New York's New Garbage And Recycling Plans

By John J. Doherty

In the last few months, New York has made significant changes to our waste management and recycling plans. Change can sometimes be difficult. But in my view, the new plans offer the chance of greatly improving how New York handles its garbage now and in the future.

The new solid waste management plan, unveiled by Mayor Bloomberg last month, is the result of much thought and careful study. The new plan is not only feasible, but it also balances environmental considerations and the city's new fiscal reality.

In order to appreciate the new waste management plan, one must only look at the present system. Currently, New York City generates more than 11,000 daily tons of non-recyclable refuse. This massive amount of waste is collected by nearly 1,500 sanitation trucks that transport most of it to private waste transfer stations in the city and surrounding counties. There, most of the refuse is loaded onto 18-wheel trailers and transported to landfills in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Clearly, managing such a system in New York City is a daunting task. Then, of course, there is the question of costs. Solid waste disposal costs have gone from $44 per ton in 1997, to over $88 per ton last year.

Under the new plan, garbage will be containerized and compacted at the city's existing marine transfer stations, which will be specially reconstructed for this purpose. Then it will be shipped to container ports in New York harbor or elsewhere, where it will be loaded onto either rail cars or large container ships for disposal at facilities yet to be determined. There will be fewer trucks on city streets, and we will have more flexibility for where we can send our trash in the future.

This plan is tailor-made for a city like New York -- an ever-changing urban landscape that demands programs that keep pace with constant growth. And unlike the plans of the past, this new approach no longer concentrates garbage management in just a few neighborhoods. Each borough will handle its own trash, and garbage will be disposed of in a more efficient way.

The other major change is in how New Yorkers recycle.

For the last 16 years, city residents recycled paper, metal, plastic and glass. In my years as Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, I came to understand that for many New Yorkers, carefully separating recyclable materials and rinsing plastic and glass containers had became a ritual, a daily affirmation of their concern and commitment to the city and its environment.

However, the city's recycling program was originally conceived not only as an environmental measure, but as a program that would pay for itself. After all, New York City must provide countless services and meet the needs of over eight million people. It all takes money.

The fact is that while recycling paper and metal is profitable, recycling plastic and glass is not. These materials, which require an expensive and labor-intensive process, currently lack commercial markets for their reuse.

As the city's budget picture dimmed and a $5 billion deficit surfaced, I knew that sooner or later the big question would come up: where did all those carefully separated and rinsed plastic and glass containers end up? The answer was -- unfortunately -- in a landfill, along with regular garbage, which was being shipped there at a fraction of the cost.

As Mayor Bloomberg started to examine New York City's finances, it became clear that we needed to evaluate our programs and practices and cut those that were least effective, costly, or both. I focused on the different components of our recycling program, particularly those that were neither profitable, nor cost-effective.

In other words, I felt that the city needed to make sense out of recycling. And it did.

On July 1, 2002, the city temporarily suspended the collection and recycling of plastic and glass until such a time when a more advanced technology can offer less expensive recycling processes and more effective ways to reuse these materials. The savings to the taxpayer will be $40 million a year.

As for deposit bottles and cans, New Yorkers should remember that they pay a 5-cent deposit for them. Returning bottles and cans to a store, supermarket, or bodega can add up over time. It is also a way New Yorkers can continue to be kind to the environment.

John J. Doherty is the commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation

Posted August 12, 2002.