Pollution close to Home

By: Alex Gonzalez

Often times, when people talk about pollution I think they jump to things that seem far away and almost out of reach like air pollution and wads of garbage floating somewhere off the coast of Antarctica or California. Distancing ourselves from the issue as if it is not a result of our own behavior. To reference my last blog post, less than 50% of people in the U.S. believe climate change will affect them. Part of this has to do with our lack of recognition for the little things we do in our everyday lives that contribute to the larger problem of global pollution. An example of this that is ever present in New York City is litter and the overflowing trash bins that have become a part of our everyday lives.

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For starters, a few facts about trash in NYC (from Grow NYC). GrowNYC is a sustainability resource for New Yorkers. They provide free tools and services anyone can use in order to improve our City and environment. The following facts are provided on their site:

  • New York City has no landfills or incinerators, yet residents produce 12,000 tons of waste every day.
  • The United States produces 33% of the world’s solid waste, with 4.6% of the global population.
  • 80% of US products are used once and then thrown away.
  • New York City residents currently recycle only about 17% of their total waste–half of what they could be recycling under the current program.
  • 7.5% of our waste stream consists of plastic film such as supermarket bags.
  • Exporting our garbage to other communities cost New York City taxpayers $290 million in 2007.  This does not include the cost of collection.

According the NY Times, “The Sanitation Department spent $58.2 million to clean streets last year, up from $49.5 million the year before.” It goes without saying we have a trash problem, but what is the city doing about it? Preventive policy and laws are currently in place to try and ameliorate the effects of litter and trash pollution in the city. Litter is something we consider to be a cumulative harm. A cumulative harm is something that might not affect us much when done in small numbers, but as more and more accumulates the harm becomes more prominent. If only one person in the city of the New York chose to litter today, I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog about this. However, much more than one person decided to litter today and we can be almost certain of that because of how our city looks each day. Just like if one company was emitting carbon into the atmosphere, but none others were, then we would for sure have less of a problem with air pollution. It is the mass participation in pollution that makes the negative effects so detrimental to our society. This accumulation of litter and waste here, across the country and around in the world is what makes trash disposal such a crucial issue in understanding sustainability and pollution.

Here are two example of NY state laws that work to curb littering from the National Conference of State Legislatures:
N.Y. Vehicle and Transit Law §1220 (Littering on highways and adjacent lands) First conviction: fine up to $350 and/or a requirement to perform services for a public or not-for-profit corporation, association, institution or agency not to exceed 10 hours. Subsequent convictions:  fine up to $700 and/or a requirement to perform services for a public or not-for-profit corporation, association, institution or agency not to exceed 15 hours.
N.Y. Railroad Law §52-e (Littering on railway or subway tracks) First conviction: fine up to $250 and/or community service for up to eight hours. Subsequent convictions punishable by a fine up to $500 and/or community service for up to eight hours. Fines are deposited in the New York subway littering prevention fund.

New York City itself has an extensive list of codes and violations on littering you can check out here: http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/dsny/about/laws/cleaning-laws.shtml

You’ll notice that all of these laws involve perpetrators paying a fine for having done the crime. It is the city and state’s hope that these steep fines will deter people from littering, however as citizens of New York we know that this offense is not being pursued by police as a real issue. Which we can argue isn’t a bad thing because police might unfairly target certain members of our community and burden them with fines they cannot pay, but then we must adapt these laws and our system to stop the litter before it happens. We can do this pay eliminating the use of plastic bags citywide or increasing a hefty bag tax. We can put more trash receptacles on every corner so that no one will have to think twice about how to dispose of their garbage. We can offer recycling incentives in tax breaks and monetary compensation to businesses who recycle and promote recycling. The result of green policies like these would work to actively stop litter pollution and therefore are crucial for us in the coming years.

New York’s Growth Can be Measured in Trash Bags https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/06/nyregion/new-yorks-growth-can-be-measured-in-trash-bags.html

New York Today Complaints of Dirty Streets https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/20/nyregion/new-york-today-complaints-of-dirty-streets.html

Recycling Facts from GrowNYC https://www.grownyc.org/recycling/facts

States with Littering Penalties http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/states-with-littering-penalties.aspx

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