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Recycling's Next Chapter

by Sam Williams, Apr 09, 2004
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The Department of Sanitation has resumed both glass recycling and once-a-week collection of residential recyclable material, thus ending the latest, and most harrowing, chapter in New York City's 20 year-old recycling saga.

Once a week, residents are now expected to put their non-paper recyclables -- metal, plastic, and glass -- in blue curbside containers, and their paper recyclables -- junk mail, bundled newspaper and cardboard -- in green containers. Residents who don't have blue or green containers can use clear plastic bags or can order stickers, free, by calling 311 or visiting the city's Web site.

That glass is now being recycled once again is, some say, little more than a symbolic victory. Sure, it is an improvement over simply sending empty bottles to the landfill. But the Department of Sanitation trucks currently collect all different kinds of glass together, regardless of color, and this reduces the resale value often to the point of worthlessness.

This explains why Hugo Neu Schnitzer East, the Jersey City recycler that offered to pay the city for its metal and plastic last year, has drastically revised its bid. The city now pays Hugo Neu $51 per ton to process all non-paper recyclables. This is still about 50 percent less than what it would cost to dump the material in a landfill, but, coupled with the added labor costs for weekly routes, recycling has decisively shifted to an expense rather than a revenue source.

However, not everybody sees the victory as just symbolic. Some say it is a strategic victory, helping build the momentum for recycling.

"I am a firm believer that the more that we recycle the better it is not only for the environment but also for the city's economy," argues Staten Island councilmember Michael McMahon, chairman of the council's Solid Waste Committee.

Such arguments have gained added weight in recent weeks thanks to the Independent Budget Office's recent report analyzing the Department of Sanitation's budgetary math. Yes, the report concludes, recycling costs more than ordinary garbage collection, $47 million more in fiscal year 2002, but only as long as the amount of recyclables collected remains less than the amount of ordinary garbage collected.

The reason: hidden overhead costs. When department budgetmakers divide general and administrative costs, they do so by routes, not tonnage. Because recycling routes yield less weight on average -- 6.3 tons vs. 10.3 tons for ordinary garbage routes in 2002 -- recycling carries a disproportionate share of overhead burden when the numbers are reassessed on a cost-per-ton basis.

"It's the relative inefficiency of (recycling) collection that makes it more expensive," summarizes Preston Niblack of the Independent Budget Office. "Right now the comparison is swamped by the collection inefficiencies associated with recycling pickup."

In other words, says Niblack, shifting glass from the waste bin to the recycling bin is more than a symbolic gesture. Increase the amount of recyclables and you increase the average weight, and overall efficiency, of each recycling route. If the weight of recyclables became equal to the weight of ordinary garbage, you could conceivably eliminate the disparity in costs.

Kitchen Compost?

Given this analysis, is there another quick way to increase recycling tonnages beyond glass? McMahon sees kitchen compost as an obvious next step. "It adds a lot of weight, and it's environmentally the easiest thing to recycle," he says.

Virali Gokaldas, policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees, noting that, because of space concerns, New Yorkers tend to throw out more food waste as a proportion of their daily trash -- 15 percent, while the national average is nine percent

"Food is one of the greatest untapped opportunities for cost savings," Gokaldas says "Composting is the next step if the city wants to save money on its trash bill."

So far, the Department of Sanitation's attempts to integrate kitchen waste into the recycling stream have yet to move past the pilot project stage. Without a robust aftermarket or a Hugo Neu-style benefactor willing to take bagged items directly out of the trucks, compost remains a long term prospect at best.

"At this point we are not looking to add other recyclables," says Kathy Dawkins, a Department of Sanitation spokesperson.

Education

Niblack sees education as the best way to bulk up city recycling bins. Though long chided by local critics, the Department of Sanitation's Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling had been earning praise for its educational programs prior to the 2002 plastic and glass suspension. To prepare residents for the resumption of glass and once-a-week service, the bureau orchestrated a series of Sunday newspaper inserts and a direct mail campaign aimed at four million households. All in all, it expects to spend close to $4 million within the next few months.

"That's a pretty good starting point, but the jury's still out," says McMahon. "I'd like to see more public service commercials. I'd like to see more advertising, especially in less traditional media, Web sites."

Robert Lange, president of the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Reycling, didn't respond to calls for comment, but Dawkins said the Department of Sanitation is "committed to making recycling work" and has spread its $4 million advertising budget across a variety of media, including radio and television, as well as direct telemarketing.

McMahon, meanwhile, says he would like proof that Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself is a member the "strategic victory" camp as well. In a joint statement with Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty last month, Bloomberg described the current recycling program as both more "cost effective and environmentally-friendly" than the one it has now replaced.

"I call upon the mayor to continue using his bully pulpit to call for recycling like he does for 311," says McMahon, citing the increasing popularity of the city's telephone information program. "We have to get the message out: Eight million people can't just landfill this stuff anymore."


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