Ulster County Legislator Manna Jo Greene says Ulster County can successfully site a landfill within county lines and will be able to reduce the effect of it on the host community by emphasizing recycling, repair and composting.
Greene, who represents the towns of Marbletown and Rosendale in the Legislature’s District 19, believes it can happen within the five-year timetable for the closure of the Seneca Meadows landfill in Western New York where the county currently sends its trash, at great expense.
Greene is no stranger to such matters as she worked for the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency as its Recycling Coordinator from 1990-2000 and presently serves as Clearwater Sloop’s Environmental Action Director. She said during her time spearheading the RRA’s recycling program the agency increased recycling in Ulster County from four percent to 40 percent and helped lay the groundwork for composting and waste diversion.
And while she no longer works for the RRA, she said she has a very deep interest in making Ulster County a model for other communities when it comes to managing waste.
A task force that includes a handful of legislators, people at the RRA, the County Executive’s Office, along with a few volunteers has worked on implementing a zero-waste plan for the past few years, Greene said.
And she says their work will prove important in the future. “What it means is when a landfill is sited in Ulster County we will have a plan in place that will divert as much waste as possible that can be diverted, reused and repaired,” Greene said. “Wherever a landfill is cited in Ulster County it will be less burdened with traffic. It will be seen as an asset, and last as long as possible diverting as much waste as possible.”
She said she hopes the Legislature will pass a resolution that asks the Executive Branch to issue an RFP to hire a consultant firm to do a feasibility study. “That’s going on,” she said.
Seeking a site for a new Landfill
Greene said the RRA has hired HydroQuest, an environmental consulting firm, to do an initial evaluation of what sites might be possible to consider and which should be because of proximity to wetlands and other natural resources that may need to be protected.
She said while such a study is built upon multiple scientific disciplines including biology and hydrogeology, RRA and County officials must not forget the needs of the host community and ensure any such community would be compensated for extra use of its roads, extra traffic and any other impacts.
She said 30 years ago when the county was trying to site a landfill at Winston Farm in the town of Saugerties, site of the Woodstock 94 Festival, it was not looking at the scientifically best area, putting aside a torrent of community opposition that led to the scrapping of the project. The site could now play host to a massive new development featuring everything from single and multi-family housing to a business park and tourist attractions like an amphitheater, an adventure park and Indoor Water Park.
“It’s not bad to have a clay liner for landfill, but the clay under Winston Farm has the consistency of toothpaste,” Greene said. “Over time the landfill would affect the very wet clay under it. “It would change shape. it could cause the liner to fail.”
Recalling the battle over the landfill proposal, she said some felt it was a great site in large part because of its proximity to Exit 20 of the Thruway, while others felt it was an attempt to discredit longtime local Congressman Maurice Hinchey.
“The powers that be back 30 years ago, there was a theory they wanted to show he’s not a knight in shining armor because a landfill is sited in Saugerties,” Greene said.
Greene asserted politics should stay out of any efforts at landfill siting.
“A site selected based on a really thorough study looks at all elements, minimizes impacts, makes the landfill last as long as possible, to where it’s seen as an asset as opposed to liability,” Greene said.
The importance of diverting waste
Greene said waste diversion will be key to the success of any landfill proposal. And she added both the County and State have laid the groundwork for it by requiring large generators of food waste to reduce excess by sending items that are edible to food banks for shelters or to farmers for animal feed. Under the regulations anything that doesn’t meet those standards can be sent to a composting facility, where it can decompose in aerobic conditions. It eliminates odors and the release of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Greene said she knows of at least four such sites including one run by the RRA.
Other problems to be tackled include decomposing wood waste in anaerobic conditions in a landfill — one of the key drivers of disagreeable odors arising.
Another top priority is construction and demolition debris, particularly sheetrock. Arriving at landfills in dumpsters, Sheetrock decomposes and releases hydrogen sulfide creating a rotten-egg smell. “If we recycle construction and demolition waste, the landfill site will be less odorous,” she said. Solutions for dealing with sheetrock are in place with Orange County-based Taylor Recycling running a sheetrock recycling program. Greene suggested perhaps the county could study such a program by contracting with Taylor or another for-profit company, setting up a not-for-profit or installing a system for the RRA to do it in-house.
“Even sending it to Orange County is not as far as Seneca Meadows,” Greene said.
Resource Innovation Center
“Mattresses are big and bulky and take up a lot of space.” Greene said she knows a recycler in New York City that pulls mattresses apart and recycles the metal inner springs, the cotton filler and the cloth cover in a way that’s cost-effective. But she questioned if Ulster County would want to send its mattresses to New York City.
And that only creates more questions. “Do we do mattresses at one site, sheetrock at another?”
Greene believes establishing a Resource Innovation Center would help Ulster County to answer many of these questions while implementing best practices for dealing with waste.
The Legislator said she believes a feasibility study should dig into these questions. “We need to raise those questions to the smartest people in materials management,” she said. “We need to work together, hire someone to manage that study, and manage in an interactive way with the community.” And while some government-sanctioned studies can drag on for years she said she believes this one can be completed within a year.
There is a line in this year’s County budget mentioning such a plan, but no funding has been allocated as of yet. The County should get on with the study now, Greene believes, so it can have the answer needed to start implementing the new landfill in 2023.
The RRA is undertaking a landfill study that should be ready this year, Greene said. “Let’s hold them to their solid waste management,” she said.
Takeout and packing waste
With the public increasingly trading in-store shopping for ordering online and sit-down dining for takeout over fears of contracting COVID-19, the RRA has likewise seen a boom in packaging waste during the course of the pandemic she said.
She said that includes cardboard in particular which has only increased more since the state banned styrofoam packing peanuts. But she added this is not all a bad thing as she’s found that when people get more cardboard they start to think about having to flatten it and put it in their recycling bin instead of just chucking it in the trash.
And she points out that while more fossil fuel is getting burned in these delivery trucks, people are making fewer car trips out to drive to stores.
Plastic poses a bigger challenge as it’s ubiquitous and difficult to recycle and she believes simplifying that waste stream will take a national effort. Still, she heralded some of the local efforts the county has taken to reduce plastic waste such as banning single-use plastic bags in most circumstances and making straws, single-use forks, spoons and condiments like mayonnaise and ketchup optional.
Repairs offer another diversion option
Greene believes repairing broken items can offer another alternative to sending things to the landfill.
She offered the example of the area’s Repair Cafes. Started by the late John Wackman, Repair Cafe’s such as one offered at the New Paltz Methodist Church and Woodstock’s A-frame Church, offer people the opportunity to bring a range of broken items to a session to be repaired by a team of dedicated volunteers with differing areas of expertise.
But with a Resource Innovation Center program, Greene envisions taking such a program one step further by hiring people, particularly those who are hard to employ, to complete the repairs.
She pointed to computers and electronics which often get taken apart for the components to be recycled when they could be upgraded and repaired, or to broken furniture being repaired.
“Central Hudson was one of the first companies in the region to hire ARC workers,” she said. The workers who are considered to have special needs performed tasks such stripping the copper wire from burned out lightbulbs for recycling at the utility’s large facility on state Route 299 in New Paltz.
“It gave them meaningful work, and they looked forward to coming to work,” she said.
Greene said the items could be offered free or at a very low cost in a store adjacent to the center, which, she added, should not be located in the same community as the landfill. She said organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill already serve an important role in waste diversion.
“There are many systems in place across the country that are working out financially, creating meaningful work and diverting waste,” she said.
She said many town transfer stations already have a reuse trailer for things staff see that people don’t want but are too good to throw out. But she admitted space in reuse trailers is limited and provisions should be made for such items at the county site.
A “zero-waste” future?
Greene estimates that upwards of 80 percent of inbound waste could be diverted away from the landfill, with the landfill only being used for what’s leftover.
She said while the county has a zero-waste plan she admitted she doesn’t expect the county to get to zero waste. But she believes that 80 percent figure is very obtainable.
“There are documented cases of diverting [that much] of the waste stream,” she said. And she reiterated the benefits of such a scenario including a less smelly landfill, less traffic traveling to it, and making it last a lot longer.
As for the waste that still needs to go to the landfill, she envisions the county saving money from not having to send it hundreds of miles to Seneca Meadows, even if it doesn’t close.
And then there are the tipping fees which she estimates when combined with shipping the trash costs the county $8 million a year.
Greene believes that could a long way towards paying off the landfill’s construction costs.
“Charging the tipping fee can help us balance our budget while reducing transportation and pollution,” Greene said.