Big Apple Joins the Daily Grind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New York is different. But starting this weekend it will be just a little less so.

As of today, residents of the nation's largest city will be allowed to own garbage disposals.

Yes, that noisy little device that sits under roughly 75% of the kitchen sinks of California and makes the inedible invisible has been illegal within the city limits here for nearly 30 years.

Now, thanks to a change of law, New Yorkers too will be able to grind up their leftovers.

Then again, maybe they won't. This, after all, is still New York. And New York is still different.

"New York is like another country for us," says Frank Bryant, vice president for worldwide marketing at the In-Sink-Erator Co., which claims the largest share of the country's market for garbage disposals.

One might think that a city that generates 7.9 billion pounds of residential garbage a year--14% of which is food scraps--which is supposed to close its one and only landfill in 2001 and which is home to 28 million rats, would have long ago embraced the garbage grinder as a worthy innovation.

"Why did it take so long for New York to come into the 20th century?" asks Harry Brownell, a 71-year-old retiree whose Brooklyn high-rise was one of 17 buildings scattered around the city in which officials tested disposals before agreeing to lift the ban.

Part of the answer to Brownell's question is that much of New York's infrastructure predates the 20th century. The sewer pipes, for example. An almost incomprehensibly complex web of 6,417 miles of piping that carries both human waste and storm drain runoff to 14 massive treatment plants, the New York sewers contain some state-of-the-art technology but also much that is far older. More than 1,000 miles of sewers were built in the 1800s, and the bulk of the system predates World War II.

In the early 1970s, when garbage disposals were becoming ubiquitous elsewhere in the nation, New York officials were struggling to build treatment plants that would clean up the sewage then being dumped into the city's waterways. Fearing that any additional burden might bring their system crashing--particularly during heavy rains when millions of gallons of runoff pour into the sewers--the city council passed an ordinance banning disposals except in a few areas in the outer parts of the city that have storm drains separate from the sanitation sewers.

New Yorkers being who they are, many have never quite believed that official explanation of the ban. "I'm sure it was something political," says Mitchell Weissberg, who owns a plumbing supply company in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. "It was told to me that the city sanitation union was afraid there were going to be layoffs" if disposals reduced the amount of garbage needing collection.

For the record, all parties deny that the union lobbied to eliminate disposals to protect its members' jobs. But for whatever reason, the ban remained in place even long after the city's new treatment plants were put into service.

In other cities, a demand for new conveniences might have long ago swept aside such a restriction. But New Yorkers, for all their carefully honed image of being on the cutting edge, often demonstrate a deeply ingrained conservatism about their personal surroundings.

Selling the Public

New Yorkers, says Bryant, "think if something's not popular in New York, it couldn't be anywhere else . . . 'Why would anyone want it?' "

Clare Vincent is a case in point. She had a free disposal installed in her apartment as part of a city test prior to lifting the ban. She used it for a while but eventually quit.

"It worked up to a point," she says in a lilting Caribbean patois. But "it causes too much headache, man."

"Some things are better left the old way," she adds. "These buildings are old. I think they could have left things as they were."

In recent weeks, the plumbing industry has hired a PR firm to promote the benefits of garbage disposals to skeptics like Vincent. They could get a good testimonial from Brownell.

"You don't have to keep the garbage around the house. It cuts down on vermin and roaches and smell," he says. And, he suggests, disposals might even help avoid another hazard of New York life: "If we ever had another garbage strike, it won't be so much of a problem."

Politics and Pilot Projects

The politics of garbage disposal began to change after the election of an avowedly pro-business Republican mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in 1993. "We got more political," says George Whalen, who for three decades has led the plumbing industry's pro-disposal lobbying effort.

Backed by some substantial campaign contributions, the industry persuaded the city council in 1995 to authorize the test that Vincent and Brownell were part of.

So was Rodger Parsons, a writer and actor who does voice-overs for commercials. Not everyone in his Upper East Side building was willing to participate in the test, Parsons recalls, even though the contractor hired by the city was offering to install disposals free.

"There were pro-garbage disposal people and anti-garbage disposal people," he says. Some objected to disposals on principle, he says. Others, demonstrating the quintessential New York belief that there is no such thing as being too suspicious, developed "this theory that it was a conspiracy" by the landlord that would somehow lead to a rent increase.

In the end, about two-thirds of the tenants agreed to go ahead, and for 21 months, city workers measured and photographed the building's effluent, checking to see how, if at all, the new devices changed the makeup of the gunk that oozes through the pipes.

The final verdict, delivered this summer, was that in the grand scheme of things, garbage disposals were not that big a deal.

That was enough to persuade the city council to lift the ban. Parsons isn't so sure.

Having a disposal definitely reduces the amount of garbage that otherwise is dumped in the five beat-up corrugated metal cans that sit in front of his building, he says. So, personally, "I'm happy with it."

But, he asks, "what if everyone in New York had one? How quickly would the sewers be overwhelmed?"

Right now, everyone in New York having one seems pretty unlikely.

First, there is a little problem with price.

Under New York's law, only a licensed plumber may install a disposal, and that will require a permit. Once the city has received its $50 cut, the plumber's charge starts at a minimum of $200, contractors say. Add in the likelihood that many apartments will need new wiring to bring electricity under the sink and re-piping to fit disposals onto antiquated fixtures, and the bill could easily run upward of $500 and perhaps more than $1,000.

In the Hands of Co-ops, Landlords

Even those who can afford the price will need more than just a new law on their side before they will be able to send the leftover pizza crusts down the drain.

Just ask Mary Ann Rothman of the Council of New York Cooperatives, which recently sent a letter to the boards of its member buildings to prepare them for inquiries about garbage disposals. "People can't just run out and install it. It's a management issue now."

In a co-op building, individuals own their apartments, but the co-op board can, and frequently does, regulate detailed aspects of daily life. Many New York buildings, for example, already ban washing machines and dishwashers out of concern for their aging pipes. Garbage disposals are unlikely to fare any better.

"Some of these pipes are so corroded you can hardly pass the water through," says Bill Farrell, whose firm manages many upscale co-ops in Manhattan. On garbage disposals, he says, "my line is, it's not a very good idea."

As for the majority of New Yorkers who rent their apartments, don't even ask. The standard lease form in the city forbids tenants to make any changes in the plumbing, and not even the most optimistic of plumbing industry salesmen expects many New York landlords to voluntarily start adding amenities.

All that is just fine with Eric Goldstein, an expert on water policy with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental organization.

"Every urban area has unique environmental problems," he says. "New York City has some of the oldest and most fragile sewer infrastructures in the country."

City officials did a "quick and dirty study" to justify garbage disposals, he adds. But he dismisses the decision to allow them as just another example of shortsighted decision-making that in the end will cause nothing but trouble.

As for In-Sink-Erator, Bryant says that given all the hurdles, his company is estimating that total sales of disposals in New York will run 34,000 a year out of a national market of 5 million units.

The city's whole approach to the issue "confirms everything that people thought about New Yorkers," he says.

But even if sales are tiny, the industry expects a major side benefit.

With the domestic market--at least outside of New York--largely saturated, the real bonanza for garbage disposal makers is the possibility of sales overseas. In places like South Korea and Singapore, Bryant says, skeptical officials would say, " 'If this thing is such a good idea, how come the biggest city in your country won't allow them?' . . . At least we won't have to deal with that one anymore."

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