A few weeks ago, I got a chance to visit the brand new DSNY Manhattan 1/2/5 Sanitation Garage with Open House New York. The multilevel building houses three different garages, one each for Manhattan districts 1, 2, and 5. Each garage has its own floor, and there is a shared area for vehicle repairs. The building has LEED certification and includes many green features including a wonderful green roof also. Across the street is a salt shed built to resemble salt crystals. Both the garage and salt shed have really nice, innovative architecture.
Last week, I finally got the chance to tour Treasure in the Trash, a collection I had heard about a few years back and was obsessed with touring ever since. Treasure in the Trash is a collection of items that former Department of Sanitation of New York worker Nelson Molina found in the trash as he worked his route picking up trash. Only a very small percentage of items in the collection were found by someone else. Also, Mr. Molina worked in the same garage, the M11, during his career, so almost all the items are from the same area in east Manhattan. The collection is housed on the second floor of the M11 garage, which for structural reasons can no longer be used for vehicles (vehicles on only park on the first floor now), so the collection has expanded in the void.
Once trash is put on the curb, it is property of the city. Mr. Molina picked items out of the trash, but as the items were kept in the garage, he never kept them, so he never violated any rules. He would have had to have stopped his habit of picking items out of the trash if it had ever slowed him down on his route. However he clearly is fast in his work, and he is also seriously skilled at knowing which bags might contain items of interest for the collection. He was present during our tour, and he told us that his picking habit started when he was a child, and it clearly is a skill. While it would be easy to find the larger items to pick, we were all amazed at how he found some of the small items that were in bags.
Mr. Molina not only created the collection, but he curates it. The items were all arranged in collections of sorts. He retired from DSNY, but he still comes by the garage often to curate the collection. The collections are well done and arranged. I also enjoyed how he prominently displayed a poster for Open House New York, which arranged the tour, and a poster from the City of New York telling people to “Recycle More, Waste Less!”
The collection is amazing in its diversity, but it is really a statement about what we as a society throw away. So many things we buy now are “disposable” with the resources used to make them then just put into the trash when no longer desirable or useful. However with so many items, there are still resources that could be saved from the discarded item, if the item was discarded correctly. However in most places, it is difficult to discard of an item in a way that the resources could be retrieved from them. For example, metal recycling exists, but it is not always easy to get an item to a metal recycler. If you can though, you can actually make money from getting the metal to a recycler, like I did when I was renovating my house. [Side note: I don’t know the precise amount, but a decent amount of New York trash goes to Covanta Waste to Energy incinerators. After the trash is burned, Covanta’s process does capture metals to then send for scrap. However burning metals lowers the efficiency of the incinerator.]
Some of the metal in the collection though, like many other items in the collection, look like something, that someone else would eagerly buy. Some of the jewelry, china, and glass looked if not really valuable, good enough that someone would happily buy at a thrift store or on eBay.
Seriously, much of the collection features items that are the reason eBay was created and continues to thrive.
Then there are other collections that feature items that would be right at home in a museum of some type.
Then there were the items like old televisions, phones, and other electronics, that not only contain valuable resources like rare earth metals but also contain material, including those same rare earth metals, that are hazardous if they get into the environment. With most modern technology hardware, retrieving those valuable resources is difficult because of the way the items are constructed. Further, often the items are sent to developing nations, where people retrieve the valuable material to sell, but they work in ways that is dangerous to their own health.
Other items are funny, random, and weird. Some items made me wonder why someone had the item to begin with. Other items made me sad, like a cross stitch that featured what was clearly a bride and groom and said “Yvette and Lance – March 16, 2007.” I am just guessing Yvette and Lance’s marriage did not make it.
Then there was this gem that welcomes you as you walk up the stairs to Treasure in the Trash.
The place was amazing. If you ever get the chance, go tour it. Also, many thanks to Open House New York for arranging the tour, DSNY for letting us in, Nelson Molina for talking about the collection, and Robin Nagle, DSNY’s anthropologist in residence, for her introduction to the collection and whose book “Picking Up” about DSNY is well worth the read.
This past weekend, I got to check an item off my bucket list when I got a tour of Freshkills, the former landfill that is being turned into a park. This is probably not an item on most people’s bucket list, but I have heard so much about the landfill that when I found out New York City Parks Department gives tours, I jumped to sign up. The vast majority of the landfill has been fully capped and vegetated. The mounds are dotted by the landfill gas collection system with gas wells popping up from the high grass at regular intervals. The wildlife has already moved in. There were butterflies flying everywhere in the grass, and birds were everywhere. We also saw a family of deer. The wetlands are lovely and evidently filled with wildlife. Also, the view from the top of the mounds is spectacular. It will be a while before the area will be completely converted to a park and open to the public, but the transformation already is incredible. As an environmental engineer, I am incredibly happy to see it and proud of my profession that did it.
I went on a hike along Coney Island Creek with Atlas Obscura and Underwater New York to see its virtual ship graveyard. The tour did not disappoint. There were a multitude of shipwrecks, including the famous yellow submarine. We walked along the shore during high tide. The shore was quite mucky, and I was thankful for my waterproof hiking boots, while trying not to think about what was in that muck. There was lots of algae and seaweed of some type. We spotted a few fishermen and men who appeared to be hunting for oysters or clams or sometime of shellfish (are they called fishermen also?). I have serious doubts the fish are safe to eat on a regular basis, simply based on the history of pollution in that area. I can only hope I am wrong for their sake.
I subscribe to my county’s weekly police report just in case there might be crime in my area I want to know about. I don’t live in a high crime area, so normally the police report is a bunch of car break-ins and drunks in the bar area of town. Today though I found this interesting report.
“MISSILE INTO AN OCCUPIED DWELLING, [location of incident]. On January 18 at approximately 6:51 p.m., a resident reported a known suspect threw a brick and rock into her residence, shattering two windows. [Suspect name] was arrested and charged with missile into an occupied dwelling, destruction of property, drunk in public and violation of protection order.”
What I found interesting is that legally speaking, a brick and/or a rock is considered a missile. To me this is another reason why rocket science should not be the go to science and engineering field for things that are hard. I hate the phrase “it’s not rocket science” with a passion. Rocket science is not that hard. It involves controlled combustion and trajectory. Missiles, a term which is generally used to mean a rocket that will cause destruction, is quite frankly easy. Science fields that are hard involve things that can’t be controlled near as easy as rockets, like biological systems, like fields trying to predict what stupid humans will do, like basic science where we are still trying to understand all the forces involved. You try doing an environmental and human health risk assessment on a hazardous waste site where toxicologists are unsure what level of exposure to a contaminant is acceptable, where you can’t be completely sure what humans will really be doing and for how long at a site, where people want to know they will be not be subject to undue risk for the next 70 years, and where you can’t be absolutely, completely positive just how much of each contaminant is there, but the polluters don’t want to clean up more than necessary. Then come talk to me about how hard rocket science is.
In summary, as evidenced by this police report, missiles are easy. Rockets are easy. Stop comparing things you think are hard to rocket science.
I was planning to come to New York for the weekend, and by pure chance this was the weekend Christopher Swain announced he was going to attempt to swim the Gowanus Canal again. He tried in April but the threat of rain and then actual lightning, which caused the New York Police Department (NYPD) to order him out of the canal, prevented him from swimming the entire length. This time he was successful. He said he did it to raise awareness of the pollution of the Gowanus Canal. When being interviewed by reporters, he said he was concerned this would be perceived as a stunt. He said they would actually be collecting data that would be given to school kids, so they could help solve the problems affecting the Gowanus.
As an environmentalist, I appreciate him bringing awareness to the plight of the Gowanus. I even appreciate him wanting to bring awareness to school kids. Honestly though, as an environmental engineer, who works in the field of cleaning up hazardous waste sites, I can’t see what he is doing as anything other than a stunt. I seriously can’t think of any information he could gather that couldn’t be gathered from a person in a boat, a person who would not be exposing herself or himself to the risk that Mr. Swain is. At one point, Mr. Swain stopped swimming to collect data and told anyone listening that the water had a temperature of 64ºF and had a pH of 7.5. He started by saying “for the scientists out there” and then said he wished he had studied science harder or something to that effect. First, both those two pieces of data could easily be collected from a boat. Second, neither of those pieces of data tell me anything about the state of the Gowanus. The temperature just reflects that it is fall, and a pH of 7.5 is close to neutral and what is expected for a body of water. [Yes, thermal pollution, where water that is too hot is released into a body of water, is a thing that can affect water bodies because hot water has less oxygen, and the reduced oxygen would affect any wildlife in the water, but it is not a concern for the Gownaus.]
Also, I fail to see what school kids are going to do to help solve the problem. I completely agree in bringing awareness of environmental issues to children, but it is environmental professionals and perhaps community organizers who are going to solve the pollution problem with the Gowanus. The Gowanus has two main issues. First, it has hazardous pollution from years past that needs to be cleaned up. This is where the US EPA and Superfund comes in. Hazardous waste includes PCBs, heavy metals, and whatever other fun chemicals might be polluting the canal. Second, it has wastewater pollution from the past and current that needs to be cleaned up. New York City, like many old cites, has a combined wastewater system. This means that wastewater, the stuff that flows from your toilet and sink drain, and stormwater, the stuff from street drains, flows to the same destination. When it is not raining, it is not an issue. The wastewater all flows to various wastewater treatment plants where it is treated before being released to a river or ocean. During rain events, there can be a problem because the wastewater treatment plant may not be able to handle all the water flowing to it. In this case, untreated wastewater is generally directed to some location (technical term is outfall) where it enters a body of water, like the Gowanus. This is actually the main immediate risk to Mr. Swain. Most of the hazardous pollution is in the sediment at the bottom of the canal, and drinking one mouthful of the Gowanus water probably will not kill you, in terms of the hazardous chemicals, or at least not immediately. [DO NOT TRY THIS. THIS IS AN EDUCATED GUESS.] However, because of the untreated wastewater that flows into the Gowanus, the canal has a lovely concoction of viruses, bacteria, and who knows what other pathogens having their own little party. This would be my more immediate concern for him or anyone else who might accidentally ingest Gowanus Canal water, getting an infection of who knows what pathogen. [According to news reports I’ve seen, after the swim, he stated that he swallowed three mouthfuls. My advice is to go see a medical doctor.] It is also not clear to me if there is other pollution concerns to Gowanus, like outfalls from nearby business or stormwater from the nearby area that may contain things they shouldn’t.
The Gowanus Canal absolutely needs to be cleaned up, and regulatory authorities and the community are already working on it. It may not be proceeding at the speed Mr. Swain and the community would like. I completely understand that. Cleanups, such as the Gowanus Canal, take time and money. It takes professionals, the regulatory authorities, the groups being regulated, and the community to determine the best path forward. Unfortunately, it generally takes patience also. My completely biased opinion is that not enough money is dedicated by politicians to cleaning up all the different pollution in this country. Hence even more patience is needed. One final note, in all the news reports, Mr. Swain and the reporters keep making reference to the Gowanus Canal being a Superfund site. It is, but the issue of untreated wastewater being released into the canal and causing, in my opinion, the more immediate risk to him or anyone else who wants to go for a dip, does not normally fall under Superfund regulation. Superfund (aka CERCLA) regulates hazardous waste, and pathogens are not hazardous waste. However, when the U.S. EPA finalized the Record of Decision for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site, they did require the City to build two very large tunnels to capture combined sewer overflow during rain events. [Edited to correct my statements regarding Superfund and the untreated wastewater contamination.]
Newtown Creek is a natural creek that now resembles more of an industrial waterway and serves as a divider between Brooklyn and Queens in New York. I recently got a boat tour of it through Open House NY with superb guides from Newtown Creek Alliance and was able to see all the industrial facilities that are on it as well as a few places where its natural state is peaking through. Newtown Creek is heavily polluted because of New York City’s combined sanitary wastewater and stormwater system, which has led to untreated wastewater flowing into the creek during heavy rain events, and also industrial pollution, which has led to it being a Superfund site. A trip down Newtown Creek is almost history lesson down NYC’s past with some historic sites still visible like an old Standard Oil building. More modern parts of NYC also lie on the creek, most famously the newly redesigned and rebuilt Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and its eight stainless steel digester eggs.
I got the chance to tour New York City’s brand new Hamilton Avenue Marine Transfer Station. It is scheduled to open next year and is located on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. It will be the transfer point for household waste from ten Brooklyn community boards. It is the first marine transfer station there. All other waste is moved on trucks and rail. It is very impressive. Once operational, it will operate 24 hours a day and six days a week (no Sundays). Currently waste from the area goes to waste to energy incinerators. There will be 12 sanitation workers per shift plus one supervisor.
Trucks enter the building and are first weighed on a scale.
Once inside the building, the trucks back up to the edge of the floor and lower their trash onto the mixing floor below.
Front loaders and other equipment on the floor below are used to push the waste through openings in the floor into containers waiting below the mixing floor.
The openings in the mixing floor are only as big as the standard containers that will accept the waste. The station aims to put 20 tons of waste in each container.
Once the container is full, equipment is then used to place a top on the waste container.
The containers are moved the loading area to the topping area to the storage area on rails.
Cranes that are also on rails are used to move the containers from the building to stacking areas to finally the barge.
There are two cranes, but for safety, only one is used at a time. The other one is a backup during maintenance.
Recently for work I got to help out in the field taking samples to quantify environmental contamination. Some of the samples we were taking were fish tissue to measure the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) in them. The fish live in a river that was contaminated decades ago. The sampling results will be used for fish advisories and also to determine a clean up plan.
Sampling fish starts with the really fun part, which is cruising on a small electrofishing boat. Electroshocking the fish allows you to catch them alive and throw back any fish we didn’t want. We had target fish we were trying to catch to sample, and those were the only ones we kept, and we only the number of target fish we needed. The electroshock sort of stuns the fish but doesn’t kill them. The electrofishing boat has two long poles with anode wires hanging off of them protruding from the front of the boat. There were more wires hanging from the bow of the boat, and those are the cathodes. The electricity flows from the anodes to the cathodes. We stood at the front of the boat in rubber soled boots with nets extended waiting to catch any fish stunned by the electroshocking. Netting electroshocked fish is not actually as easy as it sounds. Some of the fish are more stunned than others, so some fish seem slightly confused but then swim away. Also, some were stunned but at a depth too low or cloudy for us to catch or see. According to the boat’s captain, the water had really low conductivity, which was making it difficult. Since we had target fish we were trying to catch, I, naturally, kept catching fish we didn’t want. I threw a lot of fish back. Still, a day on a boat catching or not catching fish was a wonderful change from the cubical I normally work in. Also, I learned that you really need polarized sunglasses when out on the water.
Once we got the fish to shore, the biologist took over. The fish were weighed and their length measured. He took a a sample of their scales from a standard location, and those scales were going to be used by a laboratory to determine their age. Evidently scales can be used to age fish in the same manner tree rings age trees. WARNING: If you are uncomfortable looking at the insides of fish, do not read any further. You should probably not eat fish also, if you can’t look at an uncooked one.
The rest of the scales were then scraped off. The fish were then cut. Only the fillets were used for sampling. The part of the fish used for sampling can differ depending on what the exposure pathway being examined is. We took two different parts: the filet, which represents what a human would normally eat, and also the fillet with rib meat. The rib meat is normally not eaten, but it would have more PCBs in it, so using it in the sample would represent a worse case scenario for a human consuming fish.
I also learned a bit of fish anatomy during the sampling. The biologist was also sexing the fish.
We weren’t necropsying the fish, but we still got a look inside, including sometimes as to what it had eaten recently.
We sampled quite a few fish, but it was for science and to benefit the community.
Last week I got the chance to tour a waste to energy plant. The plant receives non-hazardous, household garbage from municipalities, consumer businesses, government agencies, and international ports. It burns the waste and converts the energy given off during the burning to electricity, which is then put into the power grid. Some of the waste that comes from government agencies need secure destruction, and at the plant, the waste is put directly into the feed stream and burned, so as to allow the needed secure destruction. The waste from international ports, such as nearby airports, must be burned to prevent any pathogens entering the country that may affect agriculture, and so it also is fed directly to the feed stream. Interestingly, the municipalities that send waste to the plant discourage their residents from putting yard waste into the trash. Besides being environmentally unfriendly because yard waste can be composted and nutrients returned to the earth, the yard waste is also not good for the waste to energy process because it produces nitrogen oxides (NOx), which forces the plant to put in more pollution control.
There are 88 waste to energy plants in the US, and 45-46 are Covanta’s, the owner and operator of this plant that I toured. The plant receives about 1000 tons garbage/day and after burning it, produces about 300 tons ash/day, which is 10-15% fly ash and the rest bottom ash. Thus, the plant achieves about a 70% weight reduction and also a 90% volume reduction. The fly ash is sent to monofill, which is like a landfill but only accepts fly ash. Fly ash can be used in making concrete, so evidently there is currently research being done by both the concrete industry and various waste to energy plants as to if this fly ash can be used for concrete and thus also be reused.
With the exception of the trash that has to go directly into the feed, when it first comes to the plant, the trash is placed on floor where humans look at trash to remove anything that should not be going into the boiler. For example, inert material shouldn’t go into the boiler because not only does it not burn, it is also a heat sink and reduces the efficiency of the process. The trash is then put into a storage pile to be eventually fed into the boiler feed. A large claw moves the trash to piles, mixes the piles, and then moves trash from the piles into the boiler feed.
The trash is sent to one of three boilers, each of which has six cells. The boilers burn the trash at 1800-2000°F (1300K). The boilers are initially heated up with diesel fuel, but then the trash sustains the burn. However everyday diesel fuel is used to test the burn.
The heat from the boilers is used to heat water to turn it into steam. The water is in a closed loop system, but they use about 20-25,000 gallons of water per day due to loss. [They use another 200,000 gallons/day for the cooling tower and are exploring with the nearby wastewater treatment plant using treated wastewater for this.] The water goes through a reverse osmosis treatment for purity, so nothing damages the turbines and the rest of the system. The produced steam is superheated but drops to 700°F before entering the turbines. There are two turbines with 14 stages. The steam turns the turbines, and that motion is converted into electricity in the generator. They produce 14.5 MW per turbine. Because of the work the steam does on the turbine, the steam enters the turbine at 600 psi and leaves in vacuum in a 10 ft length.
All the gases that leave the boiler pass through a series of air pollution control units. Ammonia, lime slurry, and carbon are used for pollution control. There are probes in the system to sample flue gas for pollution control additives that are needed. The treated gas then goes to a baghouse where particulates are captured. The air is below 300°F before going into baghouse, so it has cooled quite a bit.
The ash from the boiler is sent through a unit to remove all metals. The ferrous metals (attracted to magnets) are separated from the rest of the metals, and all the metals are sold for scrap.
The whole process is monitored in a control room by one or two people. I was amazed at how simple the process was. I, the environmental engineer, was of course geeking out at the whole thing, but it was a really cool process and efficiently run.
Finally here is a very short video of a few scenes from the plant. This includes waste being loaded into the feed, the fire in the boiler, and bottom ash entering the metals separator.