Columnists > Voices

Taking out the trash

Politicians want to handle the big issues but can't manage this simple task

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

Not more than a mile straight east of New York's LaGuardia Airport is another major municipal facility-remarkably modern in concept-that nonetheless symbolizes much of the frustration of society today. It is a garbage dump.

I got much better acquainted with this facility than I ever expected or wanted one snowy Saturday afternoon last January. And I was reminded of that experience last week when I heard that New York City now faces still another garbage crisis. There simply is no place to put it.

Until a few weeks ago, "garbage" in New York might well have been broken down into half a dozen major categories. But for now, the recycling categories have been dropped from the list in New York. Glass and metal (but not paper yet) are all being mixed with everything else to be hauled off to the great beyond. So now, there are just two main categories. There's current garbage (about 12,000 tons a day), and there's construction debris (about 20,000 tons a day-and that's after the last of the World Trade Center was accounted for).

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It was getting rid of a little construction debris that posed my big challenge. Two of my daughters and their families and friends are remodeling two houses they purchased in Queens, and their backyard had filled up with splintered lumber, ceiling tiles, galvanized pipe, paneling, and outdated plumbing fixtures. With nothing to do that Saturday, I rented a truck and suggested we haul off the clutter.

The rules were, we confirmed, that we had to have a truck licensed in New York; the driver had to have a New York operator's license, and show proof that he lived at a Queens address. In other words, New York didn't want any outsiders dumping their trash in New York's facilities-and that seemed fair enough.

Two hours' hard work filled the truck, and we headed for the dump. What we found there was impressive. A cavernous new facility, big enough to process scores of garbage trucks all at once under one huge roof, jutted out into the bay as flights from LaGuardia swooped and roared past. Enormous chutes dropped down to waiting barges. All we had to do, it seemed, was to back our truck up to the right chute, open the rear doors, and push the trash out. It was too good to be true.

Indeed, it was. We were free to walk around this great facility, but a heavy and secure cable prevented all entrance by vehicles. We and our truck were redirected several blocks away to a small row of more traditional dumpsters where, it was suggested, we might make our deposit. Not at all open to that suggestion, though, was the man in charge-who rudely told us that station wagons and maybe minivans could use this service, but certainly not a 24-foot truck like ours. And where could we go? He let us know, but I shouldn't print it here.

With a rental truck due back at 6 p.m., a four-inch New York snowfall gaining on us every minute, and no place to unload, I panicked. I calculated how many hours and how many miles it might take to haul this load all the way back to my own home and our own municipal landfill in North Carolina. In the end, though, we located a small contractor on a side street who, for $300, let us transfer our grisly load to his truck-sized dumpster. At that moment, it seemed like a bargain.

I thought, of course, about all this again last week when I heard that New York itself now faces exactly the same problem we did that Saturday afternoon. No one wants New York's trash. The big barge facility is there, but no one wants the loaded barges. There's no place to unload them. Panic is setting in.

Turnabout is fair play, I reflected at first. But no, I thought then, pity and a helping hand were what I wanted that Saturday afternoon. Cynicism rarely solves a problem.

And such a basic problem it was for me last January, and is now for New York City and its officials. Just getting rid of what we don't want! Banana peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds used to be pretty easy to dispose of. Worn-out clothes driers, gas water heaters, and car tires by the thousands-now it all gets a good bit harder. Have you visited your own city's landfill recently? I have, and I stood in awe as the big trucks rumbled in. This is no mean assignment, I thought.


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