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Implementing a Waste Prevention Program in Your Community

Strategies, Setbacks, and Successes in INFORM’s New York City Solid Waste Prevention Initiative

This section of the Community Waste Prevention Toolkit describes the research and outreach strategies that INFORM and the New York City Waste Prevention Coalition used in the first two years of our NYC Solid Waste Prevention Initiative (1999 – 2001), the setbacks experienced along the way, and the major successes achieved. These tactics and experiences were the result of circumstances unique to New York City at the time. Not all the methods we used will be applicable in every community; some that were not included may be useful in yours. The appropriate approaches will depend on the specifics of your city, town, or county — its size, how waste is managed, how budgetary decisions relating to waste management are made, and other factors. Our hope is that some of the strategies employed by INFORM and the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition will be of use to other organizations and individuals trying to promote waste prevention policies and practices in their communities.

  • A Campaign Focused on New York City Government
  • Research and Outreach Strategies
  • Guidelines for Action

A Campaign Focused on New York City Government

For a decade, INFORM has been a leader in documenting practical ways to apply the concept of waste prevention to municipal and commercial waste streams. We have published numerous reports and manuals for businesses, government agencies, schools, and other institutions on strategies for preventing wastes at their source — from purchasing reusable products to improving operations so that goods are used more efficiently to ordering products with less packaging.

In 1999, INFORM launched an initiative aimed at convincing the City of New York to take steps that could substantially reduce its staggering tide of waste: 23,000 tons a day of residential, institutional, and commercial trash — enough to fill the Empire State Building in less than a week. We focused primarily on fostering waste prevention practices within city agencies for several reasons:

  • It is important for government agencies to lead by example. In demonstrating that they can reduce wastes in their daily operations, agencies can promote waste prevention more effectively in the private sector.
  • By favoring the purchase of resource-efficient products, government agencies can increase the demand for those products. New York City’s central purchasing department procures approximately $600 million worth of goods and services annually.
  • Since many companies design their goods to meet government specifications, the procurement practices of the public sector can stimulate manufacturers to start offering environmentally preferable products to consumers at large. (Together, federal, state, and local governments spend approximately one-fifth of this country’s gross domestic product, and one in six workers is employed by a government agency.)

Research and Outreach Strategies

INFORM and the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition used the following research and outreach strategies to secure new funding for waste prevention programs in New York City.

1. Identify the best opportunities to incorporate waste prevention into solid waste prevention planning and decision-making.

We focused our campaign around the imminent shutdown of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, the city’s last remaining solid waste disposal facility. The closure of this facility meant that New York City had to find other ways to handle the more than 11,000 tons of trash that is generated each day by its residents and institutions (such as public schools and hospitals). City officials were focusing almost exclusively on shipping this waste to landfills and incinerators in other states. But there was growing public opposition to the new waste transfer facilities that this export plan called for, and to the added polluting truck traffic need to transport garbage out of the city. Recipient states were also up in arms against the plan, and the US Environmental Protection Agency had begun an inquiry into whether the siting of new transfer stations reflected a racial bias against people who lived nearby.

INFORM saw an unparalleled opportunity to focus the attention of community leaders and government officials in New York City on the very real ways in which waste prevention could save tax dollars and improve air quality, two important community goals. The timing seemed right for a strong push to make waste prevention (and recycling) a much more significant part of the city’s solid waste management program.

2. Document the costs of waste disposal and estimate the potential economic and environmental benefits of waste prevention.

INFORM documented the actual costs of waste disposal and projected the costs of New York City’s waste export plan. We found that the Department of Sanitation’s waste disposal budget was likely to more than double –– from less than $150 million in FY 1997, when the Fresh Kills landfill was still in full operation, to more than $300 million in FY 2001, when its closure would be nearly complete. These expenses — which were likely to divert public monies away from other social services — were predicted to increase even more once the city’s waste export plan was fully implemented. As INFORM Senior Research Associate Alicia Culver explained to Waste News on May 5, 2000, “Good waste prevention and recycling programs would offset those costs.” She added, “The city can’t control the cost of the tons it exports, but it can control the number of tons it exports.”

3. Evaluate local government progress in meeting applicable local, state, or federal solid waste reduction planning goals or legal mandates (and publicize findings).

Our next task was to identify all the waste prevention programs currently in place and assess their effectiveness. To do this, INFORM focused on an annual New York City report detailing the city’s compliance with a local law requiring agencies to follow federal “buy recycled” guidelines and a 1996 mayoral directive on waste prevention. INFORM’s April 2000 study, “New York City’s Waste Prevention and Environmental Procurement Programs: An Analysis of Progress”, revealed that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS), the city’s central purchasing department, had reported implementing virtually no new waste prevention initiatives since the directive was issued; moreover, reported procurement of products with recycled content had declined. As a result, the waste generated by city agencies had remained unchanged since 1996, at approximately 180,000 tons per year.

4. Create a citywide coalition of environmental, civic, and business leaders to advocate a platform of waste prevention policies.

In order to form a broad-based waste prevention coalition, INFORM identified and contacted other groups and individuals with common interests to share information and resources. We targeted local community and environmental justice groups concerned (or likely to become concerned) about New York City’s waste export plan — specifically the transfer stations proposed for their neighborhoods and the resulting increase in traffic from noisy and polluting garbage trucks. May of these groups were especially worried about the growing evidence of a link between asthma and children’s exposure to diesel exhaust. Asthma is now epidemic in the city’s poor, predominately minority neighborhoods, where the majority of existing and proposed waste management facilities are located.

In collaboration with several other organizations, INFORM set up and hosted an all-day workshop in December 1999 called “Damming the Waste Stream: A Town Meeting on Waste Prevention in New York City,” in order to publicly discuss strategies to significantly reduce the city’s generation of waste in light of the Fresh Kills landfill closure. Participants included representatives of grassroots groups such as the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Brooklyn Greens, Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods, and Red Hook Groups Against Garbage (GAGS), as well as members of the city’s five Solid Waste Advisory Boards and the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board. The workshop included panel discussions on the following topics:

  • Defining waste prevention
  • The economic and environmental need for waste prevention in NYC
  • The history of waste prevention in NYC
  • Subsidies for wasting and other barriers to prevention
  • Waste prevention policies
  • Equity and community impacts of waste export

During individual breakout sessions, participants discussed specific issues such as:

  • Building a business constituency for waste prevention.
  • Planning for waste prevention.
  • Urban experiments and successes with food waste composting.

The workshop resulted in the formation of the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition, a network of nearly 40 organizations dedicated to “promoting waste prevention as the most responsible, environmentally sound, and cost-effective means to alleviate New York City’s mounting solid waste problems.” The coalition also included businesses in the materials reuse sector, which saw enormous potential for growth and job development from the implementation of new waste prevention programs. The coalition then appointed a steering committee, drafted bylaws, and met monthly to develop and promote waste prevention policy initiatives in New York City.

5. Develop a prioritized list of specific waste prevention recommendations for the community.

The goal was to develop practical solutions to the city’s disposal problems. Initially, INFORM and the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition focused on securing funding from the City Council for a five-year waste prevention program as part of the Department of Sanitation’s budget, starting in FY 2001. INFORM developed a prioritized shortlist of cost-effective waste prevention programs, which included:

  • Hiring community-based waste prevention/recycling coordinators.
  • Creating an environmental purchasing division within city government to promote waste prevention and recycling in city agencies.
  • Expanding backyard composting and other organic waste prevention programs.
  • Instituting waste prevention programs in public schools (e.g., eliminating the use of disposable polystyrene dishes and trays in school cafeterias).
  • Increasing waste prevention assistance to local businesses.

A subcommittee of coalition members then drafted a more far-reaching set of waste prevention budget recommendations for the City Council to consider.

6. Document the economic and environment benefits of the waste prevention strategies proposed.

INFORM and the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition provided City Council staff, other community leaders, and the media with cost-benefit analyses for each of their budget proposals as well as case studies of successful waste prevention initiatives in other communities. INFORM also estimated that for every 10 percent reduction in waste from city agencies, more than $1 million could be saved in trash collection and export costs — to say nothing of the even larger savings that would likely accrue through reduced purchasing, storage, and other operating costs.

7. Identify and take advantage of opportunities to present recommendations to community leaders, decision-makers, and the media for new waste prevention policies and programs.

To ensure that information was provided to the most influential policy-makers, INFORM and the coalition determined when crucial decisions that would affect waste prevention in the city or state were scheduled to be made. We made the case for our five-year waste prevention program primarily to the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee (and its chairman), which had grown increasingly receptive to our recommendations after learning about the rising costs of waste export and the cost-effectiveness of our proposals. INFORM staff and other coalition members testified at numerous hearings on both the waste prevention budget proposals and pending local legislation mandating waste prevention practices — including changes in procurement — by all city agencies. In addition, INFORM and other coalition representatives met individually with City Council members and their staff,as well as with potential candidates in the 2002 mayoral election. The coalition also circulated postcards and other “alerts” encouraging the public to ask elected officials to support the coalition’s platform.

Guidelines for Action

INFORM and the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition found four guidelines helpful in conducting a successful and ongoing waste prevention campaign.

1. Be flexible! As events unfold, reassess your goals and formulate new strategies as needed.

In case a compromise had to be negotiated, the coalition consistently stressed its top priorities: the hiring of community-based waste prevention coordinators and the establishment of an environmental purchasing office within city government. However, despite growing support from the City Council, none of our budget proposals were included in the Department of Sanitation’s budget for FY 2001. This defeat was attributed to a last-minute reduction in state funds.

The coalition then switched tactics and began to focus on upcoming modifications to the Department of Sanitation’s Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan. (In draft form, the plan did not include new waste prevention goals and measures.) The coalition suggested that its five-year waste prevention program be included in the modified plan. It also continued its intensive effort to educate city officials on the importance of reducing the municipal waste stream, building on City Council support developed during the budget process.

2. Do not get discouraged if the campaign is not immediately successful.

In November 2000, after five rounds of City Council hearings, dozens of briefings, and months of organizing, meetings, and letter-writing, the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition finally saw its efforts pay off when the chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee, with whom INFORM and other coalition members had developed a good working relationship, stated emphatically that the committee would not approve the Sanitation Department’s waste management plan modification (which the city needed to site new transfer facilities for export) unless it added improved waste prevention measures.

Ultimately, the modified plan that was passed by the City Council included two critically important waste prevention initiatives, which were the coalition’s top priorities:

  • Creation of a three-year, $6.3 million pilot program to hire community-based waste prevention and recycling coordinators to be placed with nonprofit organizations throughout the city, with several assigned to public schools and New York City Housing Authority facilities. The coordinators’ roles would be to advise residents, schools, and businesses on ways to reduce waste and recycle effectively, hold educational events, promote backyard composting, encourage businesses to take back and recycle items such as batteries, and help channel common household items to community reuse and repair centers.
  • Establishment of an environmental purchasing unit within DCAS, the city’s central procurement agency, to increase its purchases of waste-reducing products and products with recycled content. In addition, all city agencies were mandated to consistently follow federal guidelines and buy only paper with at least 30 percent post-consumer content.

3. Closely monitor the progress of any waste prevention initiatives established in the community.

The inclusion of INFORM’s and the NYC Waste Prevention Coalition’s top proposals in New York City’s revised solid waste management plan marked a serious step forward in advancing waste prevention as an important method of addressing many of the environmental and economic impacts of the city’s waste export plan. The coalition is now working to ensure that these initiatives are implemented effectively and expanded in the years to come. The coalition is also continuing to advocate for the passage of a local law mandating waste prevention by city agencies, which would greatly enhance the efforts of the city’s new environmental purchasing unit.

Meanwhile, INFORM has been selected to manage a major portion of the new three-year pilot program to promote waste prevention and recycling in New York City. We will oversee the hiring, training, and day-to-day activities of the community waste prevention coordinators who will conduct outreach to city residents and neighborhood businesses. We will continue evaluating the city’s procurement of both waste-preventing and recycled-content products. At the same time, we plan to help the new environmental purchasing unit meet the requirements of the mayor’s waste prevention directive and achieve compliance with all 54 of the EPA’s federal recycled-content product procurement guidelines.

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