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Recycling Revived

by Sam Williams, Jul 18, 2003
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When Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as part of the last-minute budget negotiations with the City Council, agreed to resume plastic recycling (suspended a year ago), end the suspension of glass and yard waste recycling in 2004, and bring back Christmas tree recycling (suspended last fall), it was a decisive reversal from 18 months earlier, when the mayor’s elimination of these programs from the city’s program sparked outrage among recycling advocates, and seemed to spell a gloomy future for recycling in the city.

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"The battle was tough, but we won the war," observed City Councilmember Michael McMahon of Staten Island, chairman of the council's committee on sanitation and solid waste, and a staunch recycling proponent.

Future battles remain. One twist in the current resumption of plastic service is an awkward every-other-week pickup schedule proposed by the Department of Sanitation. According to the recent City Hall agreement, that schedule will remain in effect from the first of August to the first of April, 2004, at which point, normal weekly service is expected to resume. Despite ongoing grumbles over institutional sandbagging, most city recycling advocates and their allies in the recycling industry are willing to look past such temporary obstacles and bask in the newfound resiliency of their movement.

Since the passage of Local Law 19, the 1989 ordinance that ordered the Department of Sanitation to set up a city-wide recycling program, recycling advocates and department of sanitation officials have butted heads over how to turn coins and bottles into cash. From the sanitation department’s perspective, recycling has put a consistent drain on both manpower and equipment. From the recycler's perspective, the sanitation department's own Soviet-like mania for one-size-fits-all solutions has made it difficult to tailor the city's recycling in a way that would make it more economically productive.

"It almost seems that whenever there was a decision that needed to be made, they made the wrong decision," says Marjorie Clarke, co-chair of the New York City Waste Prevention Coalition. "You begin to wonder: This can't totally be happenstance."

The end result, from the recycling view, has been a decade-long two-steps-forward, three-steps-back process that leaves proponents habitually wary whenever money comes into the conversation. That wariness has translated into strategies designed to stress the environmental benefits of recycling in a city that rarely sees those benefits firsthand.

That unwillingness to tread the bottom line proved a major handicap, however, in the wake of September 11. Faced with a huge budget deficit, Mayor Bloomberg bought into the Department of Sanitation's plan to save the city $56 million a year by ceasing plastic, aluminum and glass recycling.

"We have two recycling programs," said Bloomberg at the time. "One that works and one that does not." He was distinguishing between profitable paper recycling and unprofitable non-paper recycling.

A June, 2002 budget compromise saved aluminum but consigned plastic and glass to oblivion.

Reforming the Ranks

Talk to most city recycling advocates, and one event from the past year stands out. In November the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board (CRAB) and the Center for Economic and Environmental Partnership (CEEP) joined together as hosts of an industry roundtable at the downtown campus of Pace University.

A national summit for recyclers, consumers of recyclable commodities and industry lobbyists, the event represented the first major attempt to solicit outside help in driving home the economic sustainability of recycling.

"The city needed more education," says Clarke, a roundtable organizer during her tenure as chair of the Manhattan Citizen's Solid Waste Advisory Board (SWAB). "I figured that other cities were doing well. All we needed to do was bring in the information."

Clarke and her fellow organizers had little difficulty getting people to show up. In questioning both the financial and environmental merits of civic recycling, Mayor Bloomberg had in effect challenged the entire industry.

"New York is a bellwether for other programs across the country," notes roundtable attendee John Burgiel, national director of solid waste management for RW Beck. A Florida-base consulting firm, RW Beck has helped cities such as Denver, Cincinnati and Buffalo structure their recycling programs.

Burgiel and others would like to remind city officials of the great big market lying just beyond the five boroughs. Instead of going for the bulk discount, paying waste haulers to take both trash and recyclables, attendees proposed pushing the city into the role of auctioneer, selling off its plastic, aluminum and glass franchises to the highest bidder.

To get an idea of how it works, look no further than Visy Paper, a local subsidiary of Australian recycling giant Pratt industries. In 1995, Visy snuck its way into a city recycling contract by forging a deal with the Economic Development Corporation. In exchange for building a 200,000 square foot paper processing facility on Staten Island, Visy won itself a piece of the city paper stream. The facility opened in 1997, a year after Rudy Giuliani announced the impending closure of Fresh Kills. Since then, Visy has ramped up production, recyling 150,000 tons of city paper into corrugated boxes each year and paying $7 a ton for the privilege.

In other words, instead of the city having to pay companies to dump its trash – at a cost of at least $70 a ton – the city is being paid for the trash. Because of this, the arrangement with Visy translates into more than $11 million in savings for New York City taxpayers. On June 23, Visy and the mayor's office announced an ambitious 100,000 square foot expansion of the company's Staten Island facility to boost production even further.

A company called Hugo Neu has also forged ties with the city government. A major steel recycler, the New Jersey-based company offered to recycle the steel from the World Trade Center. It has since taken on a larger steel recycling contract with the city. Encouraged by the profitability of that enterprise, company executives made a play for New York City aluminum and plastic as well, offering to pay the city $5.10 per ton.

Considering that another company had put in a bid to charge the city $68 to get rid of that same material, Hugo Neu’s offer was one the Department of Sanitation could hardly refuse.

"This is not just an economic issue," said Hugo Neu general manager Robert Kelman at a May speech to the New York League of Conservation Voters. "This is a moral imperative."

What Next?

Moral imperatives aside, Hugo Neu's aggressive bidding has revived the image of recycling as a cost-effective enterprise. It has also prodded other local recyclers to seek their own portion of the city's mammoth recycling stream.

Carmen Cognetta, counsel to the council committee on sanitation and solid waste, hopes to speed the momentum.

"Recyclers used to be hesitant to deal with the city because they didn't get a good reception," Cognetta says. "I think once people see [the Hugo Neu bid] working, it will encourage more people to bid in the future."

One company eager to line up for city recyclables is Manhattan-based Sprint Recycling. Maite Quinn, the company’s managing director, says the market value for high quality paper runs well above the $7 per ton Visy currently pays for mixed paper and cardboard. If the city could find a way to segregate paper by type, it would boost profits even further.

"[New York] is not working as hard as other cities at getting the markets that do exist," she says. "We just put in a bid of $33 a ton for Jersey City's paper."

Another outcome of last year's roundtable has been a growing buzz over so-called "pay as you throw" funding systems. Under such a system, the city charges residents for trash pickup but not for recycling. In San Francisco "pay as you throw" has spurred the expansion of recycling streams in the realm of organic waste and kitchen compost. The city currently recycles half its waste, compared with New York City's 20 percent recycling rate in 2000-2001.

"'Pay as you throw' is a way to provide dedicated funding," says Robert Haley, recycling coordinator at San Francisco's Department of the Environment. "Come bad times or a budget crisis, you don't have to cut back recycling for lack of money."

Granted, San Francisco and New York are more than a continent apart when it comes to size, waste-stream burden and local markets for recyclable materials. Still, to get a hint of the future, New York reyclers can look to Canada's largest city, Toronto. Like New York, Toronto experienced the closure of its main landfill in the mid-1990s. Currently, the city exports about a fifth of its solid waste to Michigan. Through a combination of pay-as-you-throw and private contracts, the city is hoping to boost its recycling rate to 60 percent by 2006 and 100 percent by 2010.

"New York has challenges," says Lawson Oates, manager of Toronto's Solid Waste Management Division. "But it also has economies of scale that can be built in. That's an important factor."

Lawson, who also attended last November's roundtable, says he came away with a new respect for New York's waste stream. He recalls waking up at 3 a.m. to the sound of beeping sanitation trucks and workers clearing the enormous mound of garbage backs piled outside his hotel.

"I suddenly realized that nine floors wasn't as far up as I thought it was," Oates says.

Oates was equally surprised by the amount of manual labor that went into moving that waste stream. Oates says his own department has managed to boost productivity and rein in labor costs through wheeled bins in high density portions of the city. To stave off labor trouble, Oates' department has made sure to include union leaders in each step of the planning.

"With the four day work week, the union was wary but they eventually came on board," Oates says. "As a result, we've achieved economies and introduced some savings into our collection system."

Getting similar concessions out of the Department of Sanitation might be unlikely at the moment, but Oates' success has encouraged New York City planners to think creatively. Herein lies the final benefit of the recent waste management crisis: It has punctured the cultural hubris of a city used to viewing the outside world from a distance.

"For whatever reason, we have this mantra: We're New York. We're bigger than anybody. There's no other place we can learn from,'" Clarke says. "If you really think about it, half of New York is no different from any other large city. Only in Manhattan do you hit the problems most other cities never face."

Bloomberg: Savior or Shmendrik?

So how much credit should be given to Mayor Bloomberg, the man who, intentionally or unintentionally, forced the city's decades-old recycling program to prove recycling's economic sustainability?

For Resa Dimino, president of the Grass Roots Recycling Network and co-moderator of last November's roundtable, the answer is "not much." Dimino doesn't buy into the growing argument that the mayor's threat to suspend glass, plastic and even aluminum pickup in early 2002 was simply a case of managerial "tough love." Instead, she sees it as a costly example of brinksmanship in a city where residents have yet to experience the routine of a steady recycling program.

"I would argue that it would have been smarter to keep the program in place and go through the same kind of process," she says. "Instead, the city government just chose to ignore things until they reached crisis mode."

Others, such as McMahon, however, are willing to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt.

"I give the mayor credit in that he's the first mayor who admitted that recycling is a good idea for the environment and we can make it work financially," McMahon says. "Of course, we had to force feed him that a little bit. But in the final analysis he's doing the right thing by recycling."

Sam Williams is a NYC journalist.


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