Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Recycling Stops and Starts

image of garbage on train

Some New Yorkers empty their garbage cans and heave their plastic bags onto the street never to think of the contents again. But the more than 3 million tons of trash generated in the city annually from Sunnyside to Morningside Heights does not evaporate as soon as it is tossed into the back of a white sanitation truck.

And just like our solid waste, the debate over the city's solid waste management policy is hard to get rid of.

It may have been more than a year and a half since Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed the new solid waste management plan into law, but debate continues, and much remains unresolved.

Politicking upstate has stalled the full implementation of the mayor's plan, and, beyond that, the administration has just sparked a debate over the city's two-decade old recycling law by submitting some revisions to the City Council. The move has already brought slight retaliation from environmental groups, who fear the law does not do enough to advance recycling.

Following the release of our Garbage Game in November and the analysis of our results (see related story), we have some garbage-based issues to catch up with. Here are a few.

Recycling on the Hudson

The solid waste management plan was approved in the summer of 2006 after years of back and forth between residents, council members and environmental groups. The city's truck-based system - which sent our garbage to the outer boroughs in Department of Sanitation white dump trucks - had become the bane of several communities.

The 2006 plan was supposed to tackle that. By creating a system of marine transfer stations in every borough, not only would neighborhoods that had been saddled with the waste burden - like areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn - be able to breathe easier, but Manhattan would finally be responsible for its contribution to the waste stream, environmental advocates said.

The plan calls for a recycling center off the Gansevoort peninsula near 14th Street, which would serve as both an education center and collection site. The site, supporters say, neatly fits into the administration's attempt to convert the truck-based system into a rail or barge based one, reducing toxic fumes.

But the center hit a snag upstate. Because the facility would be located in Hudson River Park, the state legislature must pass, and the governor must sign, an amendment to the act that created the waterfront esplanade. Three Manhattan assembly members, Deborah Glick, Linda Rosenthal and Dick Gottfried, have blocked that measure in Albany.

Environmental advocates claim the stall is an example of NIMBYism. "It's the give and take of Albany politics," said Marcia Bystryn, the executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters. "No one ever wants a garbage facility in their neighborhood... That's not just a transfer station. That's anything to do with sanitation."

Glick, though, argues that the city could find a more appropriate site. According to a position paper, she opposes the Gansevoort center because it would replace valuable parkland, and she argues there are alternative locations, like Pier 76 near 36th Street, that would be more suitable.

Late last year, environmental groups, City Council members and Bloomberg all lobbied Albany to push through the amendment. But some political observers say, that was not enough to counter Glick's alliance with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

A spokesman from the mayor's office said the administration was "hopeful" the amendment would be approved in the current legislative session, which began last week. When asked what the administration would do should the amendment not move in this session, the spokesman repeated the administration's positive outlook.

Recycling Everywhere

The history of recycling in New York City may be even more tumultuous than the history of solid waste generally. Over the past 20 years or so, recycling has started and stopped, and increased and fallen in popularity.

Some of this has been fought out in the courts. When the city first approved a recycling law in 1989, it set the benchmarks the city would aim for every year in total tons rather than as a percentage of waste collected. Because the city overestimated the amount of solid waste residents would produce, city officials said, it was unable to meet these goals.

As a result, the Department of Sanitation faced lawsuits brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, residents and council members, who wanted to compel the city to meet its tonnage requirements. In the latest of those suits, a State Supreme Court judge ruled the benchmarks were "simply unattainable," sparking a revision of the law.

A bill ( Intro 668) revising the city's recycling law was introduced at the City Council in December and thus far has received little attention. As negotiations between the city and local stakeholders continue, the debate could heat up.

"Now, at least theoretically, everyone is on the same page," said Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The city has come out with an initial draft that is an attempt to revise the tonnage benchmarks, and I think the environmental community and solid waste experts have some additional ideas on how best to reform the legislation."

Already some advocates claim the proposal weakens the city's recycling tonnage requirement. Under the 1989 law, the city must recycle 4,250 tons per day. Under the new legislation, those benchmarks are put into percentages, from an 18 percent diversion rate in July to a 25 percent diversion rate by 2016. Currently, the city's recycling diversion rate hovers at about 17 percent.

The mayor's solid waste management plan outlines a detailed explanation for the need to turn the benchmarks into percentages and for the need for "adaptive" and "realistic" goals that can fluctuate with the waste stream. A 25 percent diversion rate is set out specifically.

Advocates and environmentalists say the law's revision does not further the city's recycling program. "We will have a counter proposal on the mandatory tonnage requirements as well as additional provisions for enhancing the effectiveness of the city's program more comprehensively," Goldstein said.


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