By solving the problem of the fly ash caused by Incinerated
garbage, New York City got cursed with this. But we haven't
finished wrecking our quality of life just yet.
Up until the end of the 1980s, we New Yorkers incinerated a large part of our garbage. We often didn’t carry it off to some distant place for incineration, either. We cremated it right where we lived.
Back then, most modern apartment buildings had a tiny room on every floor. Inside those rooms there was a garbage chute.
The simple seductiveness
of the garbage chute
You’d drop your garbage down the chute. Often, its descent would be met by the flicker of flames, powered by gas. Sometimes, the flames would shoot upward as high as four stories. Often, you’d hear a satisfying crash as glass shattered and tin cans clanged onto the flaming iron grate below.
Great supermarket sacks of garbage, unsorted and brimming with everything from soggy uneaten spaghetti to tin cans, glass jars, last night’s broken wine glass, the pet turtle that died two weeks after you brought it home from the pet store, fish bones, bread crusts, pineapple tops, soiled cat litter, old newspapers and more would fall down the chute into the roaring flames.
At the end of the day, the building’s janitor would shovel the ashes and charred tin cans and shards of glass from the bottom of the incinerator into barrels. A few barrels of gray, inorganic, inert debris, all that remained of the garbage, would then be placed outside the building for pickup.
Alas, the ash
There was a problem with this system. It was air pollution. It was bad for our lungs and it filled the air with fly ash. If you left your window slightly ajar, you’d be able to trace your name in fly ash on the window sill in about 24 hours. The city fathers fretted. Something had to be done.
So the administration of then-mayor Edward I. Koch solved the problem by banning incinerators. These days, those garbage chutes, as tall as residential buildings that can in many cases be more than 35 stories high , lead to a trash compactor. These days, New Yorkers first sort out their newspapers, tin cans and glass and plastic bottles for recycling .Only more-or-less organic stuff goes down chute.
So the air pollution problem, or at least the part pertaining to burning garbage, was solved. But the Koch Administration forgot The Crank’s Law: Every solution to a problem creates a brand new problem. (A corollary to that law states that inside every silver lining there’s another cloud. But I digress.)
Conforming to The Crank’s Law, in the case of New York City’s anti-incineration regulation, two new problems were created. The first is unsightly mountains of garbage in giant plastic bags that are stashed twice a week on the sidewalks to await pickup. It averages 2,000 tons of filth and public eyesore a day.
At great expense, this festering gunk is then transported out-of-state, where becomes landfill in somebody else's backyard.
The second problem is that hungry rats that are attracted to the garbage. Thanks to New York’s sanitation laws, New Yorkers no longer merely co-exist with the rats. We now are their benefactors.
Rat populations as big
as the city of Cincinnati
Current estimates are that there is a rat thriving in New York for every four people living here. New York currently has about 8.5 million inhabitants. So we therefore have 2,125,000 rodents — about as many rats as Cincinnati has people — doing their damnedest to spread at least as much death and illness among New Yorkers as burning garbage and fly ash once did inorganically. Some of the scarifying details:
“New York City rats carry pathogens that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and fever in humans, especially in children. The pathogens they carry include bacteria such as Clostridium difficile (C. diff), Salmonella, E. coli, and Leptospira. Bartonella bacteria cause cat scratch disease, trench fever, and Carron disease. These bacteria may be spread through contact with rat feces, saliva, or urine. Rats can carry disease-causing viruses such as sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, hepaciviruses, and Seoul virus. Rats carry fleas that are vectors of diseases such as bubonic plague, typhus, and spotted fever. In addition, some people have an allergic reaction to the presence of rodent feces, hair, or urine.”
So your odds of dying of air-induced lung cancer in New York have gone down, even as your odds of contracting anything from diarrhea to typhus and bubonic plague have gone up. That’s Crank’s Law at work.
Meanwhile, ripe organic garbage can’t just be dropped 10, or 15, or 25 stories down a chute. In short order it would smear the chute walls with festering matter that would begin to decay and stink, even as it attracted cockroaches and helped to attract and feed more rats. So many New Yorkers collect our household garbage in plastic grocery bags, tie them up tightly, and drop the sealed bags down the chutes, into the compactors.
Plastic: also the solution
to festering shoo poo
The dog owners among us have also been trained to pick up the dog poo that once got left on the streets for inattentive strollers to step in. What do New Yorkers use to get the stuff off the sidewalk? Well, if you try to pick up some moist poo with a tissue or paper towel, it’s likely to soak through, leaving human hands covered with canine fecal matter. So instead New Yorkers use plastic bags.
Again, a substantial portion of New Yorkers get those bags for free, simply by saving the bags in which we lug home groceries. The result is a recycling program in which bags get used twice in this town — once for lugging home groceries, the second time for disposing of noxious materials, whether dog feces or that tuna sandwich that turned bad when you left it on the kitchen counter while you took off for a weekend in the Hamptons.
But now we have Mayor Bill De Blasio on the war path over plastic bags. They’re ending up in landfills, he complains. And somehow, he infers, they’re helping to overheat the planet. “If we continue to use petroleum-based products when we don’t need them we are only exacerbating climate change,” De Blasio said not long ago.
If not plastic, what?
The problem is, we do need plastic bags, if not for carrying home groceries, than at least for disposing of our refuse. But if supermarkets stop giving away plastic bags, New Yorkers will simply buy boxes or rolls of them for disposing of our garbage. So the same amount of plastic will still go into landfills, and the only thing that may improve is the bottom line at plastic bag companies.
The long range solution is to develop a moisture-proof plastic bag that will biodegrade quickly. But I guess conjuring with that matter is above Bill De Blasio’s pay grade.
The New York State Legislature has several times postponed the start date of De Blasio’s order that supermarkets charge a nickel for every plastic bag. That’s good for the supermarkets’ bottom line, too. But it makes you wonder if De Blasio isn’t getting paid off by the supermarket lobby.
Bill, if you’re really sincere, here’s what you can do: find a moisture-proof, tough, biodegradable material from which bags can be made and then let’s use them to dispose of our garbage. Either that, or go back to incinerators and enjoy a lungful of fly ash.