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New York City's trash dilemmas—and opportunities

7 min read
fairly easy
Steven Cohen has been working to improve waste management both at the federal and local level for over 40 years.
Bags of trash and recycling spill out onto a New York City street. Credit: Jess Hawsor/Wikimedia Commons

Hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1980, at the inception of the agency's Superfund program, he helped develop policy to guide public awareness and input in the hazardous waste clean-up process.

For 12 years, Cohen was executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Currently, he is the senior vice dean of the university's School of Professional Studies.

In addition to being a lifelong New Yorker, Cohen has co-authored three books and authored numerous articles detailing New York City's solid waste management challenges and strategies since the closure of its last landfill, Fresh Kills, in 2001.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has seen increases in household garbage produced by New Yorkers under lockdown. Meanwhile, a pandemic-related city-budget shortfall resulted in a $106 million cut in the Department of Sanitation's budget that led to a city-wide waste pile-up.

I engaged Cohen in some "trash talk," discussing shifting trends in how the city has dealt with its garbage, and what could be done to equitably improve its environmental impact. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

When did you first notice that waste management was a problem in New York?

The section of Brooklyn where I'm from is called Flatlands, and a lot of Flatlands is actually landfill.

In fact, when I was growing up, there were two landfills still in Brooklyn: Fountain Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue. The reason they had to stop using them is that they had gotten so high, they were concerned it would interfere with navigation into Kennedy Airport.

When I was growing up, I saw those landfills. I would ride my bicycle along the Belt Parkway. There was a bike path, and you would see them getting higher and higher.

There was this story, I don't know if it was apocryphal, but the story was that astronauts could see two…
Russ Kuhner
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