Brookhaven Landfill’s Closure Could Trigger a Waste Crisis

by Liz Skolnick

The issue is hardly news to most Long Islanders, especially residents of Brookhaven: The town’s landfill, the last municipal landfill on the Island, is slated to close sometime between 2024 and 2025, precipitating what could prove to be a waste crisis for the whole island. Each year, it accepts approximately 2,000 tons of dredge spoil, 24,000 tons of street-sweeping refuse, 370,000 tons of incinerator ash, and more than 800,000 tons of construction and demolition debris generated throughout the Island from Brooklyn to East Hampton. In all, that’s well over a million tons.

As some may not know, continuing to bury trash (especially toxic incinerator ash and construction debris) on the island is not an option due to its potential to contaminate the island’s sole source aquifer. Indeed, a huge waste transport effort off the island is unavoidable. But at the moment, contemplating life after the closure conjures up visions of the L.I.E. clogged with 18-wheelers full of trash, creating a traffic-stopping bottleneck of massive proportions.

How to get the refuse off Long Island is a question that’s been plaguing Brookhaven town officials and environmental groups for quite some time. There have been calls for state agencies to “wake up” to the impending waste crisis and start planning. And yet nothing has been done; no grand plan has been unfurled.

We believe that the time to act is now. We propose—and many municipal officials, county legislators, and nonprofit groups agree—that Long Island establish a regional waste authority to replace the backwards and parochial patchwork of local waste departments that currently exists. With a deep understanding of challenges unique to the island, a regional authority could help tackle the problems of managing waste and recycling and assist with the transition during the landfill closure.

The trash hits the fan

Last year was a particularly trying time in the world of recycling. China, the largest importer of the U.S.’s recyclables for many years running, stepped up a massive crackdown on dirty materials and banned many recyclables outright. This dramatically affected the whole materials economy as U.S. recyclers frantically searched for new buyers for their scrap. Many stockpiled for as long as they could, but eventually were forced to send thousands of tons of valuable materials to landfill. It was a disaster that the country’s waste and recycling industry is only starting to address.

After the crisis hit, many residents of Brookhaven and other Long Island towns noticed some big changes in the way they recycle. Following costly investments in switching to single-stream recycling a few years back, some towns had to switch back to dual-stream sorting methods and drop glass from their collection entirely in an effort to get cleaner, more marketable materials. With so much extra stuff going into the landfill, this makes the need to find alternatives for waste disposal all the more urgent.

There have been calls to step up reuse, to recycle smarter and cleaner, and to press corporations for biodegradable packaging. These are all wonderful ideas and can cut down on waste when everyone pitches in. And on an island that increasingly relies on other regions to handle its trash—plus the environmental problems that go with it—one could argue we have an ethical duty to lighten the load. But the reality is, we will probably still have tons of waste that needs a good disposal option, even after fastidious recycling and reuse, as well as conscientious purchasing choices, are factored in.

When the Brookhaven landfill closes, where will that million-plus tons of waste go? The clock is ticking, and we have less time than ever to plan our way out of a crisis.

Weighing the options

There are a few ways to move materials off an island: by truck, by rail, and by barge.

Trucks currently transport off the island recyclables and waste that don’t make it into the Brookhaven landfill. But considering the volume of waste that Brookhaven currently handles, simply adding more trucks after it closes is not realistic. Rail and barge are options that have been discussed, though no decisive steps have been taken.

Creating a port and barge system for shipping trash comes with some challenges. Some public resistance likely stems from residual anxiety about the heavily reported “Garbage Barge” incident of 1987, in which a trash-laden barge set out from Islip and carried its decaying load from port to port, only to be turned away everywhere it went. Although the crisis arose from a confluence of forces, the garbage barge became a national symbol of American excess. In any event, it’s not clear whether any part of Long Island can host a port large enough to handle this volume of waste transfer. Some local officials say no—and they add that to call it a tough sell to the residents of any potential location would be an understatement.

Despite these concerns, using barges is a common practice in waste transport around the world, including right next door in New York City. The Islip garbage barge catastrophe was a result of poor planning, broken deals, and an overblown media frenzy, not of some inherent flaw in using barges as a mode of waste transport. In the face of the impending waste crisis, long-held prejudices and the outcry of NIMBY organizations might need to be set aside in favor of the greater good.

Rail has been considered more seriously in recent years. In 2017, Long Island Business News covered a test-run of transporting waste off the island via freight train. The project seemed ambitious but sound, perhaps offering a real solution for life after the landfill. But little has been heard about this since. As Will Flower, general manager of Winters Brothers Waste Systems, a private carter on Long Island, opined to Long Island Business News reporters “When you start thinking about rail movements, these are projects that aren’t built overnight ... they could be two-, three-, four-year projects, and they need to start today.” That was more than two years ago.

Whichever method Long Island chooses to send its waste away, it will likely take years of planning and construction of new infrastructure to get things prepared in time for the Brookhaven landfill’s closure. While the issue has been on the minds of many Long Islanders for some time now, we’ve seen very little public discourse about the nuts and bolts of new waste planning. As time runs out, continuing the status quo will become impossible.

At the moment, we have more questions than answers, but one thing is certain: It’s time to plan intelligently, and act swiftly. The crisis point is around the corner, and it’s too big to be solved by many insular and disparate municipal sanitation departments, as the lack of movement on this issue has shown. We need the kind of focused, consolidated effort that only a Long Island regional waste authority could provide.   

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