into handling all of Staten Island’s trash and recycling for the next 20 years.

Environmental groups, which have praised Sanitation for opting to issue 20-year contracts on the city’s recycling of metal, glass and plastic, rather than dribbling out the contracts in five year intervals as it has done in the past, reacted cautiously to the news.

“There are real environmental, public health and economic concerns about moving forward any incineration proposal in New York City,” said Marc Izeman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Besides, he said, it may be more expensive. “From the preliminary details that have been released it’s not clear that this is a good economic deal for New York City.”

Under the proposal, Visy Paper, a subsidiary of Austrialian paper giant Pratt Industries, would build a “recycle and recovery” plant that would dry waste and turn it into fuel pellets, which would then be burned to power its paper recycling mill. Visy spokesperson Mike O’Regan insists that the new method is a far cry from traditional incineration. “This is not normal combustion. Less oxygen is used, which in turn means lower levels of nitrogen oxide” emissions.

This isn’t the first time alternative technology has been proposed to ease the city’s trash burden. Several companies have introduced similar plans [See “Hot Trash,” City Limits magazine July/August 2003]. But it is the first time the DOS has gotten serious about the idea. DOS spokesperson Kathy Dawkins declined to speculate on the change of heart. “I think we are just looking at different ideas, and if someone has a proposal we will take a look at it and see if it fits our needs,” she said.

That’s good news for Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro, who in September traveled to Germany to learn more about the new technology, and for Staten Island council member and Sanitation committee chair Michael McMahon.

“I think the city has to take a serious look at the developing technologies for long-term planning,” said McMahon, a frequent and outspoken critic of DOS’ waste handling. “Sooner or later landfill space is going to run out, and unless the city actively pursues this, we are going to be stuck.”

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