When it comes to trash, the Upper East Side is on its own.
Seven of Manhattan's nine council members have signed on to a waste equity bill in the City Council that seeks to reduce the trash burden on outer borough communities. Notably absent: Councilmembers Ben Kallos and Dan Garodnick, who both represent portions of the Upper East Side, and who both believe the bill could increase the trash burden at the soon-to-be-completed East 91st Street marine transfer station.
“We may be putting the cart before the horse here,” Garodnick said. “There are lots of open questions on the existing waste management plan, so I am concerned about changing the citywide dynamic at this moment in time.” The bill seeks to evenly divide the total amount of trash processing responsibility among New York's 59 community districts. However, according to a Kallos spokesperson, the bill regards all trash - whether it be construction debris, recyclable paper or actual garbage - as the same, leaving it up to the sanitation department to figure out what trash goes where. For this reason, the spokesperson said, sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia formally registered her opposition to the bill at a recent hearing.
And while there's an exemption for communities with marine transfer stations, a loophole in the bill says that in times when the city's trash output exceeds its ability to process it evenly, some facilities - like the East 91st Street MTS – could see an increase in the amount of trash they need to process.
It's a political reality in the city council – and in any legislative body - that fellow members will inevitably vote against each other at some point. But seldom is a line so definitively drawn than on Intro 495, as the bill is known.
Perhaps it's the neighborhood's reputation as one of the most affluent in the city -- and at times one of the most persnickety. Upper East Siders made a fuss last winter when they accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of purposefully passing over their streets when it came to snow removal. And in the 2013 election, de Blasio and his populist message won Manhattan handily in most areas, but not on the Upper East Side, which almost as a block voted for the Republican challenger Joseph Lhota.
Nevertheless, sensible arguments have been made against operating an MTS at East 91st Street, not the least of which is that the access ramp to “the dump,” as it's known locally, runs straight through an athletic complex with soccer fields on one side and a children's playground on the other. A study commissioned by Kallos and carried out by the city's Independent Budget Office found that routing trash through the East 91st Street MTS would triple the cost of what the city is now paying to dispose of the same amount of trash.
And yet these arguments seem to fall on deaf ears.
“It certainly does feel that way, that we're under siege, no one cares,” said a longtime Upper East Sider and Community Board 8 member. “On this particular issue it seems that way, but in a general sense I don't know of any community that goes to bat for another community.”
Another way to look at it is that no matter how sound the argument is made against the East 91st Street MTS, the conversation isn't about safety or fiscal responsibility as much as it's about the progressive ideal of distributing the city's less savory operational needs equally to all quarters. Councilmember Mark Levine, who represents the northernmost portion of the Upper West Side, said the bill would have no impact on his district but that the idea behind it “reflects the values of the people in my district.”
Levine said he signed on as a cosponsor of the trash equity legislation as a member of the city council's progressive caucus. (Ironically, Kallos is the progressive caucus' vice-chair for policy, while council member Helen Rosenthal is the vice-chair for budget advocacy).
Levine said he's sympathetic to Upper East Siders who will be affected by the MTS, and supports a plan to move the access ramp to East 92nd Street to avoid Asphalt Green, but does not believe the law will have an appreciable impact on the MTS.
“This bill would, over the long term, insure a slightly more equitable distribution of the impact,” said Levine. “This has become a priority for the progressive caucus in the council, and that's going to largely explain the support here.”
Council member Helen Rosenthal agrees. “You spend some time in these [outer borough] districts and you can really see the impact of the disproportionate trash burden,” she said.
The bill is looking specifically to reduce the trash burden in those communities, namely north Brooklyn, southeast Queens and the south Bronx, by 18 percent.
According to Rosenthal, those three districts handle three-quarters of the city's trash.
“That's outrageous, and it's clearly tied to socioeconomic status,” she said.
Rosenthal believes that in addition to working towards trash equity throughout the city, officials need to push to increase the city's recycling and composting habits.
“To the extent we're all paying a little more attention to that and doing our fair share in composting and recycling, that's going to have a huge impact on peoples' lives,” Rosenthal said. “I think it's really incumbent on residents in my district to up our game.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer likened Intro 495 to the larger solid waste management plan passed in 2006 when she was on the city council. She was one of only a handful of members citywide who voted against the plan. She said she did so because its effect on the West 59th Street MTS was unclear, not because it included provisions for trash equity, of which she is supportive.
“When the SWMP plan was voted on, it was only me and the east siders that voted against it,” said Brewer. “I don't think this is any different. It's really déjà vu.”
She said she doesn't see any schism developing in the city council's Manhattan delegation, and believes Kallos and Garodnick are critical of the bill because it changes the way trash is handled in New York before the East 91st Street MTS is even open.
“People do vote their districts, and that's what they were voted in to do,” said Brewer. “I don't think this is unusual.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified which West Side city council member's district is home to a marine transfer station that processes paper waste. The West 59th Street MTS is in council member Corey Johnson's district, not Helen Rosenthal's, according to city council maps.