USA

Croton-On-Hudson, New York, USA

Croton Point Park is iconic in Westchester County. A long walk out to the grassy and partially forested peninsula yields stunning views of the Hudson River, south to New York City and north to Bear Mountain. The park is home to bald eagles in the winter, public campgrounds in the summer, the famous annual Clearwater Festival, and also 8.8 million square meters of garbage.

From 1927 to 1986 Croton Point operated as a landfill, receiving waste from all over Westchester and eventually growing to 113 acres in size. Situating an above-ground dump on a river that flows directly into New York Harbor should have seemed rather a bad idea even 90 years ago, but the real marvel is its continued operation throughout eras of increased environmental regulation. It was finally closed just in time for the county to be simultaneously sued by the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and the federal government. In 1987 a federal judge called the site “an environmental time bomb.”

 

Croton Point Dump

 

In the mid-90’s the landfill was permanently capped and redeveloped into a park. Today, one of the park’s defining features is a vast, grassy, and slightly lumpy hill that rises into view from the paved entrance road. Under the natural-seeming earth lies 225,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel, followed by layers of plastic liner and geotextile fabric. Under that, you’d find insulating composite material and more than five miles of piping for gas extraction. Under that, finally, is the trash heap. But you wouldn’t know it. Spending $40 million over 3 years, the county built a system that prevents water from leaching into the landfill, keeps waste from leaking out, and collects gases released from decomposition, which are treated and used to fuel park facilities.

Saving Croton Point was a long, expensive and hostile political process that took decades to achieve success. But in the context of the 6,000+ MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) landfills in the US at the time, it was relatively low hanging fruit. It’s easier to mobilize resources towards rejuvenating places of exceptional scenic beauty like the Hudson River Valley; Easier to draw attention to a site that sits safely inside the New York metro area; Easier to find the money when the community in question is rapidly transforming from a majority working class to a solidly middle class town.

It would be irresponsible and short sighted to simply advocate for moving our landfills elsewhere when ‘elsewhere’ tends to mean poorer, more rural communities with fewer means to stand up for themselves. No matter where you put your garbage, there will be human, animal and plant life adversely affected by it.

The real question is: How can we waste less?

Here are some thoughts:

Biodegradable “plastic”

Alternatives to plastic that do not use oil based petrochemicals are already being developed and many are completely biodegradable. Even in communities that do not have accessible composting, the plant based materials present less of a problem than traditional plastic, especially as more municipalities elect to burn their waste.

Recycling electronic waste

Recycling e-waste is complicated, expensive and difficult to automate. Working and non-working parts need to be identified and separated, as do hazardous and non-hazardous materials. A lot of human labor is required to do this effectively. But it needs to be done. Governments need to set aside budget or else instate taxes on companies that produce electronics to cover the cost of recycling.

Source reduction

Many forms of industrial production can be modified to re-absorb many of their waste products. Internal recycling mechanisms are paying off for companies that have the capital to set up the proper framework.

Croton Point Park and the surrounding area has largely recovered from its 70 years as an active landfill, but if other places are to be so lucky, waste management cannot be a zero sum game with new landfills being opened as others close. Waste production must in fact go to zero.

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