The NYC Department of Sanitation Association

By Lizette van Hecke

The young valet adjusted his bow tie while he stared into the dark night. He stood underneath the awning and watched the rain fall on the asphalt of the parking lot until a polished black stretch limousine pulled up in front of the yellow marble steps. The valet jumped up and over a puddle to open the car door and escort the guests up the steps.

El Caribe Country Club, on the southern edge of Brooklyn, was festively lit with what seemed to be millions of tiny Christmas lights that reflected gently on the valet’s big black umbrella. The formally dressed men and women did not even seem to notice the rain as they marveled at the decorations and entered the building.

Inside, a team of smiling organizers took everyone’s coats and handed out table numbers and a program for the evening; cocktails at seven, dinner at nine, speeches at ten and dancing at eleven.

At least 400 people came out to NYC Department of Sanitation Columbia Association’s 43rd annual dinner dance that night to enjoy the abundant free drinks and different kinds of Italian delicacies.

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Stalking Garbage

Chasing TruckBy Clare Trapasso

The garbage truck speeds up and I begin to run. I race down the sidewalk of the Lower East Side weaving through pedestrians. I’m stopped by a light, cars zoom by in front of me and the thundering truck turns left a block away from where I am standing. I should have known they were trying to lose me after the driver flashed me a sardonic smile and waved. I just didn’t think he’d slam on the gas pedal so forcefully .

I’m trying to follow the trail of trash by foot, train and taxi — from the moment New York City Department of Sanitation workers pick up the garbage on the curb outside of my apartment until it reaches its final destination, the Covanta Essex Facility in Newark, New Jersey. There it will be stuffed into a boiler and used to fuel the production of electricity.

My journey started around 7:40 a.m. when a garbage truck rumbled by. Johnny, a thin fellow with a thick, brown mustache, gets out of the white Department of Sanitation vehicle and starts hauling the plump, black garbage bags over his shoulder to the truck. When I tell him I plan to follow the truck on foot, he seems relieved to have some company. He’s been doing this for over 20 years

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Recycling Theft

Recycling scavengerBy Anne Noyes

One night last fall Carmen Cognetta was driving in search of a parking spot in the East 90s but kept getting held up by slow-moving trucks in front of him. The trucks were lurching down side streets, stopping every few yards to allow their passengers to jump out and pick up huge bundles of paper and cardboard that had been placed curbside for recycling.

Cognetta, who serves as counsel to the City Council’s Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee, knew the trucks weren’t supposed to be taking the paper. By law, the City of New York Department of Sanitation owns all recyclables that have been placed on the curb for pickup.

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Garbage electricityBy Cynthia Allen

The lobby of Supreme Computer Recycling, Inc. in Lakewood, NJ is posh. At the industrial park in Ocean County, New Jersey, most of the neighboring companies have modest buildings. But here the floor of the lobby is made of brown and white marble. Dark brown, leather couches surround a coffee table, creating a sitting area decorated with live plants. A 42” plasma-screen television hangs on one of the mahogany-paneled walls.

An elaborate presentation plays on the TV. It is highlighting the dangers of electronic waste—toxic chemicals inside computers and monitors that leak lead, mercury and cadmium into the water and food supply. “We just recently re-did the whole operations side of the warehouse,” says Mitchell Runko, Director of Operations. “Everything is top of the line.”

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Fresh Kills

covanta-essex-facility-tipping-floor-best-shot-by-clare-trapasso.jpgBy Michael Luke

On the western edge of Staten Island is the hamlet of Travis, population of approximately 2,000. Travis exudes small-town America, a hidden spot tucked away from the teeming city. The children of Travis yell and play on the streets amid small ranch houses. A large butte rises several hundred feet above the town, covered in green grass, surrounded by a small swamp, dotted by trees. Blackbirds glide in gusts of wind along its face. The hill looming over the town is a reminder of the days when this was the final destination of New York City’s millions of tons of trash.

Ten years ago, the Travis mound was part of the Fresh Kills Landfill—at 2,200 acres, the largest landfill in the world at that time—the place where most, if not all, of the garbage of the city went. The landfill is composed of four main mounds, which range from 90 to 225 feet. The biggest mound is taller than the Statue of Liberty and can be seen by the naked eye from space. When the dump was open, the garbage produced a noxious, rotting stench that fouled the air of Staten Island.

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Animal Disposal

inside-covantas-boiler-by-clare-trapasso.jpgBy Herman Wong

Opening the steel door brings a rush of cold air, the sound of blasting fans, and the dull smell of animal hair. The room offers no exceptional sights: just three large white bins against one wall and three large blue bins against the other, a couple black metal shelves, and plastic bags in the bins and on the shelves, all in dim lighting and frigid temperatures. These bags hold dead animals.

Nationwide, six to eight million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year, estimates the Humane Society of the United States. Half of them are killed. New York City’s largest shelter is the Center for Animal Care and Control. The non-profit agency is contracted by the city to take in strays and lost pets, and find home for cats and dogs and a few rabbits. Of the nearly 40,000 cats and dogs brought to the center between September 2006 and August 2007, more than half were adopted. But during the same span 16,000 plus cats and dogs had to be killed. About 110,000 have died by lethal injection since the end of 2002. For these condemned animals, the freezer is their way out.

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Trash of the Town

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The San Man

img_2589.jpgBy Suzanne Pekow

On Harry Nespoli’s first morning on the job as a refuse collector for the New York City Department of Sanitation, he received an unwelcome surprise. After lifting a 55-gallon drum and heaving its contents into the back of his truck, a wet mass came spewing back out of the truck’s motorized hopper, soaking him head to toe in dead pigeons, blood and water. When Nespoli came home later that day he told his wife, “I’m not going to last.”

It was 1970 when Nespoli became a sanitation worker. He had been a pretty good college football player in Kansas and had considered bouncing around a semi-professional league for a couple of years to try his luck, but times were tough. A recession was on, and the 25-year-old Nespoli had recently married, moved back to New York, and was expecting a baby. The job as a “san man” would give him a steady paycheck, health coverage for his family, and a guaranteed retirement pension among other benefits. He was a tough guy, he reasoned. He could take it, and he did.

Nespoli worked ten years as a refuse collector before he was appointed vice president, and eventually president, of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 831: The Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, where he is today.

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Garbage Art

img_1613.jpgBy Brooke Edwards

New York’s garbage artists have learned not only to live with dirty streets, but to embrace them as part of the city’s landscape and even to profit from them.

“Garbage is the most abundant natural resource in New York City,” says Robert Lederman, president of a street artists’ rights group, ARTIST. “Thousands of artists, including Jackson Pollack, used paint found in the garbage,” Lederman says. “Picasso used ‘trash’ to make sculptures.” Lederman himself uses cardboard found on sidewalks for signs and makes all of his art displays from garbage he finds on the streets.

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The Watchman

Trash houseBy Kelly Magee

When John Lipscomb was in his early 20s he had a love affair that affected the next thirty years of his life. He was a young apprentice in a boatyard. She was a 60-foot wooden schooner. They spent two years together while he learned the trade of boat-building from maritime men who fought in World War II. For Lipscomb it was the beginning of a life on the water. For the next two decades he would live like a vagabond nine months out of the year doing expedition filmmaking and ocean sailing.

Although the Hudson River has improved a great deal in Lipscomb’s lifetime from a dumping ground for raw sewage and oil into a swimmable river, it has not fully outgrown its old problems. Indian Point power plant remains open, and the fish kills and groundwater pollution continue. Paint from the General Motors plant no longer turns the water strange colors, but bottles and plastic containers cover the river’s natural beaches.

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