Issue of the Week

Recycling Before Exporting: Turning Garbage into Dollars

by Steve Hammer

Amidst all of the turmoil accompanying the City's long overdue closure of its Fresh Kills Landfill, one bit of good news has been overshadowed: in late 1999, the City's diversion rate of recyclables - the most commonly accepted measure of recycling success - surpassed 21% of the City's residential waste. In three boroughs, over 25% of all garbage is now being recycled.

Local Law 19, requiring mandatory recycling, has come a long way since its passage ten years ago. Still a 21% diversion rate is but prelude to two significant challenges still facing the City. First, we must boost diversion rates even higher, so that the existing infrastructure for collecting and processing recyclables is being fully utilized. Second, the City should take maximum advantage of the economic value of what is collected and marketed - by attracting and developing local businesses that create jobs and economic activity.

It's worth noting that the City is exporting not only enormous quantities of residential and commercial trash - more than six million tons each year - but an increasingly large amount of cash, to national waste management and transportation companies, as well as communities that host landfills. Similarly, the bulk of the city's recyclables are also exported - to factories and mills located elsewhere in North America and in the world. These materials then create products that the City's businesses and residents turn around, import and buy.

So what can be done to boost recycling? Several things. First, improve collection of currently targeted materials. Much like the Police Department used ComStat as a tool to identify and target pockets of crime, the Department of Sanitation (DOS) has the data, but not the commitment or resources, to target poor-performing community districts. Returning to weekly collection has helped - nine districts now divert over 30% of their waste. But four districts still languish at 10% or below.

Second, expand the materials targeted for recycling. Look around the country. Other cities are targeting additional "discards" for which economic markets exist, or are developing. From residences, those materials include textiles (used clothing) and electronics; Seattle just added additional plastic containers, such as butter tubs and yogurt cups. Notwithstanding the City's failure to enforce existing commercial recycling rules, used commercial carpeting is on the cusp of being economically viable as a recyclable and should be so designated.

Third, expand recycling collection to public spaces - the last frontier. Currently, New York City Transit flaunts state and local law by refusing to collect recyclables throughout the subway system, and recycling containers should be included in the City's much-delayed plans for new street furniture.

Fourth, although more of a waste prevention initiative, food waste can now easily be eliminated from the City's residential garbage - through an aggressive program to install food waste disposers, i.e., garbage grinders, in residences. Although legal for over two years, disposers have not yet caught on in New York - in part because new housing construction is at historic lows. Yet, food waste is approximately 15% of the city's collected garbage - twice the national average. Reducing food waste also makes sense because it is largely water-based and generates vermin, odor, and methane gas problems at every stop along the way.

As to the economic development potential of recyclables, the City does have one flagship project: the development of the Visy Paper corrugated cardboard mill on Staten Island, which now consumes a good portion of our wastepaper. Unfortunately, the Visy mill is the exception that proves the rule. While New York is the "Saudi Arabia" of recyclables, it has failed to be creative and aggressive in capturing their value.

In fact, New York's enormous volume of wastepaper could supply several more urban-sized mills (for which at least one project is on the drawing board). Other cities are spurring and supporting businesses based on the recycling of tires, computers, carpets, wood, and other materials. Why isn't New York?

The problem isn't lack of studies; previous Sanitation and economic development czars have researched and advocated seizing this opportunity. We also don't lack models for programs; dozens of state and city-supported models exist elsewhere. Perhaps it's a matter of scale: when compared to Wall Street and Silicon Alley, recycling-related opportunities seem small. But for the City's dwindling manufacturing sector, and its residents who rely on those job opportunities, creating recycling-related jobs makes enormous good sense. After all, the raw materials already are here, as are the markets for the new products they can make!

As the debate sharpens over the City's management of solid waste for the coming decades, the opportunities for expanding and benefiting from recycling deserve serious consideration. In the face of estimates of $300 million or more annually in increased waste handling costs once Fresh Kills is closed, it makes no sense to continue unnecessary exports of trash - and hard-earned cash - to economies outside of our border, when they could much more beneficially be recycled and reused here.

Steve Hammer is Co-Chairperson, Citywide Recycling Advisory Board

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