In March, as part of the continuing implementation of its landmark 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), New York City began shipping residential waste from north Brooklyn to out-of-state landfills via rail instead of trucks. For the time being, officials say, residential waste from the borough's southern half will continue to arrive at disposal sites by truck.

The city has signed a 30-year contract with Houston-based Waste Management to load north Brooklyn's waste onto rail cars at the firm's newly renovated transfer station in the Williamsburg neighborhood of the borough.

The SWMP, passed in July 2006, aims to eventually export 87 percent of the city's residential waste by either rail or barge; when the plan was adopted, only about 16 percent of the trash was exported by those methods. Currently, about 33 percent is sent to landfills by rail or barge.

One of the goals of the plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. City officials estimate that when fully implemented, the plan will reduce travel by sanitation trucks by about 2.7 million miles per year, and travel by tractor-trailer trucks by nearly 3 million miles per year.

“The city made a conscious decision to go away from the cheaper, existing method in favor of a plan focused on more long-term benefits,” says Walter Czwartacky, director of special projects for the Department of Sanitation of New York's (DSNY) Bureau of Long-Term Export. Other boroughs have already made the switch. The Bronx, which exports approximately 2,100 tons of solid waste each day, uses trains to ship its waste to landfills, as does Staten Island.

George McGrath, a spokesperson for Waste Management New York, says the hauler looks forward to helping the city reach the goals laid out in the SWMP. “I think you're going to see this company be an active partner with them to convert even more facilities over the next two or three years,” he says.

The firm's Varick I transfer station in Williamsburg, which receives an average of 950 tons of trash each day, was redesigned to have all of its equipment operate indoors. The facility used outside equipment for truck transportation.

At the site, waste is loaded into rail containers, each holding approximately 18 tons. Once sealed, the containers are placed onto rail cars at the adjoining rail yard.

“By exporting 950 tons of residential and municipal waste per day by rail, we're eliminating more than 40 long-haul tractor trailer trips each day — or about 13,000 trips per year,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a press release. “That's not only going to help reduce congestion on the borough's streets and highways, it also will reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions and improve the air we breathe.”

The city pays $124 per ton to ship trash to disposal sites in Virginia and South Carolina via rail. That's considerably higher than the $92.50 per ton it paid to transport waste to much closer sites in Pennsylvania by truck. But Czwartacky argues the long-term benefits outweigh the cost increase when one considers the likelihood of rising diesel fuel prices, the capacity concerns surrounding landfills that used to receive the city's trash via trucks and the reduced impact on the environment that the plan will provide.

The next step in the SWMP, Czwartacky says, is to begin a three-year construction project in June or July on a $125 million, three-level, marine transfer facility in College Point. “The [SWMP] has revolutionized the way our city handles its solid waste,” said John Doherty, DSNY commissioner, in a press release.

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