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Tales from Our Trash: New York City’s Sanitation Workers, Sustainable Cities, and the Value of Knowledge

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By Rebecca Bratspies

screen_20060123182758_9talkingtrash2tsi's_pickup_crewWe have a problem in New York City: We generate more than 30,000 tons of waste each day. Roughly one third of that waste is household trash, and the daunting task of collecting garbage from New York City’s three million households falls to 7,000 workers from the NYC Department of Sanitation.  They are, in the words of artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “keeping New York City alive.”

All of NYC’s waste is shipped out of state for disposal. But first, the city must consolidate the garbage at one of 58 waste transfer stations. In addition to the overpowering odors the trash itself produces, these stations generate a constant stream of truck traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, and safety issues. So, of course, no one wants to live near them.

Thus, it may come as no surprise that most of NYC’s waste transfer stations are concentrated in poor and minority communities in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. In 1996, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance helped form the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods to address this injustice, and over the next decade these groups worked with hundreds of concerned citizens, ultimately culminating in the passage of the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. Although the plan laid the foundation for a more equitable distribution of these facilities, attempts to locate a waste transfer station in Manhattan have been met with litigation and outrage.

frank justich wayI think about these numbers every time I place my family’s trash can on the curb for sanitation workers to empty. These workers do this thankless and risky job every day. Sanitation workers are far more likely to be killed on the job than are police officers or firefighters. In 2010, this was the case when NYC sanitation worker Frank Justich was hit by a truck and killed while on the job in Queens. My daily commute takes me past the corner where he died, which was renamed Frank Justich Way in his honor. How many of us know the names of the men and women who collect our trash? Their vital contribution to our welfare goes unacknowledged: their specialized knowledge and skills overlooked.

This is why the CUNY Center for Urban Environmental Reform (CUER) is launching its Whose Trash? Initiative, which uses NYC waste-handling practices to consider broader questions of urban sustainability. This initiative highlights the importance of including under-represented voices in the waste planning processes: communities burdened with landfills and transfer stations; workers tasked with collecting and handling wastes; and young people saddled with undesirable economic and ecological legacies.

The kick-off event, Tales from Our Trash, will take place this Thursday, November 14, at 6 p.m. at CUNY School of Law. Commemorating Frank Justich’s life and service, this event highlights the contributions sanitation workers make to urban sustainability. The event will be memorialized by Frank Justich’s widow, who speak briefly about what it means to her that this event is commemorating her husband’s life and work. Other participants include  Dr. Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation and author of Picking Up; CUNY School of Law Professor and CUER Director Rebecca Bratspies; artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, creator of Touch Sanitation and artist-in-residence at the NYC Department of Sanitation; NYC Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty; and three NYC high school students speaking on behalf of future generations. More information is available on CUNY Law’s website.  Don’t live in New York? No Problem! The events are free and it is open to the public, and will be live-streamed online. Hope to see you there!

About the author: Rebecca Bratspies, Professor, joined the faculty of CUNY Law in 2004. Her teaching and scholarly research focus on environmental and public international law, with a particular emphasis on how legal systems govern the global commons and how law can further sustainable development. Professor Bratspies spent a year seconded to the Republic of China (Taiwan) Environmental Protection Administration. Upon her return to the United States, she was a litigation associate with Dechert, Price and Rhoads where she worked with civil rights groups to bring two victorious class action suits challenging Pennsylvania’s implementation of welfare reform.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Sitting in Traffic (It’s all relative)

Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Amy Miller

There’s a big sign flashing as you exit my Maine village to the north: EXPECT MAJOR DELAYS. Route 236 between South Berwick and Berwick is being repaved, I guess.

I can drive the four miles from South Berwick to Berwick without passing more than a handful of cars. Even on Friday evenings in summer when traffic coming into town is sometimes backed up a mile – a full 10 minutes — the road north from town is virtually empty. All of those cars take a right, east to the Maine coast.

So the idea of MAJOR DELAYS is one I cannot really imagine. I think of the LIE – the Long Island Expressway – which in some parts hosts on average about 200,000 vehicles a day (that’s 8,000 a minutes or 17 a second on each of eight lanes, if I’m doing my math right). Here, MAJOR DELAYS might mean it takes two hours to go 10 miles at rush hour instead of the normal 60 minutes. I think of The 5 in Los Angeles, where no one goes between 3 and 6 pm because too many cars are on the road already. I mean no one with any choice in the matter.

For a moment I think about the Tobin Bridge, where recent repairs have meant it could take an hour to get out of town. Or, stretching the imagination, I conjure up the image of the Portsmouth traffic circle in New Hampshire, where sprawl over the last two decades has changed a sleepy rotary into a circle of constant traffic that sometimes backs up nearly to the next exit north.

But major delays in South Berwick? State records show anywhere from 200 to 16,000 AADT on our various roads. AADT, by the way, is the annual average daily traffic and is used for all sorts of things, including transportation funding and planning. Leaving town via the MAJOR DELAY route there might be 6,000 AADT, best I could figure it. This means about 400 vehicles an hour or about 6 or 7 a minute, figuring on traffic only 15 hours a day. While the LIE may buzz at 3 am, our town is pretty much asleep by 10 pm on a weeknight and 11 pm on weekends.

When the DownEaster train comes through and they have to lower the gate I find myself waiting a minute or two, usually behind a dozen cars or less.

So I am curious. What will these MAJOR DELAYS look like?

Here’s EPA help assessing how green are your wheels, even if they are stuck in heavy traffic

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, eight chickens, dusky conure, dog and a great community.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Keep a Level Head at the Wheel…and Save Money

image of traffic on a highwayA recent survey on aggressive driving habits across the United States pointed to a wide variety of activities in which drivers vented their rage at the wheel. Some of these bad driving habits include tail-gating, honking horns, making obscene gestures, and speeding, to name a few. Large metropolitan areas have consistently been featured among the top offenders in the road rage arena. Nonetheless, many of us have encountered these aggressive drivers whether we live in the city, suburbia or rural areas. While I hope no one will challenge that many of these bad habits are dangerous, offensive and even illegal, keeping a level head at the wheel will allow you to save money and ultimately protect the environment.

Here are some tips that will help you use fuel more efficiently while driving. Try to keep a steady pace while driving. Sudden acceleration and heavy braking may reduce the fuel efficiency of your economy by up to 33 percent. By keeping distractions to a minimum, you can gauge your pace even in heavy traffic. Another piece of advice—observe the speed limit. Seems like a no brainer, but did you know that fuel efficiency decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph?

Furthermore, keep your car in shape. It’s important to keep your engine properly tuned to improve gas mileage. Plus we often forget to keep our tires properly inflated. Inflating tires at the proper pressure will improve your gas mileage and the life of your tires. Using the proper octane level at the pump also improves your mileage. Check your owner’s manual to see the most effective octane level for your car. Unless it’s recommended by the manufacturer, buying a higher octane gas might be a waste of your hard-earned money.

Since we’re approaching the 4th of July weekend, there are many who will hit the road to visit family and friends or relax in the great outdoors. Consider these tips so you can enjoy your drive and protect the Planet at the same time.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Mantenga la calma al volante y ahorrará dinero

image of traffice on a highwayUn reciente sondeo sobre los hábitos agresivos de conducir en Estados Unidos destacó una amplia variedad de actividades adoptadas por los conductores para ventilar su furia al volante. Algunos de estos malos hábitos incluyen el manejar demasiado cerca de otro automóvil, utilizar la bocina, hacer gestos obscenos, guiar a exceso de velocidad, entre otros. Las grandes zonas metropolitanas normalmente figuran entre los principales practicantes de la furia al volante. No obstante, muchos de nosotros nos hemos topado con estos conductores agresivos independientemente si vivimos en centros urbanos, en los suburbios o en áreas rurales. Mientras espero que nadie me vaya a negar que estos malos hábitos sean peligrosos, ofensivos y hasta ilegales, el mantener la calma y cordura al volante le permitirá ahorrar dinero y finalmente proteger el medio ambiente.

He aquí algunos consejos que le ayudarán a utilizar el combustible más eficientemente al manejar. En primer lugar, mantenga un paso estable al guiar. El proceso de acelerar y frenar repentinamente reduce el rendimiento del combustible hasta por un 33 por ciento. Al mantener las distracciones al mínimo usted puede controlar mejor el paso de su automóvil aún cuando el tránsito es pesado. Otro consejo—vaya al límite de velocidad indicado. Eso parece obvio, pero ¿sabía usted que la eficiencia de combustible se reduce drásticamente cuando acelera más de 60 millas por hora?

Además, mantenga su automóvil en buenas condiciones. Es importante hacer una revisión con regularidad de las condiciones de su automóvil para mejorar el rendimiento de la gasolina. Además no se olvide de mantener las llantas debidamente infladas. El inflar las llantas con el nivel adecuado de presión mejora el rendimiento de la gasolina y la duración de las mismas. También utilice el nivel de octanos adecuado cuando escoja la gasolina para mejorar el millaje. El manual de uso le brindará la información sobre el índice de octano de la gasolina para su automóvil, a menos que sea recomendado por el fabricante, el comprar una gasolina de un octano alto sería desperdiciar su dinero.

Como nos acercamos al fin de semana feriado del 4 de julio, hay muchos que usarán el automóvil para visitar familia y amistades o simplemente para pasar su momento de ocio al aire libre. Considere estos consejos para disfrutar su pasadía y proteger al Planeta Tierra también.

Sobre la autor: Lina M. F. Younes ha trabajado en la EPA desde el 2002 y está a cargo del Grupo de Trabajo sobre Comunicaciones Multilingües. Como periodista, dirigió la oficina en Washington de dos periódicos puertorriqueños y ha laborado en varias agencias gubernamentales.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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