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Looking beyond Brookhaven for zero waste alternatives

 Brookhaven Landfill rises behind the Frank P. Long Intermediate School and playground in North Bellport.
Ashley Pavlakis
Brookhaven Landfill rises behind the Frank P. Long Intermediate School and playground in North Bellport.

New York is trying to clean up its trash. At the April launch of the state’s 10-year solid waste management plan, David Vitale, division director of materials management at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, declared, “Waste is a concept of the past.”

One of the state’s goals in this latest draft plan is to pressure local administrations to develop a more circular economy and encourage extended producer responsibility, shifting responsibility for reducing waste, such as plastic and paper, onto manufacturers rather than consumers.

But Vitale admitted, “The primacy for solid waste management rests with local governments. We are a home-ruled state. That’s how the laws are set up; That’s where the authorities are. The state doesn’t have that particular authority.”

With the Brookhaven Landfill set to close over the next few years, much of Long Island is left to find an alternative waste management solution.

Currently, none of the proposed solutions satisfy local residents’ expectations. “I have been doing some research on other localities throughout the United States,” John McNamara, a Brookhaven resident and environmental activist, said. “We’re so far behind on the island. I think we need a whole different stance, our recycling rate is pathetic.”

Elsewhere in the U.S. the concept of zero waste has emerged as a promising option for many communities struggling with waste management issues. Zero waste is a circular approach that aims to reduce waste and eliminate the need for burning waste and landfills by focusing on source separation, composting, and recycling.

 Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, is one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers.
Jennifer Greene
Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colorado, is one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers.

Take Boulder, Colorado. McNamara said this is an example community for successfully implemented zero waste solutions. The town had been struggling with waste management issues prior to the installment of Eco-Cycle, one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers. Today it recycles and composts more waste than any town in Colorado and claims its lower emissions are equivalent to taking 28,000 cars off the road each year.

“Boulder passed a zero waste ordinance in 2010,” Frances Greene, a Boulder resident, said. “The city estimates that they’re diverting about 35% of waste from the landfill.”

In efforts to adhere to the zero waste ordinance, the city set up a comprehensive source separation system, providing separate bins for different types of waste. They also implemented a curbside composting program, which encouraged residents to compost their food waste.

 Separate waste bins in a Boulder city park.
Jennifer Greene
Separate waste bins in a Boulder city park.

Western Disposal, a waste collection company based in Boulder, collects trash, recycling and compostables. “When you sign up, they ask what size container you need for your trash, what size of container you want for recyclables and what size you want for compostables,” Greene said.

“There are multiple waste collection companies, but probably 70 or 80% of all the trash [in Boulder] is picked up by Western Disposal,” Greene said.

The company rolls out newsletters seasonally that include educational information and tips for residents who receive their services.

Perhaps most important, the community in Boulder has become more engaged and involved in waste management. Residents are more conscious of their waste and are taking steps to reduce it. Businesses are also becoming more sustainable, as they seek to reduce their waste and find ways to repurpose materials.

“I got their largest big bin for compostables, because I was going to do a lot of gardening,” Greene said. “I got their very smallest one for trash.”

And Greene has some out-of-state perspective on this issue. Her daughter, Jennifer, lives in Brookhaven, N.Y. While in graduate school, Jennifer Greene worked at Recycle Ann Arbor in Michigan, where she noticed that residents eagerly cooperated in recycling initiatives. She would like Long Islanders to follow their example.

“The infrastructure was there for people to participate,” Jennifer Greene said. “Here there doesn’t seem to be public education going on. There don’t seem to be high rates of participation, the infrastructure isn’t really there to facilitate it.” That was “really discouraging,” she added.

Other cities have established their own plans for zero waste. The state of Colorado aims to recycle 35% of its waste by 2026 and 45% by 2036. Boulder’s success has attracted attention from other communities struggling with waste management issues, which are looking for a model for how to implement zero waste solutions in their own towns and cities.

John McNamara testified before the Town of Brookhaven in February 2021 about the example of Colorado Springs, which has a historically low recycling and composting rate of 15%, half the national rate of 32%. He has repeated this example since.

However, the town has set up a recycling center, which collects and sorts recyclable materials, such as metal, plastic, and glass. The materials are then sold to local businesses to be repurposed into new products.

From this, McNamara discovered the landfill in Colorado Springs has been able to extend its life as the surrounding community implemented a recycling program featuring three different recycling systems, a program he felt could work in Brookhaven.

To begin a successful shift towards environmental conservation and preservation, McNamara said he believes the town must be educated first. “You have to educate the community and get them ready for this [change],” he said. “Things can be done in terms of legislation, but you have to work on the education piece.”

According to public records requests, the Town of Brookhaven does any responsive documents relating to zero waste planning; the town is also more than a decade late in drafting a local solid waste management plan, according to the state.

Scientists are also working on another approach to eliminating waste. A team of researchers, led by Benjamin Hsaio from Stony Brook University and The University of Queensland, have begun a project centered on low-cost zero waste technology. Although not yet complete, their project Nature-based Nanomaterial for Solutions to Climate Change aims to help farmers and local communities to combat climate change and enhance food-water-infrastructure security by transforming organic waste into high value products.

Their plan will make use of underutilized agricultural waste, recycled papers and boxes, and food waste to create new kinds of green materials that can be used to help plant growth (nanocellulose-enabled bio-nano fertilizer) for agricultural purposes, as well as biodegradable elastic materials (biogels) for green infrastructure and creating new sources of water that could reduce of the impact of drought. Through this project, the team will advance zero-waste technology.

Another ongoing Stony Brook University study seeks to plan for Long Island's waste future ahead of the Brookhaven Landfill's closure in a few years, including zero waste approaches — however, research is slow to start.

Waste management continues to be a pressing issue around the world. Organizations like the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG), which formed in 2020 to advocate for the closure of the waste facility and environmental justice, hope that zero waste solutions can bring significant benefits to communities. By adopting a circular approach that focuses on source separation, composting, and recycling, communities can reduce waste, save money, and create a more sustainable future for themselves and the planet.

Many questions remain about what life will look like for local residents after the official closing of the Brookhaven Landfill. The Town of Brookhaven, industrial companies, and community activists have all taken steps to achieve what they see as the ideal outcome, but roadblocks still stand in the way.

The Town of Brookhaven, which has a gross annual revenue of over $60 million from the landfill, declined requests to comment on this article.

However, in February this year the town signed a 20-year lease with Coast Energy, a private developer, for the right to place 16,000 solar panels on 35 acres of capped landfill. Town Supervisor Ed Romaine claimed it was “a big step” towards creating an energy park.

Anaerobic digesters present another potential way forward. These mechanisms break down food waste and other organic matter, turning them into natural gases. The process would be beneficial to the environment not only as a means of recycling food waste but also as a provider of renewable energy. American Organic Energy began constructing an anaerobic digester in Yaphank in 2022, but it is not open for use yet.

Residents remember promises made about the landfill when it was first opened 50 years ago.

“I was shocked when I read the old 1970s newspaper articles about the plans for this new landfill to be opened and how and what was promised,” Jennifer Greene, a member of BLARG, said. “‘It’s going to be a beautiful park with ski slopes:’ I heard people refer to that and I thought, ‘oh, you must be exaggerating.’ No, they really said they would turn this landfill into a beautiful park after it’s closed.”

There is no park in sight, only the mountain of Long Island’s waste and the communities in its shadow.

WSHU’s Trash Talkin’ series is produced in collaboration with Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism.