Race and Waste: Options for Equity Planning in New York City

by Juliana Maantay

The concentration of waste transfer stations in New York City’s poorer neighborhoods and communities of color undermines public health, equity, and the environment. For all the calculations that have gone into the city’s latest plan for solid waste management, important equity concerns have not been adequately addressed by the city’s planners.

With the closing of Fresh Kills, the city’s last remaining landfill, by the end of this year New York City will have to deal with the 13,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste previously buried at Fresh Kills. This may well result in many new waste transfer stations and truck trips, on top of the multitude of existing privately owned ones that handle at least another 20,000 tons per day of commercial waste.

The Bronx is New York City’s least affluent borough, with the highest percentage of people categorized as a racial or ethnic “minority.” The Bronx also contains a disproportionate number of the city’s waste-related facilities and handles about a third of the city’s waste. However, even within the Bronx, there is an obvious spatial correspondence between the location of waste-related facilities and the poorer and more heavily minority communities.

In New York City, waste-related facilities include private solid waste transfer stations, city-owned marine transfer stations, waste water treatment plants, combined sewer overflow outfalls, sludge treatment facilities, recycled materials handling facilities, junkyards, auto salvage yards, scrap metal and construction debris processing facilities, yard waste and composting sites, and medical waste disposal plants.

Where Waste is Concentrated

In New York City waste-related industries and other noxious land uses are concentrated in a few neighborhoods, exposing the nearby populations to adverse environmental and health impacts. This holds true despite efforts by community activists to have noxious land uses equitably distributed around the city so that no neighborhood bears more than its “fair share” of the burdens. There are several simple reasons why this concentration persists. First, the city’s zoning resolution divides permitted land use into three types of zones: residential (“R”), commercial (“C”), and manufacturing (“M”). Waste-related industries can legally locate only in M zones, and M zones are not distributed evenly around the city. Therefore, zoning, which acts as the “gatekeeper” in determining which land uses are allowed in which places, effectively limits these uses to those areas which are designated as “appropriate” for industry. In many cases, this determination was made at the beginning of the 20th century, based on the locations of industrial areas established in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The city has Fair Share Guidelines specifying criteria for the equitable location of city-owned and -operated facilities so that neighborhoods receive their share of the “goods” as well as no more than their share of the “bads.” However, the waste industry in the city is largely private. Private firms are responsible for collecting, hauling, and disposing of all commercial and industrial waste other than residential waste. Because these functions are privatized, the Fair Share Guidelines do not apply, and there is no official evaluation of the suitability of new or expanded facilities or the concentration of the facilities in a particular neighborhood.

Due to historic settlement patterns and the importance of the port activities to the city’s industrial activities, most of the city’s M zones are in waterfront areas. They were developed during the era of 19th century industrialization. Since this was prior to the advent of inexpensive public transportation and the automobile, housing for industrial and port workers grew up near the industrial areas. The first zoning resolution in 1916 did not establish exclusive industrial zones, and residential uses were permitted alongside industrial uses in “unrestricted zones.” A substantial overhaul of the zoning resolution in 1961 carved out exclusive industrial zones in these mixed use areas which continue to include residential uses interspersed within or surrounding industrial uses. The “better” residential and commercial areas were insulated from the industrial zones.

Waste and Zoning Changes

Industrial areas generally carry a higher environmental burden than do purely residential neighborhoods in terms of pollution impacts and risk. These burdens include poor air quality, noise, traffic safety, congestion, and vibration impacts from heavy truck traffic; hazardous materials use and storage; emission of hazardous and toxic substances to the air, soil and water; illegal dumping of hazardous materials; proliferation of waste handling facilities; poor enforcement of environmental regulations; and inadequate response to environmental complaints.

Census tracts in the major manufacturing zones contain approximately 22 percent of New York City’s 1990 population. The people in these census tracts tend to be poorer than the average New Yorker, and have a higher than average likelihood of being a member of a racial or ethnic minority.

There have been hundreds of changes to M zones since 1961. Some M zones have increased in size and others decreased. Like the M zones themselves, these zoning changes were not distributed evenly throughout the boroughs. Some boroughs decreased their M zones, and some boroughs increased them. Since there were many more decreases than increases, the decreases had the effect of reducing the amount of industrial land available city-wide, and thus concentrated industrial uses in the remaining M zones.

The most increases to M zones since 1961 occurred in the Borough of the Bronx, the city’s least affluent borough, and the fewest occurred in Manhattan. At the same time, the fewest decreases to M zones occurred in the Bronx and the most in Manhattan. Unfortunately, when the City Planning Department evaluates a change to an M district, the impact of the proposed change on the remainder of the city’s M zones is not considered. Zoning changes are thus approved in a piecemeal way, rather than according to a comprehensive plan.

In general throughout the city, the poorer and more heavily minority industrial neighborhoods had the largest increases in industrial zones (downzoning), while the more affluent and less heavily minority industrial neighborhoods received the largest decreases in their industrial zones (upzoning). These rezonings had a predictable effect on land use, resulting in intensified industrial uses, especially waste-related facilities, in many of the remaining M zones, and a sharp reduction of such uses in areas where M zones were reduced in size.

In the 1980s many of the larger M zones were expanded in the Bronx. [The average family income in the Bronx was $16,400 in 1980; within the major M zones it was $14,700. In areas where M zones were expanded, average family income was $11,200. There were no major decreases to M zones in the Bronx during the 1980s. Thus, although people living in M zones tended to be poor and minority, the people living in M zones that were enlarged were even poorer and more likely to be minority than the M zone average.]

On the other hand, in Manhattan during the 1970s, many major M zones were reduced in area. [The average family income in Manhattan in 1970 was $14,200, while it was $10,500 in the M zones, and $11,200 in M zones that were substantially cut down in size.] There were no major increases in M zones in Manhattan during the 1970s. In other words, while people in Manhattan M zones were generally poor, those living in the M zones that were upzoned were not as poor. This holds true for every borough in nearly the entire period between 1960 and 1990.

Many factors other than demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the proximate population result in zoning change. Likewise, many factors determine population characteristics other than zoning changes. Nevertheless, a geographic pattern does emerge, showing M zones growing in poorer and more minority neighborhoods, and M zones shrinking in more affluent and less minority neighborhoods.

As manufacturing activities diminished in many industrial areas, both private and public waste-related facilities proliferated. The substitution of waste facilities for viable manufacturing furthers the impression that these communities are being disproportionately “dumped on.” The fact that the neighborhoods most affected by waste facilities are mainly poorer, and with a higher percentage of minority people and immigrants than the city average, means that the burdens of the city’s waste problem falls on an already more vulnerable population.

Who Is Impacted by Waste-Related Facilities?

Using a Geographic Information System (GIS) I analyzed the characteristics of the population affected by existing waste-related facilities in the Bronx. I obtained lists from state and local agencies of solid waste transfer stations and waste processing facilities that are permitted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) and/or the New York City Department of Sanitation (NYC DOS). Since the permitted facilities on the lists represent only an estimated one third of the total number of waste-related facilities in the Bronx, the analysis is somewhat incomplete. Other inventories, such as one released by the Bronx Borough President’s Office in 1997, show the unpermitted and unregistered waste-related facilities to be concentrated in the same areas as the permitted facilities.

According to my analysis, 87 percent of the people living within Ú mile of the waste-related facilities listed by governmental agencies are minorities, compared to 76 percent for the Bronx, and 56 percent for New York City in 1990. Average household income is $26,200 among the households living within Ú mile of the facilities, compared to $29,200 for the Bronx, and $41,700 for New York City in 1990.

Comprehensive Planning for Waste-Related Activities?

In order to plan for the equitable distribution of future waste-related facilities, which will be more necessary than ever after the closing of the city’s last remaining landfill later this year, the locations of existing facilities should be compiled and mapped. Unfortunately, there is no government agency currently tracking waste-related facilities in a comprehensive way. Several state and local agencies have jurisdiction over some categories of waste facilities, but there are overlaps and gaps in their oversight responsibilities. Some categories of waste-related facilities such as junkyards are not permitted by any governmental agency, so these types of facilities do not appear on any list. A junkyard can locate in any appropriately zoned area without a special permit, environmental review or consideration for the concentration of similar facilities in the neighborhood. There is no complete list of all waste-related facilities and no permit process is required for certain types of facilities. Even those categories of facilities requiring “registration,” which is a ministerial form of approval without stringent review, do not require environmental review. The environmental review process is often the only opportunity for the public’s opinions to be officially heard, yet about half of the various types of waste-related facilities do not require any. Of those that do, most receive only a preliminary environmental assessment. With a finding of “no significant impact,” the proposed facility can avoid the environmental impact statement, which requires some public review procedures.

It is impossible to plan with equity in mind if there is no accurate accounting of existing conditions. To make matters worse, the records that are kept by governmental agencies are often kept in secret and public access is limited to formal Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. The FOILed information often arrives with an enjoinder that the information can not be used for anything (!). This kind of warning implies that community members who are trying to gather data on their surroundings are the enemy.

Not In Anybody’s Back Yard

The disproportionate distribution of waste-related and other noxious land uses is not just a siting issue, nor is it about distributing unwanted land uses more evenly or equitably. It is also about eliminating or reducing the need for these noxious uses. “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) must become “Not In Anybody’s Back Yard” (NIABY).

By taking a “NIABY” stance, the discussion changes from one of either a technical siting solution for a noxious facility or a “selfish” parochial “NIMBY” response to a matter of forcing the government and private capital to deal with broader issues, “such as waste production, community control, and the process of policy making,” according to Rutgers Professor Robert Lake in his article, “Rethinking NIMBY.”

Much of the noxious industry does not need to exist at all, and the rest could be made less injurious with altered consumption patterns, technological solutions, pollution prevention strategies, and more robust enforcement and community involvement with industry (such as the use of Good Neighbor Agreements, community environmental audits, etc.). Many of these adverse impacts could be ameliorated or eliminated altogether by the use of industrial best management practices, application of waste reduction measures at the source, more enlightened consumer choices, improved recycling initiatives, market development strategies for using recycled materials in consumer goods, updated environmental and land use regulations, and rigorous enforcement.

Mining the Urban Environment

One possible solution lies in requiring all communities that produce waste (in other words, all communities) to house the facilities necessary to handle it. That way, it would not be safely out of sight in someone else’s neighborhood, and perhaps then people would begin to take more seriously the need to reduce waste by alternative strategies, instead of a “business as usual” consumption-waste cycle.

Some of the alternative strategies that could be undertaken to reduce waste include improved governmental and private support for research and development of products and markets for recycled material. Mining the urban environment for the untold wealth discarded each day would be more of a reality if the products and market for them were encouraged through direct investment, tax incentives, and city policy changes. The city administration would have to make recycling a priority in order for this strategy to work.

Promoting urban agriculture and rooftop composting could also go a long way in restoring the food-waste balance of cities, thus reducing the amount of waste needing disposal. There are huge economic and environmental costs in bringing food to cities and hauling away organic wastes. Since organic waste is sent to landfills and not reused as fertilizer, rural farmers are forced to rely on petroleum-based fertilizers, which lack organic matter and microorganisms, thereby diminishing the soil’s long-term fertility and resulting in water pollution.

If city dwellers were encouraged to grow food and compost organic wastes, there would be many environmental and economic benefits in addition to waste reduction. There would be educational and cultural benefits as there are in neighborhoods with community gardens. The city administration should cultivate these community gardens as a low-cost method of achieving sustainability, food security, and waste reuse, as is done in many cities throughout the country and the world. The city should promote the idea and implementation of urban farming, rather than allowing existing gardens to continue in a state of tenuous uncertainty from one year to the next. Community gardens could be an important component of urban sustainability, and help solve some of our pressing waste problems.

In summary, a number of avenues exist for improving equity in solid waste. These can involve changes in policy, planning strategies, financial priorities, and governmental structure. Some of the steps that should be taken are:

  • Proposals for zoning changes involving industrial areas should be evaluated for city-wide impacts, especially impacts to other M zones, in accordance with a comprehensive plan;

  • A complete database of all waste-related facilities should be developed and maintained for tracking and planning purposes. This database should be publicly accessible and include detailed information about 1) the type or types of waste handled at the facility; 2) daily through-put; 3) number of trucks accessing the facility; and 4) any violations against the facility. This database must include all waste-related facilities, not just those permitted by the state or local governments;

  • The oversight of waste-related facilities should rest with one lead agency. This would cut down on the problematic gaps and overlaps in the current system;

  • Waste-related facilities should be required to participate in community-based planning, “Good Neighbor Agreements,” and other methods of enhancing community control;

  • Waste-related facilities should require a Special Permit for initial siting or expansion, thus ensuring some community review and input. The M zone use groups should be re-classified so that some types of waste-related facilities can be located in areas other than M zones;

  • More stringent performance standards for waste-related facilities should be created and enforced, so their environmental and health impacts are reduced. Standards and enforcement should be equally rigorous in all communities;

  • A serious commitment to and investment in alternative strategies to reduce waste should be made so fewer and smaller waste-related facilities will be required.

This article is based on work supported (in part) by a grant from The City University of New York PSC-CUNY Research Award Program. The project was entitled “Solid Waste and the Bronx: Who Pays the Price? A Geographic Inquiry into the Spatial Distribution and Impact Extent of Solid Waste Transfer Stations.” Juliana Maantay is an Assistant Professor of Environmental and Urban Geography at City University of New York/Lehman College’s Department of Geology and Geography.

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