By Joy Bergmann
Ask Anthony Bianco if he’s proud of his profession and you’ll see a smile no mask can hide.
“Of course!” says Bianco, a 23-year veteran of NYC’s Department of Sanitation [DSNY] and current Assistant Chief of Operations for its Bureau of Solid Waste Management. “We serve the public. Picking up garbage and keeping the streets clean is a big help and protects people’s health.”
Bianco spends his days roaming the city managing what happens after DSNY trucks collect garbage and recyclables.
Each year, Bianco says, about 15,000 truckloads of discarded paper products arrive at the West 59th Street Marine Transfer Station [MTS], two giant sheds sitting on Pier 99 in the Hudson River where refuse has been dumped into barges since 1939.
To learn more, WSR spent a recent morning with Bianco touring the neon-festooned facility. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
WSR: Is this where our holiday wrapping paper and boxes end up?
AB: All the paper DSNY picks up in Manhattan gets dumped at this facility. Wrapping paper, newspaper, magazines, boxes, envelopes. Corrugated boxes are probably the best for recycling. The less ink on the paper, the better it is for the mills to process for reuse.
WSR: What’s the process?
AB: Trucks come up and get weighed. We dump the truck’s contents, and then the truck gets weighed on the way out. The difference tells us the paper quantity that was actually inside the truck.
WSR: What kind of volume are we talking about?
AB: We do about 80,000 tons a year out of this facility.
WSR: You’ve got two massive barges in here at a time.
AB: It’s a two-slip operation. As one gets full, we use the empty one. We keep the flow, never stopping the trucks from dumping. DSNY owns 15 barges. Each one measures about 150 feet long, 35 feet wide, 15 feet deep. A full barge has roughly 330 tons on it [660,000 pounds].
WSR: What happens next?
AB: We contract with tug boat operators who transport the full barges over to Pratt Industries in Staten Island. They process the paper and turn it into corrugated boxes using recycled material.
WSR: A circular waste stream starts here on the Upper West Side.
AB: It’s like the birthing grounds for everything that’s being reused. What’s in this barge becomes boxes for Home Depot, Amazon, Domino’s, USPS. It’s fantastic. Whatever we collect, that’s one less tree they take down. And we keep the material out of landfills.
[In a follow-up email, a DSNY spokesperson explained further: “This public/private partnership benefits both sides, and the main thing both parties get is a reliable, consistent partner. Pratt knows there will be paper to feed their mill, and DSNY has a reliable place to deliver it. Pratt has a contract to buy the paper at a minimum price of $10/ton, which makes it easier for DSNY to avoid fluctuations in market value that would be difficult to accommodate while balancing a municipal budget.”]
WSR: Shipping versus driving has additional benefits, right?
AB: Imagine 15,000 trucks a year needing to drive to Staten Island to dump, versus 280 barges. It’s all geared to reduce the carbon footprint, reduce the number of trucks that you see in the streets.
WSR: Something I love to see is the MTS’s neon artwork at night.
AB: That happened after this whole facility got rebuilt in the late 1980s.
WSR: Right. As the plaque out front says, in 1990 the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs commissioned the neon work by Stephen Antonakos as part of its “Percent for Art” program.
AB: I love the neon. The place has a character. Some people think it’s a disco, a rave club.
WSR: It still looks great 30+ years later.
AB: The Public Design Commission is very adamant about having [the neon] perfectly in place. We have a contract with a local company to do monthly checks on it. I met the artist’s wife a few times; she’s very actively involved. It’s part of the fabric of the skyline.
WSR: As part of the same project, there was a neo-classical archway by Richard Dattner installed at the entrance. But it got removed around 2013, 2014?
AB: Yes. Over the past 20 years we’ve seen a dramatic increase in bike and pedestrian traffic in front of our entrance. That bike path is the busiest in the city. Removing the arch improved visibility for drivers, making it safer for everyone.
WSR: What’s up with the colorful lights in the office?
AB: Those are controls for our recently upgraded HVAC and fire systems.
WSR: Speaking of which, what do we know about that early December barge fire?
AB: It’s still under investigation. We hadn’t had a barge fire here in I don’t know how long.
WSR: What often causes such fires?
AB: People throwing lithium batteries in the garbage. It might be tiny, but if it’s compressed under tons of paper, it could implode or create heat that eventually ignites the paper.
[A spokesperson says, systemwide, DSNY has a smoldering condition caused by a rechargeable battery at least once a day. And even the tiny batteries that power “singing” greeting cards can cause fires if improperly discarded. Learn about proper battery disposal options here.]
WSR: Taking care of trash is no simple matter.
AB: It’s a great job. It’s changed over the years and keeps changing, evolving to serve the community — recycling, compost, e-waste. That’s what keeps the job fresh.
WSR: Your enthusiasm is contagious!
AB: I’m a third-generation sanitation worker. I’ve been bleeding green since I was born.
See paper waste journey from the West 59th Street Marine Transfer Station and transform into boxes at Pratt Industries in this 2014 DSNY video: