A Plan for Planning

by Richard Clark

We in Albany County don’t know what to do about the disposal of solid waste.  Mayor Gerald Jennings would rather not expand the Rapp Road landfill on land dedicated to the Pine Bush Preserve Commission, but he desperately needs the money and the jobs that landfill generates.  He argues that time is running out.  We have no better choice than to ask the Department of Environmental Conservation for the fourth time for permission to expand.  He gives no reason to expect that this new request to expand will be the last.

Save the Pine Bush has opposed each of the previous expansions, and they oppose this one.  They point to the unique ecology of the Pine Bush, the endangered species threatened, the danger of a landfill on top of an aquifer, the failure to keep past promises.  Members of the Albany Common Council are divided and ambivalent.  They would prefer not to further violate the Pine Bush. They would prefer the city of Albany keep past promises.  At the same time, they don’t want to be responsible for the loss of precious jobs and a huge increase in local taxes and they don’t see viable alternatives.

So where do we go from here?  I think that all concerned need to put aside all presuppositions, sit down together, and review the whole issue.   We need to recognize that answers won’t be easy, but we won’t find them if we don’t look. Mayor Jennings seems open to at least reviewing the issue.  Members of the Common Council and Save the Pine Bush are on record in support of a systematic planning effort.  The time seems ripe to set up and implement a scheme to examine our solid waste problem, look at our current practices, and look for the best possible solutions.  We need to start this process by seeing what we can agree on.   

In Albany we seem to generate about as much trash as other Americans.  We probably contribute about our share of the 4.6 pounds per person per day that is cited as the national average.  We have separated the problem of hazardous waste from the problem of solid waste.  Albany recycles about 30 per cent of its waste, a rate much higher than a decade ago.  The Rapp Road landfill serves a regional need.  Much of the trash that goes to Rapp Road is gathered by a variety of private contractors from surrounding area.  These contractors charge of each collect of trash and pay for each ton that goes to Rapp Road.  The companies make a profit and so does the city of Albany.  A small amount of the revenue collected is passed on to the Pine Bush Preserve Commission.

Ten town and villages around Albany also pay Albany for using Rapp Road.   These ten communities are technically part of something called ANSWERS.  These communities originally came together when a waste to energy facility was built in Albany.  Almost everyone agrees the ANSWERS plant was a disaster.  It smelled when it shouldn’t have smelled, polluted when it shouldn’t have polluted.   Fingers point in many directions as to why the ANSWERS plant failed but no one contends it worked as advertised.

Everyone agrees that Rapp Road generates a profit for the city of Albany currently estimated at close to 14 million dollars a year.  No one has suggested where communities in the surrounding area would take their trash if Rapp Road were not available.  Figures on just how much trash Rapp Road handles are less precise.  In the proposal to expand Rapp Road, Albany estimates they will dispose of 21,000 tons of solid waste per month.

Planners need to know more about the money details of the current solid waste disposal situation.  The total revenue of almost 14 million dollars generated by Rapp Road is an often reported number reflected in the city of Albany budget.  Just where does this money come from and how much comes from each source?  The bulk of the revenue comes directly from private contractors who use the Rapp Road facility, but the money comes first from residents and businesses in the surrounding communities that contract with these private contractors.  The city of Albany does not charge residents for disposing of solid waste.  Surrounding communities pay Albany for using Rapp Road.  A small amount of revenue is received from recycling sales and from dump permits.  All of this information should be reviewed and made available to those considering the problem.

Planners also need to know about the sources of the solid waste that come into Rapp Road.  How much is generated by businesses, by curbside pickup, by local colleges and universities? What wastes are generated?  How much comes from paper products?  How much from various metals?  How much that comes into Rapp Road could potentially be recycled?  Some communities do much better than Albany’s recycle rate of about 30%.  How do they do it?  Are we doing as much as we can to encourage recycling?  What are we currently doing and how effective are our present efforts? Other communities know the answers to such questions. 

As we start a planning process we need to decide who should be involved and how the process gets started.  Authorities on planning talk about “stake holders.”    The city of Albany currently plays a major stake in the issue.  Certainly city officials and members of the Common Council need to embrace open and candid planning and be represented in the process.  The Solid Waste Management plan now in place was developed by cooperative planning involving the surrounding communities that were part of ANSWERS.  These communities need to be represented in rethinking what we are now doing.  The communities in ANSWERS are scattered across Albany County.  County government should be represented.  Save the Pine Bush, the Nature Conservancy, the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission belongs on the stakeholder list.

A planning process won’t start by itself.  Someone has to ask stakeholders to take part in the process, develop a charge for the planning group, set at least a tentative timetable, solicit at least beginning leadership, and arrange venue.  Who should take on this pre planning responsibility?  I have suggested to Mayor Jennings and to the Honorable Shawn Morris, President of the Albany Common Council, that they take responsibility.  I have not yet received a response to this suggestion…

The charge given a planning group will be critical.  The charge should be broad.  Planners need to consider at least ecological issues, potential health issues, and economic issues. 

Expert opinion should be sought and should be valued, but we should not expect experts to be unanimous.  Valid information in this area changes very quickly.  For example, Jack Lauber advocated Waste to Energy in a recent talk to Save the Pine Bush.  Technology has changed so much that critiques of Waste to Energy in the 1980’s may no longer be relevant.  On the other side of the coin, evidence mounts that what seemed safe in the past really wasn’t safe.  What the Department of Environmental Conservation approved in the 1980’s should not necessarily be approved today. 

 Planners can benefit from knowing as much as possible about what is working in other communities and in other countries.  Some communities have been successful in making solid waste disposal a significant local issue, discussed in schools, churches, and other forums.  Other communities have made great strides in “source reduction” as they focus on ways to get their citizens to reuse or not use in the first place.  Germany levies a tax at purchase to cover the cost of disposing of the product purchased.  Swedes generate less than half the amount of solid waste as we do. 

Various economic issues will take a large amount of planning time.  Attention needs to given to a growing literature on “total cost accounting.”  We pay for everything we dispose of.  If we use total cost accounting we consider the cost of disposing as part of the cost of the product.  Countries such as Germany add disposal cost to the initial price of a product.  Such procedures sometimes make repairing a product cheaper than junking it.  An increasing number of corporations are now marketing products designed to decompose quickly and safely.  These products may cost a little more to purchase but considerably less in the long run.

Some communities across the United States have out-sourced their solid waste disposal plan to private enterprise.  An increasing number of companies are bidding to take on this responsibility.  Some argue that out-sourcing loses local control and costs more.   Others contend that private enterprise is more efficient than entities such as the city of Albany.  A planning group should consider the alternatives without prejudging the answer.

Plans that work well almost always have enlisted a great deal of public support and public interest.  Planners need to look at how public support has been fostered.  Education seems to be part of the answer.  Some public and private schools have incorporated solid waste issues into curriculum.   Students study economic, political, scientific, and ecological issues that are involved.  As part of their study, students may attend meetings of such groups of the Common Council and explore such areas as the Pine Bush.  When students are involved parents may also be involved.  Newspapers have published the best ideas generated by students.

None of us should expect to be completely satisfied with the final product of a comprehensive planning effort.  At best, we should feel the process was open, many points of were heard and considered, and that we are better off than when we started.

Mr. Clark lives in the Pine Bush in Avila, and wrote this article for the newsletter. SPB welcomes contributions to the newsletter.

Printed in the May/June 06 newsletter