As housekeeping goes, trash is easy — you place it in a plastic bag and inside a plastic carton and a truck arrives and takes it away. But where those trucks end up is vital to the health of the Highlands, and to the planet. The hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage produced by local residents each year that can’t be recycled (or can be, but isn’t) must be buried or burned, which contributes to global warming and air pollution. In this series, we will examine county and state plans to deal with all that trash and what municipalities and individuals are doing to reduce waste.
Where does your garbage go when you throw it away? In the Highlands, you might be breathing it.
Every year, about 45 percent of Dutchess County’s garbage — around 150,000 tons — goes up in smoke at an incinerator located on the Hudson River in southern Poughkeepsie. Putnam County’s trash travels south to a larger incinerator in Westchester located across Lent’s Cove from the former Indian Point nuclear power plant. Across the state, New York operates 10 incinerators, more than any other state — Florida also had 10 until an incinerator near Miami burned down.
The preferred industry term for these facilities is “waste-to-energy,” or WTE, because the plants produce power. The Poughkeepsie incinerator makes enough electricity annually for about 10,000 homes, and the Peekskill incinerator for more than 30,000. But they also emit greenhouse gases, the primary driver of global warming; in 2022, the Peekskill plant emitted 286,000 metric tons and the smaller Poughkeepsie plant, 40,000 tons. Both plants also release toxins such as lead, mercury, cadmium, hydrochloric acid and nitrogen oxides at rates many times higher than coal-burning plants per megawatt hour.
The 10.63 pounds, or 4,822 grams, of mercury emitted annually by the Peekskill incinerator might not seem like much, but, according to one study, it would only take one gram added annually to a 20-acre lake to eventually make the fish there unsafe to eat.
“Those are just the pollutants that we know about,” said Courtney Williams, a cancer researcher who is a member of the Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions. “They’re only required to test for a few.”
Williams, who lives in Peekskill, can see the incinerator from her porch. “I could see the smoke stacks, but I didn’t really know what it was,” she said. “Then I found out that the smoke was pretty much all of Westchester’s garbage.”
Finding out more about the smoke is a challenge. I’ve been covering environmental issues for The Current for nearly a decade and this series was by far the most difficult one to research because many people in charge of trash don’t want to talk about it. Requests for public plans were denied. Site visits took months to schedule, if they were allowed at all. Interview requests were ignored.
It also was not always easy to find out what I assumed was basic information. While Dutchess keeps detailed records of where its trash comes from and where it goes, a representative of Putnam County told me it doesn’t have access to that kind of data.
The Peekskill and Poughkeepsie incinerators, which have been operating for more than 30 years, get more expensive and less efficient over time. For every 100 pounds of trash burned, 30 pounds of toxic ash is produced and must be carted to the landfills that the incinerators are supposed to replace. The closest landfill still operating is 230 miles away and it’s almost full.
There is little political will or popular support for new landfills, although some environmental groups are beginning to reconsider them. Further, the state’s ambitious climate goals, which include creating zero emissions by 2040 when producing electricity, would seem incompatible with incinerators.
What’s the plan?
Each county in New York, like the state itself, is required by law to release an updated solid-waste management plan every 10 years. Both the state and Dutchess County released updated plans in 2023; Putnam’s updated plan is overdue by four years. (The county said it’s working on it.)
Like its climate goals, the state’s plan is ambitious. It proclaims that by 2050, landfilling and combustion will be reduced by 85 percent, “waste” will be a concept from the past and an efficient, “circular economy” will be realized in which nearly everything produced is repaired, reused or recycled.
“The linear model of ‘take, make, toss’ is unsustainable,” said Dave Vitale, who directs the Division of Materials Management for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). He points out that recycling rates in the state and country have stagnated. “Instead of looking at something as a byproduct, or waste, we need to look at it as a valued resource. In a circular economy, we’re divesting from systems of disposal.”
The state plan lays out 175 actions across every sector of the waste system. For example, the Legislature could pass laws that require the parts in products to be easier to repair or replace. Imagine if replacing an iPhone battery that no longer charges were as easy as exchanging the batteries in a TV remote.
One issue with the county and state plans is that they are not always coordinated. The phrase circular economy does not appear in the 239-page Dutchess plan, and “repair” appears only three times — once to note that many environmental organizations host grassroots “repair cafes” and twice to note that the county might do one of its own.
It also notes that there is only one large-scale composting facility in Dutchess (McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, a private company) but that the county hopes to complete a study before 2033 that would examine the type, size and location for another.
Looking beyond the Poughkeepsie incinerator, the county sees another incinerator. “Waste-to-energy technology has served the county well,” its plan says. Unlike the state plan, it concludes that more materials will have to be burned and calls for a new burn site to handle the growing waste stream. It expects this effort will require “years of planning and investment of millions of dollars, as it did in the early 1980s when Dutchess County decided landfilling was not the best option.”
The Dutchess plan frequently refers to its incinerator as a facility that “processes waste in an environmentally sound manner.” But many researchers state that, even if facilities are operating within pollution standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, nothing is without risk.
“Whenever you have combustion of anything near people, you’re going to have a health impact,” said Sintana Vergara, an engineering professor at Cal Poly Humboldt who studies waste management. The impacts get trickier and riskier when burning trash because the pollutants are constantly changing, depending on what is burned, and often include particulate matter, as well as dioxins produced by burning plastic.
There’s also the matter of where the incinerators are located. According to the most recent federal census, 60 percent of Poughkeepsie’s residents are minorities. In Peekskill, it’s 66 percent. “In the U.S., we have a pretty long history of siting incinerators in low-income communities and in communities of color,” said Vergara. “And we also have a long history of resistance to those facilities.”
When New York’s most recent waste plan was being drafted, a discussion took place about whether to demand that incinerators be phased out because they are incompatible with state climate goals. A DEC representative said the agency plans to examine each incinerator when its permits come up for renewal.
In Peekskill, the review is happening now; in Poughkeepsie, it’s next year. Kerry Russell, Dutchess County’s deputy commissioner for solid-waste management, doesn’t foresee any problems. “We’ve had several meetings to discuss what this next phase of renewal will be, and we will work with them throughout all of next year, ensuring that we do get the renewal,” she said.
That doesn’t satisfy Yvette Valdés Smith, a Democrat whose district in the county Legislature includes Ward 4 in Beacon. “I hate to say it, but I keep seeing these examples of poor planning,” she said. “And to me, poor planning and no planning are the same thing.”
Valdés Smith said her first impression of the latest Dutchess waste plan is that “it seemed like a copy-and-paste job” from the previous version. “Not a lot has changed,” she said. “But from an environmental standpoint, a lot has changed.” On Sept. 11, Valdés Smith and the five other Democrats in the Legislature voted against the plan (one Democrat was absent), but the 17 Republicans in the majority united to pass it.
Valdés Smith said she tried to get $30,000 inserted into the budget to hire a consultant to figure out how the county could burn less trash, but that also was voted down along party lines. Westchester County took a different approach, allocating $90,000 in its 2024 budget for a zero-waste consultant.
Less to burn
Lou Vetrone, a deputy commissioner at Westchester’s Department of Environmental Facilities, said the county has been able to reduce the amount of waste being sent to the Peekskill incinerator by 28 percent since 2005, although he doesn’t think that’s close to enough.
He is hoping the consultant can help. “We think we have a good handle on where things need to go, but it’s always helpful to have another set of eyes,” he said. “There may be other things going on in different parts of the country or even different parts of the world that we could incorporate here.”
The $90,000 appropriation was a victory for the Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions, which would like to see the incinerator shut down. But Courtney Williams noted that, realistically, that will only happen if there is not enough trash to burn. “Stop making all this garbage in the first place and then we won’t need to worry about diverting it from the waste stream,” she said.
Because incineration is one of the most expensive ways of dealing with waste, even with the energy it produces, Williams said the cost of a consultant should pay for itself in savings. “If we get more composting facilities, more material recovery facilities in place, those things will always be there,” she said. “We spend money to set these things up, but we’ll save all that money we’re not spending to burn trash.”
The consultant also ties into Williams’ belief that activists can only do so much when dealing with the interaction of science and government. “It is not your personal responsibility to solve every single aspect of an unjust waste-management system,” she said at a recent forum at Vassar College. “You didn’t create this problem. The solid waste-management process system in this county didn’t get built by volunteers and community groups, it got built by the machinations of the county government.”
What can be done
The Peekskill incinerator burns 2,500 tons of trash each day. Is it possible to reduce that to zero?
Both the state’s waste and climate plans say that the infrastructure is already in place. Waste processing and using fossil fuels to produce electricity each generate about 13 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases, but researchers estimate that the power grid in New York has the capacity to provide as much as 90 percent of electricity through renewable energy technology that already exists.
Likewise, the reason why the state waste plan sets 85 percent as a target for reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills and incinerators is because there are already ways that we could redirect that 85 percent. Construction materials can be repurposed, bottles can be recycled, food can be composted, electronics can be reused, clothes can be thrifted, that lamp in the garage which hasn’t worked in years can be repaired.
“When you look at it from the perspective that we already have systems in place to divert 80 percent of the things that are thrown away, that makes it a much more manageable problem,” said Williams. “We have a lot of what we need, we just need to scale it up.”
Behind The Story
Type: Investigative / Enterprise
Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.