Gotham Gazette Wed, 05 Aug 2020 14:14:07 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) City Fiscal Crisis is an Opportunity to Reimagine Failing Programs, Like Organics Recycling financial opp

Questions about recycling abound (photo: Michael Anton/Sanitation)

The May 13 op-ed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service, suffers from two major fallacies.

The authors begin their piece:

 “While is it is no secret that the city’s curbside organics collection program doesn’t pay for itself, that’s only half the story.  It is true that the program currently generates a small amount of revenue, about $50,000.  However, if properly executed, the program has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.”

The first fallacy once again raises the belief that a recycling-related program can one day generate sufficient revenues to significantly offset or eliminate the cost of its operation. Second, and perhaps more significant, is the belief that the organics collection program as currently conceived and executed should be further expanded.

To justify the above speculations the authors quote from an “analysis” performed by the Independent Budget Office estimating $22.5 million in possible future revenues from composting. This analysis is based upon an If, Then series of hypotheses untethered from current programmatic realities. The authors go on to further speculate that “realizing the increased revenue from organics recycling is dependent upon expansion.” 

In the midst of a pandemic and the resulting financial crisis, it is irresponsible for elected officials to call for the expansion of a program that is clearly not working. Successful recycling collection programs are evaluated on a number of factors. In the case of an organics collection program, these most critical factors are: 1) A program design that overcomes participants’ inherent revulsion to decaying organic waste; 2) Maintaining sustained and consistent levels of participation by the generator (container set-out). Without robust participation by all parties targeted by the program, neither collection nor processing can be efficient and sustainable; 3) The three basic means by which to drive participation: regular public education, tangible enforcement, and differential charging for refuse versus recycling services. The latter two options for increasing participation have typically been strongly opposed by most local elected officials and to date there has been very limited investment in the first option.

In recycling programs, participation drives all of the other operational factors like collection efficiency and the successful processing of what is ultimately collected.   There are many other challenges that can contribute to the success or failure of collection and processing but without sustained and adequate participation, organics programs fail. Based solely on the participation levels of the current organics program it is unsustainable and expansion is unjustified.

The authors next invoke the historical decision in 2002, following the recession brought about by the events of 9/11, to temporarily suspend the collection of plastics and glass as justification for why organics should not now be suspended. They argue that once restored in stages over the next two years following 2002, the recycling program never regained the same participation rates it experienced prior to this suspension. While it is true that the gross diversion rates of recyclables did not go back to the exact same levels as prior to 2002, there are a number of reasons for this change in diversion that are related to the suspension but unrelated to the speculations of the authors.

Chief among those was that post-suspension sanitation workers were better trained to no longer pick up what was essentially garbage in a recycling can or bag, but instead leave it for garbage collections.  The recycling diversion rate (simply the weight of what was formerly trash, diverted to collection by recycling trucks) was in fact higher prior to suspension but so was the post-collection residue rate -- the rate of what the processors had to throw out as non-recyclables (garbage) received along with recyclables.

What the recession following 9/11 allowed was for a suspension of business-as-usual thinking, both political and operational, which then provided an opportunity to redesign the metal, glass, and plastics collection and processing program.   

A little more history
Going back to the 1990s and the recession during the Dinkins administration, the city had decided to abandon investment in recycling processing infrastructure and to instead rely solely upon the private sector for the processing of recyclables. City contracts were based upon the lowest bid or lowest net cost to the Department of Sanitation for the processing of those recyclables; contracts that ultimately placed the entire risk of post-consumer commodity market price fluctuation upon the contractors.

While this arrangement worked for well over a decade, following 9/11 and the experience all New York City-contracted recyclers had shipping recyclables out of the Port of Newark for many months, those same recyclers decided it was time to assume far less of the risk associated with processing and marketing the city’s recyclables. In addition, when Sanitation released its rebid of the same processing in contracts in mid-2002 it decided in an unstable marketplace to reduce the risks to its contractors by assuming the market risk instead of the contractor, rather than sharing revenues the sanitation department would be the recipient of most of the revenues, both good and bad, and the contractor would bid a straight processing fee per ton, which would include the contractor’s overhead and profit.  

The market instability plus the new contract structure resulted in what appeared to many as far higher prices, when in fact the prices after revenue offsets would have likely been similar. However, in the rush for cost-cutting following 9/11, one of the proposed cuts by the then-commissioner was to eliminate the entire metal, glass, and plastics collection program.

After much back-and-forth between the administration and the City Council leading up to the 2002 fiscal year budget, a compromise was made to temporarily suspend the collection of plastics and glass while continuing to collect just metal under a straightforward revenue-only contract the recycling bureau had in place. The former metal, glass, and plastics collection program was then scheduled through political compromise, and memorialized into law, for full restoration approximately two years later. 

The previous history is invoked solely to illustrate the fact that the recession combined with the decision to temporarily suspend the metal, glass, and plastics collection program brought about an opportunity to rethink how to design the future processing and marketing of the metal, glass, and plastics recycling stream in New York City.

At the time the city already had long-term, 20-plus-year revenue contracts with private firms for the acceptance and processing of paper but lacked anything similar with metal, glass, and plastics. Because of the limited revenue-generating potential of the metal, glass, and plastics recycling stream, combined with the added cost of processing the same complex heterogeneous stream, unlike with paper, it was incumbent upon the city to make the needed investment to ensure the proper infrastructure to accept, process, and market the materials collected.

The political and operational rethinking provided by this opportunity resulted in the release by the recycling office of a request-for-proposals for a public-private partnership to process the city’s metal, glass, and plastics for the next 20-40 years on a piece of land provided by the city.

Without this opportunity, it is likely that the metal, glass, and plastics collection program, if it still existed, would have experienced many more ups and downs between 2004 and now, as it had since its inception. Instead of looking to expand an organics program that is currently purely voluntary and with a participation rate that dooms it to failure, it would be far better to use this opportunity to suspend the program and rethink all aspects of it to ensure that if and when it is restored, it is designed to succeed rather than fail.

Presently the organics program relies almost entirely upon a private-sector jury-rigged infrastructure for receiving, processing, and marketing the organics it collects.  An infrastructure like that used for originally processing the metal, glass, and plastics stream, designed for another purpose and a wholly different quality stream but modified to a limited degree to answer the current call and secure a contract.  

Times of crisis provide opportunities, if seized, to abandon conventional thinking and instead be creative. Rather than elected officials attempting to satisfy politically powerful constituencies such as the Natural Resources Defense Council by calling for restitution of a failing program, they should use the present crisis as an opportunity to call for the redesign of the program for operational success rather than political success. 

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City’s recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. He was a 2010 Alfred P. Sloan Public Service Award recipient, and retired from Sanitation in 2016.

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City Fiscal Crisis is an Opportunity to Reimagine Failing Programs, Like Organics Recycling Wed, 27 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service rec org mat

Organics collection (photo: NYC Department of Sanitation)

Among the businesses listed as essential in Governor Cuomo’s PAUSE order are "trash and recycling collection, processing, and disposal" industries. Yet on April 7, Mayor de Blasio followed a different interpretation by announcing that the Department of Sanitation’s organics recycling program would be eliminated on May 4. To do away with this critical environmental program just to save a miniscule percentage of the city’s budget doesn’t make sense, and here’s why:

While it is no secret that the city’s curbside organics collection program doesn’t pay for itself, that’s only half the story. It is true that the program currently generates a small amount of revenue, about $50,000. However, if properly executed, the program has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the city.

In a February 2019 study, "How Much Potential Revenue are New Yorkers Wasting by Trashing Organics?," the city’s Independent Budget Office calculated that if all of the 1 million tons of food and yard waste generated by New Yorkers annually were recycled into compost, it could produce $12.5 million in revenue. If the same annual tonnage were recycled into biogas and used to generate electricity, the potential revenue could be as much as $22.5 million.

We can only realize the untapped financial potential of the organics program if enough New Yorkers separate their leftover pizza crusts and banana peels from their trash and into the city's brown bins. Cutting the program nixes the opportunity for that to happen and washes away years of gains in a single stroke. What the city should do is pursue an "expand to save" model, accomplishing multiple goals at once.

Realizing the increased revenue from organics recycling is dependent upon expansion. An investment in our organics program now will save money in the long run, all while helping our planet. It’s a win-win. 

Furthermore, history suggests that eliminating the program now means it will be that much harder to bounce back if it is ever restored. When the Bloomberg administration suspended plastics and glass recycling in 2002, in the midst of another recession, New Yorkers were recycling at a rate of about 20%. Recycling has never returned to the same level after it was brought back; the latest available data, from fiscal year 2019, shows an 18.1% recycling diversion rate citywide, a decade and a half after. Changing habits is hard.

Loss of New York City’s composting program would also have implications for the cleanliness of our city. This could mean an uptick in rats and other vermin. Currently, buildings that participate in the curbside organics collection program store their food scraps in rat-proof brown bins provided by the Department of Sanitation. Once brown bin collection stops, the same amount of organics will end up in garbage bags stacked on sidewalks, a ready feast for rats. To make matters worse, the mayor has also proposed eliminating fourth-day garbage collection in "Rat Zones." 

Ending the curbside collection of organics is short sighted and ill-advised. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish in a time when we desperately need to be thinking about how to build a resilient city. The health and longevity of our neighborhoods, city, and planet should be paramount, especially in times when tough decisions need to be made about our city’s budget and how the fiscal decisions we make today will impact our future.

The CORE Act, being introduced on Wednesday by City Council Members Keith Powers and Antonio Reynoso (a co-author here), would provide New Yorkers with places to drop off organics, electronics, textile, and other materials for recycling, as an interim measure until we restore and expand curbside collection of these streams to all New Yorkers. We know from recent history that the relatively little we save with a cut like this doesn’t justify the decades it will take to rebuild the good that it does for New Yorkers.

Gale Brewer is the 27th Borough President of Manhattan. City Council Member Antonio Reynoso represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management. On Twitter @galeabrewer & @CMReynoso34.

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New York City Must Keep and Expand Organics Collection, It’s an Essential Service Tue, 12 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
A Key Piece of the City’s New Trash Overhaul You May Not Be Aware Of bkrot twitter

(photo: @BKROT)

For most New Yorkers, the city’s private sanitation industry is mostly out of sight, out of mind. Yet it impacts us in major ways. The industry’s old trucks chug and idle along inefficient routes, spewing pollution throughout the city each night. Once collected, the trash is dumped in communities of color, namely north Brooklyn and the south Bronx. Carters make huge profits while paying their predominantly black and brown workers horrendous wages.

Some workers have reported making as little as $80 for a 16-hour shift. Even more disturbing, some carters have created their own “unions” as a way to block legitimate labor organizing.

In 2013, I started a grassroots, organic waste micro-hauling business called BK ROT. At the time, I thought we were creating a small pilot. Six years later, I have come to realize that we’ve created an entire new sector of zero-emissions waste carters that are highly efficient at diverting large amounts of organic waste from landfills in New York City. When BK ROT started, we were the first micro-hauler in NYC, now there are seven across Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.

BK ROT offers composting services to homes and businesses not serviced by the city’s sanitation department or by private carters. We collect organics by e-bike and process them locally as a fossil fuel-free alternative. The compost is distributed to local farms for growing food. We hire local youth at fair wages in an effort to combat the high unemployment rates in Bushwick and East New York.

From the start, we strived to be a socially-just operation. Our model was simple: good, green jobs that value workers and keep resources flowing within the community. The service fees covered our operations staff (workers ages 17-24) and leveraged our non-profit status for funding for public educational programing. We went from one worker, who started at 16 and is now 24, to a team of six. In 2013 we processed 300 pounds of food waste a month, in 2018 we did 73 tons, and in 2020 we are on track to capture 250 tons.

When New York City initiated reforms to the commercial hauling industry through the Commercial Waste Zone (CWZ) system, we saw an opportunity to integrate micro-hauling into one of the largest private sanitation systems in the world. As a humble grassroots hauling operation, we knew it would be an uphill battle.

From the jump, it felt overly ambitious to demand that our environmentally-conscious hauling service, powered by teenagers on e-bikes, be included in the city’s massive overhaul. Could we find our stride alongside the likes of multi-million-dollar companies, in an industry historically run by the mob?

We struggled to fit our grassroots solution into policy discussions alongside deeply vested interests. As a new type of hauler, policy-makers were puzzled by our innovative model and not sold on our viability. Mid-way through our advocacy, BK ROT ran out of land to process material because we only had 1,000 square feet of space and a growing list of businesses wanting our services. Our collection rates stagnated as we demanded that the draft CWZ legislation allow us to collect more food waste annually.

Demanding a higher annual collection rate would give us the room to scale up as we worked to overcome barriers such as large capital required for new technology and developing compost distribution networks. Instead of partnering with the bad actors in the carting industry just to grow our collection numbers, we doubled down on our commitment to workers, communities, and the planet.

And, we organized.

We connected with Transform, Don’t Trash, a coalition of environmental justice and labor groups who spent years exposing the private carting industry’s abhorrent practices. BK ROT also gained power by forming alliances with emerging micro-haulers, mostly led by women and people of color. Our new bonds helped forge a stronger voice.

We spent nearly devised a tiered system that defined annual hauling capacities (tonnage) for human powered e-bikes and zero emissions vehicles. We codified micro-hauling within the CWZ framework and successfully secured the ability to haul 2,600 tons of food waste per year.

The CWZ is the most progressive waste management reform in decades. The benefits will be felt citywide, but most acutely in communities of color that have suffered through environmental injustices and labor exploitation.

Our inclusion guarantees further emissions reductions in New York City, while diversifying an industry dominated by white men, as New York City’s micro-haulers are minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs).

I am incredibly proud of BK ROT, and the win for local micro-haulers. I stand with and remain deeply inspired by the Transform, Don’t Trash coalition that played a leading role in demanding sustainability and accountability in our private waste system.

The existential threat of climate change necessitates taking risks and going big on even the most unassuming ideas. Policy-makers must challenge the boundaries of what is seen as possible. Large scale climate mitigation means recognizing the power of grassroots groups and bringing them directly to the policy table.

Sandy Nurse is the Founder and Former Executive Director of BK ROT and a candidate for State Assembly in Brooklyn’s District 54. On Twitter @NurseForNY & @BKROT.

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A Key Piece of the City’s New Trash Overhaul You May Not Be Aware Of Mon, 18 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000