Trash, debris, or neither? The Nature of Waste During Disaster

By Max Liboiron

“Dis-” is a Latin prefix meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,” or generally having a negative or reversing force. Both disasters and discards have the same privative character, one of undoing or doing away with. Yet the links between disaster and discard go beyond the etymological. Not only do natural (and unnatural) disasters produce a lot of waste, they are also extreme but oddly quintessential events where practices, behavior, and cultures around waste and wasting, as well as their inverse–repairing, fixing, and rebuilding–move to the fore. In the weeks proceeding and following the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in New York City, Discard Studies will feature a series of articles about the complexities of disaster and waste, broadly defined. This article looks at the material nature of waste during disaster.

The waste produced by disaster comes in all shapes, scales, and degrees of danger. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, there were four million cubic yards of what is called “disaster debris.” But this is  far less than the waste spawned by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast — more than 100 million cubic yards, the most for a disaster in the United States. Because of the glut of waste– both the extreme volume and they way it occurs in a single moment–there is a crisis in both time and space for this waste. Hoboken, fore example,  generated as much as 570 tons of trash and debris a day, compared with a normal daily load of about 60 tons. Where to put it, especially in an area like New York City, where open space is scarce? For Sandy, the NYC Department of Parks and Department of Sanitation opened up Jacob Riis Park as a temporary “short dump,” a short-term staging location for moving waste to immediately before deciding how to handle the waste in the long term.

Post-Sandy "short dump" at Jacob Riis Park. November 13, 2012. Photo by Michael Anton, DSNY.

Post-Sandy “short dump” at Jacob Riis Park. November 13, 2012. Photo by Michael Anton, DSNY.

Yet it is not only the volume and temporal distribution of waste that makes disaster trash unique. It is also the nature of the waste. When we interviewed a former Bureau Chief in Brooklyn for the Department of Sanitation during Hurricane Sandy, and asked about the difference between everyday municipal solid waste and the type of waste picked up in the weeks and even months after Hurricane Sandy:

“It was a lot of wood, a lot of sheet rock. Debris we call it. We just call it debris because it’s not really household garbage. Household garbage would be what you would normally put out on a given day. And this was basically debris:  wood, sheet rock, pipes, everything. Except Gerritsen was a little different because there’s a sewage treatment plant on Knapp Street. And they shut the plant down because they couldn’t handle the overflow. So a lot of the sewage backed up into people’s houses. So that was a little, you know, a little different.”

“So what were they throwing out?”

“Stuff covered in feces.”

Yet, despite the categorization of disaster debris vs garbage, he also commented on how debris also blurred the lines between regular household waste, non-waste, and “debris.”  The protocol for distinguishing garbage from debris, especially in areas that had both was to err on the side of debris:

“If it had a lot of debris in it, don’t dig around it to see which is garbage and which is not, just basically take it. There’s just too much of it, you know?”

The sheer volume of debris, paired with the imperative to move it out of affected areas and into the short dump as soon as possible, made sorting waste effectively impossible. Recyclables, toxic household waste, and hazardous waste were mixed together. In any case of disaster, officials have to decide whether to prioritize expediency or nuance in their approach to disaster waste. Is there time and space to sort the waste after collection? In some cases, disaster debris cannot comply with state or federal regulations premised on the ability to separate toxic from non-toxic waste. The very character of disaster is that categories and practices designed in everyday situations do not hold for crisis situations.


This lack of differentiation extends beyond regulatory categories to more personal ones. In the media, sanitation workers constantly commented on how a lot of the objects set on the curb were never meant to be trash– photos, mementos, and personal belongings among them. Discard Studies guest author Kim DeWolff writes of a similar phenomena with items washing up onshore after the March 2011 Japan tsunami:

“There is a strong sense that these objects still belong to someone, that they are ‘pieces of lives,’ one speaker even comparing them to human remains. Like many people in Japan, they do not want tsunami debris treated as or even called debris. Speaking instead of ‘lost things’ or ‘personal items,’ they separate with words what they hope people cleaning the beaches of Hawaii and the West Coast of North America can separate in practice.”

Detail of waste at Jacob Riis Park short dump for derbis from Hurricane Sandy. Image from NYi.

Detail of waste at Jacob Riis Park short dump for debris from Hurricane Sandy. Image from NY1.

During disaster, trash, commemoration, memory, and archives of cultural heritage merge in the landfill. The most poignant example of this in New York City history is  placement of a short-dump for disaster debris in the former Freshkills Landfill, now Freshkills Park, after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In “To Love a Landfill,” Robin Nagle writes,

“The long-term design [of Freshkills Park] includes a memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks…. where the categories “profane” and “sacred” are now and forever combined. Exactly that contradiction poses an insurmountable problem for some family members whose loved ones literally vanished without a trace when the Twin Towers collapsed. When they realized, near the end of the recovery process, that the material brought from Ground Zero to The Hill would not be taken to a different final resting place but would be left at Fresh Kills, they formed a group called WTC Families for a Proper Burial. They do not accept that the remains, however tiny—even microscopic—of their husbands and daughters and siblings and sons are to be left forever in a location that was one of the most execrable places in the world. It was a dump, they feel, and it will be a dump no matter how many feet of clean fill or what kind of shrub species cover the mounds, and it IS not now nor will it ever be a fitting resting place for any human being.”

The case of 9-11 memorial at Freshkills is an extreme but core example of the complexities of disaster debris; it is never trash, or never completely so. Disaster debris is one of the physical manifestations of the tragic elements of disaster, where loss is not just acute in its physical forms, but also in its psychic dimensions.


Max Liboiron is a member of the Superstorm Research Lab and has been researching the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York City for the past year.

Related posts: The space/time of modern waste: disaster trash 2/6/2013

Nagle, R. (2010). 1 To Love A Landfill. Handbook of Regenerative Landscape Design, 3.

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