Environmental and civic groups are invited to sign onto this letter requesting that NYC Council hold a hearing
on sewage biosolids disposal planning.
Groups signed on:
350NYC, 350 Brooklyn, Drawdown Project NYC, Forest Hills Green Team
Jackson Heights Beautification Group, West 80s Neighborhood Association
For more information, and to sign on, contact
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Councilmember Costa Constantinides
Chair, Environmental Committee
We are writing to request the NYC Council Environmental Committee hold a hearing on the City’s plans to dispose of its sewage sludge, and the climate, financial, and pollution impacts of alternatives.
The City has many initiatives underway responding to the climate emergency, mostly by reducing carbon emissions through lower energy use. Scientists report that in addition to reducing carbon emissions, we must also draw carbon down, out of the atmosphere. Pyrolysis of sewage biosolids would enable NYC to start drawing down carbon - a new type of climate emergency response it is not using so far.
NYC now produces 1,400 tons per day of sewage sludge biosolids, which are shipped to distant landfills at a cost of $55 million a year. Since landfill space is shrinking and fees are rising, NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is looking into new ways of handling this waste stream. Two leading alternatives are both forms of thermal treatment that sharply reduce the volume of the waste. One method yields solid, stable carbon, and would have a positive climate impact.
With incineration, organic waste is burned, and its carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas. With pyrolysis, organic waste is heated in a low-oxygen environment, leaving behind a combination of ash and solid carbon, sometimes called biochar. Production of biochar has been recognized by scientists with Project Drawdown as one of the top 100 policy responses to the climate crisis.
There are industrial uses for high-carbon residue from this and other organic wastes. Pyrolysis of large quantities of organic waste, especially wet waste, is still very new. A facility to pyrolyze sewage biosolids is opening soon in New Jersey. Results from this facility should guide further NYC DEP research. Adoption of this method of sewage biosolids disposal by NYC would encourage other governments to follow, having a much greater climate impact.
Considering that NYC has declared a climate emergency, DEP should consider the financial costs, pollution and climate impacts of each disposal method. The City should prioritize the method with the greatest climate benefit. DEP should report to the NYC Council Environmental Committee regularly on the progress of its research.
For more information, see this summary article, or the biochar pages at beyondoilnyc.org.
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Background: carbon emission reduction and carbon drawdown
When fossil fuels or organic solids are burned, or as they decompose, the carbon in them escapes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Physically capturing and storing carbon long term so it can’t return to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas (CO2) is called drawdown or carbon sequestration. The IPCC reported that carbon sequestration will be essential to bring CO2 levels down to 1.5C, citing several negative emission approaches.
There are a few high tech methods to capture and store CO2 from the exhaust gases of burning fuels, but they’re still experimental, and might be both very costly and very difficult to scale up fully.
The other carbon storage methods studied by the IPCC were planting forests, agriculture practices that increase soil carbon, and making biochar. These are safe, proven, and highly effective, and would have many indirect ecological benefits. Of the three, only the last one can be applied directly in urban environments – and can be put into practice by NYC officials and other progressive municipal governments.
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