The Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management presented its proposed 10-year solid waste plan for public feedback on Tuesday, July 11, inviting attendees to provide feedback during a meeting that focused on the future of recycling and solid waste locally.
The plan, presented by Kat McCarthy, TCDRMM’s waste reduction and recycling specialist and the plan’s lead writer, aims to create a “local circular economy” in Ithaca, in which goods and materials see the most use possible and at the end of their usefulness can be reintegrated into new systems. The county is accepting public comment until Aug. 7, 2023.
“Waste prevention represents the largest opportunity to reduce waste, by not creating it in the first place,” McCarthy said. “And this requires a departure from the single-use, disposable ethos that is pervasive in this country.”
McCarthy elaborated on new programs that Tompkins County planned to implement, including developing partnerships with local food recovery organizations and the potential creation of a Tompkins County Food Task Force to communicate across these organizations and increase cooperation between them as well. After discussing the proposal itself, McCarthy went on to outline its implementation as well as some of the expected effects and challenges.
“Over the past 10 plus years, we have seen shifts in consumerism with an emphasis on single-use throwaway culture focused around convenience,” McCarthy said. “Products are quickly replaced with newer models and materials are becoming more challenging [to safely dispose] with items containing harmful chemicals such as mercury, Freon and heavy metals.”
However, despite these headwinds, McCarthy said she ultimately expected the amount of waste for the average Ithacan to decrease by a pound per day total over the next 10 years.
Following McCarthy’s presentation, the floor was opened to comments from the public, with a strict three-minute time limit due to the large anticipated number of speakers. Michael Volino, the town supervisor of the Town of Thurston in Steuben County, was in attendance and spoke first.
Volino had been angered by what turned out to be a mistake in the plan, which stated that Cayuga Heights had been land-applying the sewer sludge from the municipality’s shared-use treatment facility in Thurston, something it has not done since 2016. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, land-applying is a method of soil treatment in which “[organic waste] material is applied directly to agricultural fields as a source of nutrients and/or to improve soil quality, reducing the need for commercial fertilizers.”
However, despite Cayuga Heights not land-applying its sewer sludge in Thurston, Volino still raised concerns with Ithaca’s usage of a landfill owned by Casella Waste Systems, who intend to spread sewer sludge — not from Cayuga Heights — in Thurston.
“We’re pushing back on this as a town,” Volino said. “We are a small, rural community. We don’t have a lot of funds, but we are pushing back. […] What Casella wants to do in Thurston and Steuben County is banned in the state of Maine. Just consider that.”
Later on, Mayor Linda Woodard of Cayuga Heights responded to a statement from Volino released through Zero Waste Ithaca in which he highlighted the income inequality between Cayuga Heights, a relatively affluent community, and Thurston, which Volino described as poverty-stricken. Woodard pointed out that the wastewater treatment plant in Cayuga Heights serves not only the village but also parts of the city and town of Ithaca as well as Lansing and Dryden.
“It’s erroneous to think of this as just people that are extremely rich,” Woodard said.
Woodard went on to concur with much of what Volino had said but argued that with the closing of several landfills as outlined in the plan, something had to be done.
“We really do need to rethink, and I do think that the best way we can handle the situation is to reduce the amount [of waste] going forward,” Woodard said.
Members of Zero Waste Ithaca also spoke to the benefits of preventing harmful PFA chemicals from entering the environment unchecked, commenting on the plan’s overall points. The group had raised similar alarms as Volino when the plan was initially released, further highlighting some of the confusion around the actual destination of sewage and how it would be dealt with after being transported away from wastewater treatment facilities in Tompkins County.
State Assemblymember Anna Kelles also addressed the crowd, talking about potential state legislation she is helping lead that would require testing for PFAs in any facility that discharges water. Kelles and NY State Senator Rachel May published an op-ed about their intentions with the legislation last year.
Following the meeting, Volino responded to Woodard’s statement during the public commenting period, stating Thurston would move to block any land application of sewer sludge and pass legislation to ban even bringing the sewer sludge into the town.
“In Thurston, we’ve seen land application for 40-plus years of biosolids, of sewage sludge, wastewater facilities, and we are seeing people with various cancers — thyroid, liver cancer, kidney cancer, blood cancers — and we’re concerned with the increase of more coming in,” Volino said.
Volino went on to highlight the income inequality between Cayuga Heights and Thurston again, pointing out that due to its poverty, Thurston could not effectively mitigate effects of the sewer sludge on the local community.
“People in Thurston don’t have the funds. They get cancer, it’s pretty much the end — they don’t have the ability to get advanced treatments,” Volino said. “People in Barney Hill, adjacent to the land-spreading operation for decades, have not been able to drink their water because it’s contaminated with heavy metals found from the spreading of these biosolids.”
Jonathan Mong is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Voice. This piece was originally published in the Ithaca Voice.