Southold’s first solid waste coordinator retires after 34 years

Controversy ensued in 1990 when the Southold Town Board appointed Jim Bunchuck — an environmental management consultant with a Master’s degree in International Relations — to manage the garbage dump. 

“There were people, town employees, who didn’t really think an engineer and a professional, technical person like Jim would ever survive in that job,” said Tom Wickham, a former Town Supervisor who served on the Town Board in 1990. “People told me, ‘This is a job for machine operators. Why do we need an office and a guy who comes from the city?’ … I’ll never forget someone saying ‘Jim Bunchuck won’t even last two months in this job.’”

Four decades ago, national and state-level regulations forced local municipalities, including Southold, to revolutionize how they disposed of solid waste. Town employees and residents were accustomed to the days of the highway department intermittently covering the town’s massive, unlined pile of refuse with sand. But the board knew it had to close this dump and believed Mr. Bunchuck — Southold’s first-ever solid waste coordinator who retired on April 18 — had the experience needed to usher the town into a more environmentally conscious era of waste management.

Mr. Bunchuck described his overarching responsibility throughout the decades as “the implementation, and in some cases, design” of Southold’s “integrated solid waste management system, which is a combination of aggressive recycling, reuse when possible, waste reduction, and finally — the last in the hierarchy — disposal.”

As a department head, he also managed waste district employees, reviewed waste-related bids and contracts and ensured his facility and the town at large kept up with local and national waste management standards.

In stark contrast to his initial reception, Mr. Bunchuck, 66, of Greenport, was hardly pushed out the door when he applied for retirement last year. Former Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he practically “begged” Mr. Bunchuck to delay his retirement for several months so he could help mentor both of their replacements. Mr. Bunchuck obliged, and during the final months of his tenure, he renewed some of the town’s waste management contracts and trained Nick Krupski, who the Town Board recently hired as the new provisional solid waste coordinator.

“Jim Bunchuck is without a doubt one of the finest people that has served the people of Southold Town,” Mr. Russell said in a telephone interview. “He’s deeply committed to his position. He’s made sacrifices over the years to do the best job he could on behalf of the taxpayers. He’s going to be a big loss for the town, but an excellent mentor to Nick [Krupski].”

Jim Bunchuck (right) joins his successor, Nick Krupski, at the final Town Board work session of his 34 year stint with Southold Town. (Credit: Nicholas Grasso)

After moving from Nassau County to the North Fork at age 10 and graduating Southold High School in 1975, Mr. Bunchuck studied political science and government at Rochester’s ​​St. John Fisher University. He worked for various consulting firms in support of Environmental Protection Agency programs in the D.C. area for more than a decade. During this time, he earned his Master’s degree at American University, intending to pursue a career in diplomacy.

He relocated from D.C. to Greenport in 1989, but was still commuting to New York City for work. After about a year of riding the train, a new opportunity much closer to home presented itself.

“My wife called me one day at work and said ‘the Town of Southold is looking for an environmental planner,’” Mr. Bunchuck recalled. “I didn’t know it meant running the dump until I got to the interview … It worked out for me. They thought I fit the bill and here I am.”

In 1993, Mr. Bunchuck helped Southold close its landfill and establish a solid waste district as per New York State Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines. One of his first orders of business was spearheading the yellow bag “pay as you go” system residents use to dispose of their refuse to this day. The bag fees fund the solid waste district, a special tax district, and incentivize — and potentiallly popularize — recycling. 

“People didn’t really want to pay to get rid of their garbage when they formerly dumped it in the dump for free, but the Town Board backed Jim in this plan,” Mr. Wickham said. “Over a period of months, and then years, Jim overcame a lot of the speculation and reservations that other [residents] and people in town government had about this new direction for handling solid waste. The yellow bag system has never been really popular, but people have come to accept it as a fair way to handle solid waste.”

By the mid-2000s, the town capped the landfill and built the indoor transfer station Mr. Bunchuck managed. The facility accepts household and commercial garbage just like the dump did before his tenure, as well as recyclables. Mr. Bunchuck also helped institute a yard waste composting program at a new 17-acre facility within the waste district. Residents drop off their yard waste, and in return can take home up to 500 pounds of either organic compost they can mix with soil or decorative, weed blocking woodchip mulch for free.

“Jim is a dedicated public servant and he’s always been good to work with,” said Town Supervisor Al Krupski, who knew Mr. Bunchuck from his time as a Town Board member back in the 2000s. “Besides all of the recycling challenges that we’ve had and that he’s done well with, I think the biggest thing is the compost operation that he helped develop and run. He really was a big part of making that a successful operation and reusing our yard waste. It’s acres and acres of mountains of brush, it’s ground up and ground up … and made into compost that’s a very good product.”

Even in his final few years on the job, Mr. Bunchuck sought new ways to pull whatever he could out of the town’s waste stream. In 2021, he forged a new arrangement with Mattituck Environmental, a waste management service in Cutchogue, to sort through construction and demolition materials — including appliances, furniture and scrapable metals ripped from houses — which Southold’s contractors and do-it-yourselfers drop off at the town’s transfer station right next door.

“Previously our C&D just went directly to [the Brookhaven Town landfill] and got buried, now it goes to Mattituck,” Mr. Bunchuck explained. “They have a sorting facility there, so they’ll pull out anything of value that they can.”

Despite his best efforts, Mr. Bunchuck could not pull food scraps out of Southold’s waste stream. In 2020, he helped coordinate a 30-day food scrap composting program developed by the Drawdown East End group, which saw a handful of residents save food scraps, transport them for weighing at the town’s transfer station and send them to Treiber Farms in Peconic to be safely composted. A longer-term plan for food, Mr. Bunchuck explained, is much more involved.

“That’s the biggest thing left in the waste stream that does not have to be thrown out if you could get it to people who need it or compost it, or if it can’t be sent to a food bank,” he said. “We would need approval and a phased-in approach that needs to be written up by an engineer and shown to the state …if we were to try to add anything to our existing composting operation.”

Nick Krupski said he may reach out to Mr. Bunchuck on an “as-needed basis” for some assistance as he tackles several initiatives and encounters other opportunities. On Tuesday, the Town Board voted to execute a consulting agreement with Mr. Bunchuck that will permit him to help his successor up to 17.5 hours each month over the next six months.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until it comes along,” Nick Krupski explained. “There’s so much business going on down there that every day is a little different. There’s the daily business, the contracts over multiple years … Just as things come up, if I have questions, I want to be able to call Jim.”

When asked what he is most proud of after 34 years dedicated to the town and its residents, Mr. Bunchuck could not point to a singular accomplishment, but rather to his overall mission to serve Southold Town, its residents and its environment.

“When I started, we were still burying garbage in a hole in the ground,” he said. “As archaic as that seems now, that was normal at the time. Now we realize the damage that can cause. I’m kind of proud that I could be instrumental in ending very poor and environmentally risky waste handling practices.”