Birdie vs. Litter: NYC Takes On Trash In New Ads

New York is a trashy town. Each year, we generate over 3 million tons of residential waste. And another 3 million tons of commercial trash.

Last spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared war on all of this garbage. As part of his OneNYC plan, he gave the city a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030—that’s the “0 x 30” signs you might notice on garbage trucks.

The de Blasio administration aims to achieve this goal by increasing the amount of trash that gets recycled or composted. But, the city is also trying to tame New Yorkers’ consumption habits—cutting down the amount of plastic bags, bottles and takeout cups we use will ultimately mean less trash going to landfills.

NYC mascot Birdie's ads supporting plastic bags
One of the BYO ads put out by the city.

With that in mind, the city just announced a media blitz to reduce waste and combat litter. The ads will feature Birdie, the government mascot who just starred in the city’s “B.Y.O.” (Bring Your Own) campaign. Birdie will again remind New Yorkers to “bring their own”—in this case, reusable mugs, bottles and bags. You’ll soon see the ads on sanitation trucks and at bus stops.

Can Ads Change Our Habits?

Still, you might wonder if even the best ad campaign can curb New York’s penchant for creating waste. City officials answer this with a clear “yes.”

According to GreeNYC, New Yorkers had “overwhelmingly positive feelings” towards Birdie’s first B.Y.O campaign. It even increased their feelings of responsibility for reducing waste: 14% of New Yorkers reported that it got them into the habit of carrying reusable bags, mugs and bottles; 36% reported that they now intend to always carry reusable bags; 42% intend to always carry a reusable water bottle; and 27% intend to always carry a reusable mug.

Still, getting 9 million New Yorkers to change their habits will probably take more than ads. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is pitching in with a fleet of 500 new or repaired public water fountains and water bottle refilling stations across the five boroughs.

Trash cans will also be part of the solution. For now, many city trash cans are part of the problem—they’re teetering mountains of waste. So, as part of this new push, the Department of Sanitation is calling on New Yorkers to Adopt-a-Basket through a program that teams local residents, businesses and community groups with the city to monitor and change liners in trash baskets on busy streets.

Spare Our Waterways

Along with sparing landfills and streets, the city also hopes this new campaign will help keep our local waterways clean and healthy. After all, some of that errant trash makes its way into sewers and then winds its way into larger waterways. That leaves a lot of “plastic in our harbor and ocean…[which] is an assault on the environment,” says Judith A. Enck, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We are essentially turning our waters into a landfill,” Enck said. “The best way to remove trash from our waters is to keep it out in the first place. We need to reduce waste at the source. NYC’s Bring Your Own is a terrific initiative that should be repeated in other communities.”

NYC’s Plastic Bag Bill Lives Despite Mayor’s Ambivalence

New York City’s “Plastic Bag Bill” is not dead. Stuck in legislative purgatory since late 2014, the bill has seemingly gathered momentum in recent months—but will it be enough to push the Mayor off the sidelines?

Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn has been holding summertime reusable bag giveaways, including one last week in front of City Hall. Lander and other supporters of the bill, including Councilmember Costa Constantinides, are putting bags in the hands of New Yorkers—perhaps persuading some folks who are reluctant to pay for a once-free plastic bag.

But, one crucial ally is still missing: Mayor Bill de Blasio. While the recent OneNYC Plan commits the city to dramatically reducing plastic bag waste, the Mayor has offered scant details on how that’ll happen. For now, it’s not the proposed bag bill; the Mayor has steadfastly refused to weigh in on the legislation.

Co-sponsored by Lander and Councilmember Margaret Chin, the Plastic Bag Bill would require New York City stores to charge 10 cents for every paper and plastic bag they give out. Stores keep the fee. There are exemptions for meat and produce items, as well as for New Yorkers using the WIC and SNAP programs.

At the City Hall giveaway, Lander said he was “hopeful” the Mayor would “finalize his position” in the next few months.

The legislation needs a mere four more votes to pass in the City Council—what’s holding de Blasio back?

Reason #1: Is It Basic Math?

Plastic bags wave from a tree in New York City.
Plastic bags wave from a tree in New York City.

Perhaps it’s simple political math: with his poll numbers faltering and a recent string of political misfires, the Mayor may be reluctant to throw weight behind another seemingly unpopular measure.

A recent poll by NBC News 4, The Wall Street Journal and Marist College sure makes the bill sound unpopular: 63% of respondents opposed the proposed 10-cent charge.

But at last week’s giveaway, Lander noted that he talks to numerous New Yorkers at similar events and “everyone agrees: something needs to be done.”

The numbers bear this out. New Yorkers throw out 5.2 billion plastic bags each year, which costs the city over $12 million a year to transport to landfills. And at last Thursday’s event at least, New Yorkers seemed pleased to get reusable bags and receptive to the idea of changing ingrained habits.

Reason #2: New Yorkers Love Free Plastic Bags?

The Plastic Bag Bill would place a 10-cent fee on each bag handed out by retailers.
The Plastic Bag Bill would place a 10-cent fee on each bag handed out by retailers. Photo credit: William Miller.

As Councilmember Lander conceded, New Yorkers are reluctant to pay for something that used to be free.

But is this a perverse bit of New York entitlement? Do we think we’re owed free plastic bags? Are we simply too stressed to remember to bring reusable bags with us? Or, are we all so cranky from other urban inconveniences that we resent yet another expense, albeit a seemingly modest one?

We certainly don’t seem to think the bags are worth the money. In his recent opus on the bag battle, New York Magazine’s Adam Sternbergh noted that “(O)ne paradox of the pro-bag position is having to argue that plastic bags are a valuable commodity that people nonetheless aren’t willing to pay a few cents for.”

There are some folks who re-use the bags as trash liners and makeshift tote bags. Virtuous as this may be, plastic bags can only be re-used for so long before they end up in the trash. Some folks also claim the bags don’t lead to litter, a charge that’s hard to square with Bag It NYC’s map of errant plastic bags.

Reason #3: Is It Government Over-Reach…Or An Attack on the Poor?

Opponents have done a good job re-branding the bill as a tax and another “nanny-state” overreach. While the ten-cent charge is a fee, not a tax (the dime goes back to store owners, not the government), New Yorkers may generally be skeptical of government efforts to re-shape habits. Witness the fate of former Mayor Bloomberg’s over-sized soda ban.

And, despite exemptions for New Yorkers using food stamps and WIC, there have been charges that the proposed fee disproportionately targets poor and minority residents, an assertion that has to give pause to a Mayor who won office in part by promising to end New York’s yawning income gap.

It also might explain City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito’s reluctance to endorse the fee. A leading Bronx reverend recently urged the Speaker to “sack” the fee lest it “push vulnerable families, seniors and immigrants from slipping below the poverty line.”

Councilmembers Brad Lander and Costa Constantinides hand out reusable bags to eager New Yorkers.
Councilmembers Brad Lander and Costa Constantinides hand out reusable bags to eager New Yorkers. Photo via Brad Lander.

This puts a sharper focus on Lander’s bag giveaways. Getting free reusables into the hands of New Yorkers might put a friendlier face on the bill, showing that the fee is not part of a government-engineered “stick” meant to beat New Yorkers in to better habits.

Rather, the city is willing to help its citizens make practical, achievable changes that will curb waste and save money. This sort of community outreach worked in Washington D.C., where a recent 5-cent fee was much more enthusiastically embraced.

We’ll see if there are more bag giveaways here…and if they stir the Mayor and Council Speaker to some sort of action.

Are New York City’s Traffic Lights Going Green?

By 2025, all of New York City’s traffic lights—along with its government buildings and possibly even public housing facilities—could be powered by wind, solar, or some other form of renewable, green energy.

Earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio, issued a call to the energy industry to help the city identify creative solutions to bring reliable, cost-effective green energy to the Big Apple. This Request for Information seeks responses from all entities involved in the renewable sector—from developers and generators to transmission entities and financial institutions—and aims to identify new, rather than existing, renewable energy sources.

This distinction is important: the mayor’s intention is to inspire new clean energy projects, rather than taking from what already exists.

“This is a call to the marketplace: the biggest energy customer you’ll find is ready to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to renewable power,” said Mayor de Blasio in a statement.

Responses to the RFI are due in early September. A formal request for proposals will come later this fall.

Purchasing Power

Solar panels atop Brooklyn home. Via
Solar panels atop Brooklyn home. Via Quixotic Systems.

New York City consumes a lot of energy. Powering the city’s 4,000 government buildings and tens of thousands of streetlights costs upwards of $650 million dollars every year, and is responsible for about 7.5 percent of the entire city’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s 3.2 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent for those who are counting.

[pullquote]”We aim to be the thin edge of the wedge, the beginning of the transformation of the energy market for NYC…”[/pullquote]That’s why de Blasio’s plan is so exciting. Not only could it dramatically reduce the city’s contribution to climate change, but it could actually make it possible for other localities to do the same.

By injecting more than $600 million into the renewable energy industry, the plan could spur innovation, bring down costs, and inspire cities around the world to follow suit.

“We aim to be the thin edge of the wedge, the beginning of the transformation of the energy market for NYC, so that renewables become a major part of our electric grid over the next generation,” said Nilda Mesa, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “The City, as one of the largest energy purchasers in the country, can use its purchasing power to lead the way.”

The renewable energy initiative is part of de Blasio’s One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City (OneNYC), wherein the city has pledged to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 (80×50), and emissions from City government operations 35 percent by 2025 (35×25).

Preparing for 9 Million Residents in NYC, One Step at a Time

Between 2000 and 2014, New York City grew by almost half a million residents—483,000 to be exact. This was the biggest population increase among the nation’s largest cities during that period, reports the City.

And New York City is well on its way to meeting the projection of nine million residents by 2030. The Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency notes on its website:

“Population growth will place new pressure on an infrastructure system that is already aging beyond reliable limits. Many of the systems pioneered in New York City are also among the oldest in the U.S., and susceptible to disrepair over time, or damage by severe weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy.”

How Are We Planning? Take a Look at the City’s Budget

Take a look at the Summary of Mayor de Blasio’s proposed 2016 Executive Budget. It’s reader-friendly, in slide format, and provides lots of interesting information about the City’s long-term planning priorities.

[The New York City Council will give final approval to the City budget prior to the start of the Fiscal Year on July 1- this is called the adopted budget.]

We were intrigued by the proposed 2016-2025 Capital Budget (see slide 44). Capital costs refer to spending on long-term assets, like buildings, streets and infrastructure. This category does not include annual operational expenses, like personnel.

We’ve highlighted capital budget categories that have a clear connection to environmental protection and sustainability.

2016-2025 Capital Budget, Major Categories:

  • Education: $23.4 billion
  • Environmental Protection: $14.7 billion
  • Bridges & Highways: $12.6 billion
  • Housing: $8.4 billion
  • Administration of Justice: $4.7 billion
  • Economic Development: $3.4 billion
  • Health & Hospitals: $2.9 billion
  • Resiliency & Energy Efficiency: $2.5 billion
  • Parks: $2.5 billion
  • Sanitation: $2.3 billion
  • Technology: $1.7 billion
  • Fire: $1.3 billion
  • Public Buildings: $1.2 billion
  • Mass Transit: $0.8 billion
  • Culturals & Libraries: $0.8 billion
  • Social Services: $0.6 billion

Combined, the various environmental protection and sustainability categories make up over a quarter—27 percent—of the City’s 2016-2015 capital budget.

All sorts of questions can be asked about the dollar amounts allocated to these categories. For instance, how is mass transit going to get the capital support (from the city, state and the feds) it actually needs? We will dig into that in a future post.

For the moment, here’s some more detail on this $14.7 billion “environmental protection” category.

Maintaining Clean Water for 9 Million, at a Cost of $14.7 billion

As the last couple days have demonstrated, adequate stormwater infrastructure in New York City is absolutely critical, and the need for this infrastructure will increase as our climate continues to change.

Here’s how the Mayor has allocated $14.7 billion in capital spending for the Department of Environmental Protection, which is also the city’s water utility, over the next ten years (see slide 50):


  • Sewers and In-City Water Mains: $6 billion (41%)
  • Wastewater Treatment: $5.6 billion (38%)
  • Upstate Watersheds (which provide our drinking water): $1.4 billion (9%)
  • Drinking Water Supply: $1.2 billion (8%)
  • Equipment: $500 million (4%)

A Call for More Support for the City’s Parks- especially in low-income communities

In a city whose population is projected to grow by another million people by 2030, New York City’s green spaces are more important than ever before. But parks advocates and the City Council are saying that the Mayor’s just released executive budget doesn’t do enough to support and protect those spaces, and that disparities in the quality of open space between wealthy and poorer neighborhoods are not being adequately addressed.

“There just isn’t enough money -general operating support- to maintain all the [city’s] parks as they need to be maintained,” Alec Appelbaum, spokesman for New Yorkers for Parks, an advocacy group, told NY Environment Report.

“Our parks budget lags behind most other cities in America, further increasing the gap between hundreds of struggling parks in low and moderate income communities and highly funded parks in wealthier areas,” added Council Member Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council Parks Committee, in a statement today.

“We can only close the parks equity gap in low and moderate income neighborhoods through robust investment in our vital green spaces,” Levine continued. The Council Member said he was confident that the de Blasio administration and the Council could find a way to increase parks funding before the FY 2016 budget is finalized next month.

Barretto Point Park in the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. Photo credit: Michael Kamber for The New York Times

29,000 Acres of Open Space (for 8 million+ residents)

Fourteen percent of all the land in the five boroughs -29,000 acres- is under the care of New York City’s Parks Department. This includes more than 5,000 properties, ranging from iconic sites like Coney Island Beach and Central Park, to thousands of smaller sites used by local residents every day.

Parks Department sites include:

  • Almost 1,000 playgrounds
  • More than 600 community gardens
  • 800 athletic fields and 48 recreational and athletic centers
  • 550 tennis courts, 66 public pools and 13 golf courses
  • 17 nature centers
  • 14 miles of beaches

Less than 1 percent of the City budget goes toward parks and green spaces, despite their essential contribution to overall quality of life, observed Alec Appelbaum.

Playing chess in Washington Square Park. Photo credit:

The Parks Department is also the caretaker of New York City’s vital urban forest, looking after 650,000 street trees, and two million more trees in the city’s parks.

Kettle Pond in Alley Pond Park, Queens. Photo credit:

“Gaps” in the Mayor’s Budget

Council Member Levine noted that there is some good news in this year’s Executive Budget, particularly $5 million for Parks Enforcement Patrol officers and $6 million for tree maintenance.

The Mayor has allocated $151 million for the second phase of the Community Parks Initiative, the Parks Department’s first major attempt to address disparities in the quality of public parks. The City allocated capital funds for 35 sites in phase 1 of the Initiative, and has now targeted additional sites, explained Alec Appelbaum.

The Initiative is “a multi-faceted investment in the smaller public parks that are located in New York City’s densely populated and growing neighborhoods where there are higher-than-average concentrations of poverty,” says the City.

This includes enhanced programming, maintenance, and “community partnership building” in order to encourage residents to take advantage of and participate in rebuilding their local parks.

But the Mayor’s budget does not renew $5 million in expense funding for the Community Parks Initiative, which was covered by the City Council last year. Most of that funding, $4.3 million, went toward maintaining Phase 1 sites. An additional $750,000 was used for parks-related community building work, explained Tyrone Stevens, an aide to Council Member Levine.

“The broader imperative of closing the parks equity gap in our city remains largely unaddressed,” Council Member Levine argued. In addition to leaving out “badly needed” funding for seasonal gardeners and maintenance workers, the Mayor’s budget “fails to fund” community gardens, playground associates and an extension of the beach and pool season, Levine said.

Photo credit: Jeanne Noonan for the NY Daily News

Bringing the Parks Funding Question to City Hall

On Wednesday, May 27, Council Member Levine, New Yorkers for Parks, and other parks and community gardens advocates will hold a rally on the steps of City Hall to call for more funding to “close the parks equity gap.”

Levine is proposing:


  • Restoration of $8.7 million for seasonal gardeners and park maintenance workers, who advocates say are essential to “efficient” parks upkeep.
  • $1 million increase for the GreenThumb program to support the city’s more than 600 community gardens.
  • $750,000 for tree stump removal.
  • Restoration of $750,000 for parks equity and community building work carried out by the public-private Partnerships for Parks program.
  • $5.4 million to hire 200 additional playground associates.
  • $500K to support a Master Planning process for the city’s mid-sized parks–especially those which are regional draws with high usership.
  • $5 million for the GreenThumb program to address infrastructure needs (capital expense).

With Equity as Goal, City Releases New Sustainability and Resiliency Plan

“Environmental and economic sustainability must go hand in hand,” declared Mayor de Blasio today as he released the City’s new sustainability and climate resiliency plan: OneNYC.

OneNYC builds on PlaNYC, the multi-pronged “sustainability blueprint” created under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to de Blasio, OneNYC will expand on the targets established in previous plans, while also incorporating the priorities of his own administration.

Growth, sustainability, and resiliency remain at the core of OneNYC – but equity is now an additional guiding principle throughout the plan.

The City highlighted four goals in its release of OneNYC today:

  • Lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty over the next 10 years
  • Zero waste to landfills by 2030
  • The cleanest air of any large city, and a dramatic reduction in emissions
  • Elimination of long-term displacement from homes and jobs after shock events by 2050

“This is a bold and ambitious plan – and New York City requires nothing less,” de Blasio stated.

The plan is organized around four major “visions”- “Our Growing, Thriving City,” “Our Just and Equitable City,” “Our Sustainable City,” and “Our Resilient City.”

The Challenges Facing New York City

New York City faces a number of challenges, says the City, including a rapidly growing population, rising inequality, an aging infrastructure, and climate change. OneNYC lays out a series of targets and initiatives to “prepare New York City for the future generations,” including:

  • Making New York City home to 4.9 million jobs by 2040.
  • Creating 240,000 new housing units by 2025, and an additional 250,000 to 300,000 by 2040.
  • Enabling the average New Yorker to reach 25% more jobs – or 1.8 million jobs – within 45 minutes by public transit.
  • Lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near-poverty by 2025.
  • Cutting premature mortality by 25 percent by 2040, while reducing racial/ethnic disparities.
  • Reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, over 2005 levels.
  • Sending zero waste to landfills and reducing waste disposal by 90 percent relative to 2005 levels, by 2030.
  • Ensuring New York City has the best air quality among all large U.S. cities by 2030.
  • Reducing risks of flooding in most affected communities.
  • Eliminating long-term displacement from homes and jobs after future shock events by 2050.
  • Reducing the city’s Social Vulnerability Index for neighborhoods across the City.
  • Reducing annual economic losses from climate-related events.
  • Continued investment as part of an over-$20 billion program that includes a range of physical, social, and economic resiliency measures.

Does the City’s Plan Prepare Us Sufficiently for Climate Change?

As you read the City’s plan, here are some questions to consider, especially in its discussion of climate resiliency.

How Will the City Carry Out Its Vision?

The New York League of Conservation Voters applauded the Mayor for “laying out an aspirational vision of the city we want to become, a city that is not only environmentally sustainable but also economically sustainable,” in a statement today.

But, the League added, “as PlaNYC showed us…successfully achieving our ambitious goals requires a roadmap that allows us to measure progress. The de Blasio administration should quickly follow up with an implementation plan that includes funding sources, a timetable, baseline indicators to track progress, and an agency responsible for implementation.”

New Climate Report Underscores Need for Immediate Action in New York City

Key Points:

  • A new report released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change details projections in sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation through the year 2100.
  • Sea level rise is happening, and is expected to accelerate over the next century.
  • New York City weather will become hotter and more extreme, with more heat waves and intense precipitation events.
  • These changes will have profound and dangerous impacts on New York City’s people, infrastructure, economy, and natural environment.


The data keeps piling up: climate change presents a clear and growing threat to New York City, and now is the time for action.

A new report released today, Building the Knowledge Base for Climate Resiliency, details for the first time projections in sea level rise, temperature, and precipitation for New York City through the year 2100.

Overall, the news is grim: according to the report’s authors, annual temperatures are hot and getting hotter, extreme precipitation events are increasing in frequency, and the sea is rising faster than expected.

The report was produced by the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an independent body of academic and private sector experts that advises the city on climate risks and resiliency. The NPCC was convened by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in August 2008 as part of PlaNYC. This is their third report since that time and presents work from January 2013 to January 2015.

Sea Levels Are Rising, and Fast

Transportation infrastructure in New York City is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Photo credit: MTA via Creative Commons.

Some of the most startling findings from today’s report revolve around sea level rise projections. Since 1900, New York City has seen sea levels rise around 12 inches—that’s nearly twice the observed global rate over a similar time period.

But it’s not going to stop there: this trend is expected to continue, and even accelerate, as the century progresses. According to the report, sea level could rise 11-21 inches by the 2050s, and 18-39 inches by the 2080s. By 2100, it could reach as high as six feet.

Low-lying and coastal areas of New York City will certainly feel the brunt of this inundation—and many have already begun to experience the impacts. The report suggests that just the current 12 inches of sea level rise may have expanded Hurricane Sandy’s flood area by approximately 25 square miles.

Of all the boroughs, Queens has the most land area at risk of future coastal flooding due to sea level rise, followed by Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Bronx, and Manhattan.

More Storms, More Problems

While continued sea level rise is all but certain, the specific frequency of future storms like hurricanes and nor’easters has proven harder to predict. However, the report’s authors note that it is “more likely than not” that there will be more intense storms, and they will bring extreme winds and intense precipitation.

Coupled with already high sea levels, these storms could cause serious flooding in parts of the City that are already struggling to cope with climate impacts. The report states that “under the high sea level rise estimate for the 2080s, the current 100-year flood (a flood with a 1 percent annual chance of occurrence) is projected to become an approximately once-in-eight year event.”

These changes are reflected most strikingly in the FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps. Residents across New York are already seeing the impacts of these maps being updated; if sea level rise continues unabated, by 2100, the area covered by 100-year flood zone will potentially double.


To the Extreme

New York City could see six dangerous heat waves per year by 2100. Photo credit: Chris Goldberg via Creative Commons.

It’s going to get hotter in New York City—but it’s also going to get wetter and more extreme.

Since 1900, temperatures measured in Central Park have risen 3.4°F, mirroring an increase that’s been seen throughout the entire Northeast, in both rural and urban areas.

By the 2050s, the NPCC suggests that annual temperatures could increase by 4.1 to 5.7°F. By 2080, it could be closer to 8.8°F.

That may not seem like much, especially as we shiver through a snowy February. But keep in mind that these increases will occur in all months of the year. To put things in perspective, the NPCC offers this: “By the 2080s, New York City’s mean temperatures … may bear similarities to those of a city like Norfolk, Virginia, today.”

We can expect to see more days above 90°F, more days above 100°F, and more heat waves (three or more consecutive days above 90°F), too. The NPCC report suggests that by 2080, the number of heat waves could triple—up to six per year.

But the extremes won’t be limited to temperature. Since 1900, annual precipitation has increased a total of 8 inches (about 0.8 inches a decade); the report suggests this increase is likely to continue, but will probably come in the form of short, intense bursts—perfect for flash floods and combined sewage overflows.

The Time for Action is Now

NYC °CoolRoofs promotes the cooling of New York City’s rooftops. Applying a reflective surface to a roof helps reduce cooling costs, cut energy usage and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Photo credit: NYC °CoolRoofs

While it is difficult to project individual weather events with any kind of certainty, the NPCC’s report is clear that climate change is a serious and imminent threat to New York City’s people, economy, infrastructure, and natural environment.

And while the City is taking dramatic steps to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, it must also act now to protect against sea level rise, coastal flooding, and warming temperatures that are now inevitable.

“NPCC’s findings underscore the urgency of not only mitigating our contributions to climate change, but adapting our city to its risks,” said Mayor de Blasio. “The task at hand is daunting— and that is why we’re making an unprecedented commitment, with a sweeping plan to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, and a comprehensive, multi-layered resiliency plan that is already making neighborhoods safer.”

The City is also making progress on a number of key projects, including:

  • The launch of scoping and preliminary design work on the Lower East Side to implement a $335 million integrated, neighborhood-sensitive flood protection system to mitigate risk and help connect the community with the waterfront.
  • The Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR), partnering with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), has launched the first-ever, comprehensive regional resiliency analysis of New York City’s food supply chain network.
  • To combat the urban heat island effect, as of the end of 2014, NYC Cool Roofs has coated over six million square feet of building roofs with reflective paint to address the climate change risks associated with urban heat. The City’s recent green buildings plan commits to coating at least one million square feet a year more to continue mitigating the urban heat island effect and provide energy savings in affordable housing, public buildings, and non-profit organizations.
  • ORR and NYCEDC have also launched an approximately $100 million shoreline investment program to protect the most vulnerable waterfront communities, including Coney Island Creek and Staten Island’s South Shore, and other low-lying parts of the city that will be evaluated as part of the first phase of work.

Future efforts include upgrading flood protection systems and coastal protection in at-risk areas, preparing NYCHA for heavy flooding, investments in the Staten Island Bluebelt and other storm water infrastructure, and the construction of levees in Midland Beach and on Staten Island’s East Shore.

Many other sustainability plans are outlined in PlaNYC; the mayor’s office will release a progress report for those initiatives in April 2015.

Why You Should Read the City’s Plan to Reduce Carbon Emissions by 80%

New York City has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. The announcement was made leading up to the People’s Climate March and the U.N. Climate Summit last week.

“Climate change is an existential threat to New Yorkers and our planet. Acting now is nothing short of a moral imperative,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. The City has released a plan detailing how that 80 percent target will be reached.

“The most important thing is that the Mayor’s announcement is…unambiguous,“ said Eric Goldstein, the director of New York City Environment for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These all-important climate issues will occupy an important place in his [the Mayor’s] agenda.”

Goldstein said that the Mayor met Friday with key staff members, along with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, environmental justice and advocacy groups, and labor unions, to discuss implementation of his emissions reduction plan.

A Historic Plan

While the state has had similar targets for several years, the de Blasio plan is historic in at least two ways. The plan ties ambitious environmental objectives to social equity, specifically, making housing more affordable in the long-term.

Second, the City states that its long-term objective is to transition New York completely away from fossil fuels. We met demonstrators at the climate march who criticized the de Blasio administration, saying that the transition needs to happen immediately. However, it’s worth stating that de Blasio makes a real departure on this point from his predecessor.

Discussions with Bloomberg administration officials, and review of their sustainability plans, gave the distinct impression that Mayor Bloomberg and his team believed that fossil fuels would be part of the city’s energy mix for an indefinite period of time. Indeed, Mayor Bloomberg actively supported two major natural gas pipeline projects in the city, the first such projects in several decades.

“We have the power to begin transforming our buildings for a low-carbon future and the complete transition away from fossil fuels—and we will begin today,” the City states in the plan released last weekend.

Climate Target: the City’s Building Stock

As has been widely reported, the core of the City’s plan is to cut emissions released from New York’s built environment. Nearly three quarters of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy used to heat, cool, and power buildings. The City says that building retrofits must be “a central component of any plan to dramatically reduce emissions.”

As a point of reference, on-road transportation currently generates 21 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Mayor stated that New York will be the world’s largest city to commit to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, the global target established by the U.N. to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change.

“Realizing this ambition will not be easy,” the Mayor wrote in his introduction to the plan. The City notes that more than 80 percent of New York’s carbon reductions to date “were due to a switch from coal and oil electricity generation to cleaner-burning natural gas and additional improvements to utility operations. These reductions cannot be replicated.”

As of 2013, New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 19 percent from 2005 levels.

A Deeper Round of Emissions Cuts

According to the Mayor, this next -and deeper- round of emissions cuts “will come building by building, block by block, and neighborhood by neighborhood. It will require new technologies and innovative thinking…The solutions we develop together will change our city, and they can change cities across the world.”

Approximately 3,000 city-owned buildings –including schools and public housing- will be retrofitted within the next ten years, generating “operational savings” for taxpayers, says the City. Private building owners will be given “ambitious” target reductions and “mandates if reductions are not met.”

Goldstein agreed that execution of the Mayor’s plan, especially getting private building owners to go along, is the key challenge. Many owners of smaller buildings -both residential and commercial- may not have the resources to invest in substantial energy efficiency upgrades. “If anyone understands those concerns, it will be this Mayor,” Goldstein said.

The Real Estate Board of New York has offered initial support to the Mayor’s plan. The Board’s chair, Rob Speyer, argued in a statement that New York was “hopefully leading the way for other cities around the world to follow.”

Retrofitting public buildings, and creating incentives for private building owners to do the same, will require an enormous investment from the City.

What’s the pay-off? By 2025, New York City building-based greenhouse gas emissions could drop by 3.4 million metric tons annually, equivalent to taking 715,000 vehicles off the road.

And the City says that both the public and private sectors will benefit substantially from energy cost savings- $8.5 billion over the next ten years. Approximately 3,500 new jobs in construction and energy services will be created by the effort, along with ancillary economic activity.

“At every step of the way, we will ensure that all these benefits accrue equitably across the city,” the plan notes. “All residents of New York City have equal claims to housing that is affordable, air that is breathable, and a city that is sustainable. Simply reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is not enough.”

The de Blasio administration’s decision to link environmental and economic issues has the potential to alter New York City’s political landscape.

“The challenge [for the City] will be to begin to address traditional environmental interests through an equity lens,” observed Goldstein. “If…[successful], that will be a very powerful constituency.”

Five Things that Make the Mayor’s Plan Noteworthy

  1. Mayor de Blasio’s administration is the first to envision a New York City that ultimately relies 100 percent on renewable energy. (see page 22)
  2. The de Blasio administration argues that climate change “can also exacerbate conditions of inequality in New York City. Individuals and communities who are most vulnerable due to poverty, poor health, crime, and/or food insecurity will suffer disproportionately from the impacts.” (see page 20)
  3.  The plan connects environmental objectives directly to social equity (lowering energy and housing costs); public health (lowering air pollution levels); and community-based economic development (job creation and new business opportunities).  (see pages 22 and 26)
  4. The City seeks to create a “thriving market” for energy efficiency upgrades and renewable energy. (see page 57)
  5. The City plans to use publicly-owned buildings -including public housing- as showcases for energy efficiency and conservation, renewable energy use, efficient operations and maintenance, cutting-edge clean energy technology, and overall sustainability. (see page 45)


Part III: New York City’s History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old

By Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director, Natural Resources Defense Council. This series originally appeared on Switchboard

Read Part I of the series here. Read Part II of the series here.

In December 2013, the Sanitation Department was collecting recyclables from New York City residences and institutions at a rate of just over 16 per cent; the percentage is just about the same today. In view of the ambitious intentions of the city’s landmark recycling statute, Local Law 19 of 1989, this percentage is discouraging. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

For one thing, it underestimates the actual amount of household recycling taking place in the five boroughs. It does that, for example, by having to exclude from its calculations the significant number of bottles and cans that are placed out for recycling by city residents but are plucked from their blue recycling bags and bins by curbside scavengers before these valuable materials are picked up by the Sanitation Department and brought to the city’s recycling contractor. Other residential waste materials that end up in non-city run recycling programs (e.g., clothing drop-offs at non-profit organizations, battery and tire recycling at retail outlets, etc.) are similarly not counted in these official recycling calculations.

In addition, the 2013 recycling percentage does not reflect the seeds that were planted in the last year of Mayor Bloomberg’s term. Expanding the types of plastics that can be included in recycling bins, adding pilot projects to collect food waste for composting, growing the number of high-rise buildings that are separating textiles and e-waste, increasing recycling in public schools and on city streets — these and other recent enhancements to the city’s recycling program hold the promise of significant growth in the amount of refuse that New York City diverts from landfills and incinerators in the not-too-distant future.

Twenty-five years after the City Council passed a landmark recycling law, the statute’s ultimate goal—to make recycling and composting the cornerstones of city waste—has yet to be achieved. But the new Administration (Mayor Bill de Blasio (left), Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia (center) and Acting Deputy Sanitation Commissioner for Sustainability Bridget Anderson (right)) is sending encouraging signals that the era of waste policy reform has finally arrived.

2014 – The de Blasio Administration Builds Momentum on Recycling/Composting

When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January 2014, some New Yorkers were worried that he would abandon the sustainability focus that the Bloomberg Administration had begun. Eight months later, it is safe to say that, at least in the area of solid waste and recycling, such concerns appear to have been unwarranted.

To be sure, the Mayor is putting his own stamp on sustainability. And he comes at the issue with a frame that is different from Mayor Bloomberg’s. But when it comes to recycling and composting, the de Blasio administration seems determined to keep moving New York City sustainability policies forward.

First, the Mayor appointed Kathryn Garcia as his new Sanitation Commissioner. The commissioner, a former top official at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, has a long-running commitment to sustainability. And in her very first public statement upon being appointed, the Commissioner expressed the new Administration’s intention of “taking this agency to the forefront of the nation in terms of composting.”

Sure enough, the Commissioner and her team have continued to grow the organics collection pilot projects serving single- and multi-family households and schools in New York City. By July 2014, the curbside food waste collection demonstration projects had expanded to reach over 240,000 New Yorkers in all five boroughs.

The Commissioner has also begun an assessment of how recycling collections can be made more cost-effective — an analysis that could benefit city taxpayers and help to achieve the objectives of Local Law 19 at the same time. As the Commissioner recently stated, “(w)e are embracing the view that waste should be treated as a resource and in fact, we actually receive revenue from some of our recycling vendors when they sell or directly reuse the material.”

In another positive sign, the de Blasio Administration and the City Council renewed the contract with GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. This feisty little office has played a big role in building recycling and composting programs in the city’s schools and is assisting the Sanitation Department in much-needed public education efforts.

Ultimately, of course, it is performance that counts. The initial signals from Mayor de Blasio and his Sanitation Department hold the promise that the city will at long last achieve the recycling and sustainability objectives of Local Law 19 of 1989. But the final chapter has yet to be written.

Since the passage of an ambitious recycling law in 1989, the New York City Council has played an essential role in advancing sustainable waste policies here in the nation’s largest city. It is likely that the Council’s new leaders on waste issues—Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (left), Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander (center), and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso (right)—will keep the Council at the center of innovative waste planning here.

Things to Look for in the Years Ahead

Here are seven issues to watch as the waste policy reforms of the de Blasio Administration and the New York City Council move forward:

  • The single greatest step the City can take to divert waste from landfills and incinerators is to phase in programs that separate out food scraps and yard waste for composting and/or sustainable anaerobic digestion. Will the Sanitation Department continue its ongoing efforts to expand curbside collection of organics for residents and businesses and also boost community composting right here in New York City?
  • Ongoing, effective public education efforts are essential to the long-term success of recycling in New York City. Will the Department of Education cooperate with the de Blasio administration to insure that every school classroom has recycling bins and every school lunchroom collects food scraps for composting? And will GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education be given the funding it needs to target public education efforts where they are needed most?
  • Residents and building managers in many neighborhoods are already separating a large portion of their recyclable refuse for curbside collections; but in other areas, lack of participation remains a serious problem. What will the New York City Housing Authority do to make recycling convenient for their tenants and what will the Sanitation Department do to convince other reluctant building managers to improve their waste-handling practices?
  • Textiles and electronic waste can be easily separated out of the waste stream for reuse, recycling or safe handling, as the Sanitation Department’s recently launched refashioNYC and e-cycleNYC initiatives demonstrate. Will property owners and managers cooperate and take advantage of these new services and, if not, will the City Council take action to build out these worthwhile programs to scale?
  • Polystyrene food and beverage containers and plastic take-out bags contribute disproportionately to litter and pollution problems on streets, at parks and in waterways, while causing big headaches at recycling facilities. Will the de Blasio Administration and the City Council move forward with current plans to reduce these burdens and insure that more environmentally friendly substitutes are used instead?
  • While recycling and composting are cost-competitive with landfilling and incineration, it is possible to reduce the expenses associated with recycling and composting further by adjusting the schedules and routes for waste collections in New York City (as is already being done in municipalities across the country). Will the Sanitation union, the Department and the de Blasio administration work cooperatively in ongoing labor discussions to secure flexibility in trash collection routes and schedules so as to provide financial benefits to all parties?
  • Ultimately, for recycling to be a complete economic and environmental success, strong and vibrant markets for the materials collected in the recycling programs must exist and be encouraged. Will the de Blasio Administration and the City Council, with their enormous purchasing power, use the city’s procurement process to strengthen markets for recyclables currently being collected (e.g., glass and plastics) and help build new recycling industries here in the New York region?

When Local Law 19 of 1989 took effect twenty-five summers ago, on July 14th, my NRDC colleague Mark Izeman told the New York Times: “It is fitting that the statute’s time clock starts ticking on Bastille Day, because we could be witnessing a mini-revolution in local garbage policies.”

None of us expected that the revolution would take this long. But here at NRDC we are confident that the changes in New York waste policy envisioned by the City Council in 1989 are finally in the process of being realized. And the reverberations of Local Law 19 of 1989 are likely to be felt for years to come.

Read Part I of the series here. Read Part II of the series here.

Buzzkill: 90% of NYC Buildings Fail Energy Audit

New York City, your buildings are on notice. A recent audit by the NYC Department of Buildings revealed that nine out of every 10 new or renovated office and residential buildings do not meet the current New York City Energy Conservation Code.

Mayor de Blasio and Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer at the DOB, have made it clear that this level of non-compliance is unacceptable. So far this year, the de Blasio administration has reviewed more than 1,200 building applications, and they plan to quadruple that figure annually.

Bocra’s team has also set up a permanent audit unit at the DOB that will continue to review whether construction and renovation plans for lighting, heating and air-conditioning, and walls and windows align with current energy code standards.

“We’re very serious about this, and are trying to educate the industry on what is required,” she told Crains New York. “Buildings are the largest source of energy consumption in our city, and how we conserve energy is key to making progress on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Greener & Greater

It is estimated that 75 percent of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the building sector. As part of the emission reduction goals outlined in PlaNYC, the Bloomberg administration issued the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan. The GGBP is a comprehensive, mandatory policy that includes the Energy Conservation Code, and attempts to address energy efficiency in large, existing whole buildings throughout the city.

Four pieces of legislation make up the GGBP:

  • Local Law 84 | Benchmarking: This law requires annual benchmarking of energy and water consumption.
  • Local Law 85 | NYC Energy Conservation Code: The NYCECC sets energy-efficiency standards for new construction and alterations to existing buildings
  • Local Law 87 | Energy Audits: This legislation requires an energy audit and retro‐commissioning of energy equipment in large buildings every 10 years.
  • Local Law 88 | Lighting and Sub-metering: This mandates that by 2025, the lighting in the non-residential space be upgraded to meet code and large commercial tenants be provided with sub-meters.

While these laws have now been in place for years, it appears that up until last year, very little oversight was being given to ensure compliance.

“No one knew what was going on before because no one was checking,” said Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council. “It is very easy to proclaim some policy or write some law, but the hard work comes on the other side when you need someone to implement it.”

A New Era of Enforcement

Construction in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Photo credit: David Tan
Construction in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Photo credit: David Tan

The energy code audits began last winter, while Bloomberg was preparing to depart, but de Blasio’s team has scaled up the effort significantly. More than 1,200 audits have been conducted this year (compared to Bloomberg’s 212), and 160 random construction site visits have occurred. In 20% of those inspections, officials found that construction was not even being conducted in accordance with the city-approved plans, and in some cases stop-work orders were issued.

The DOB is currently drafting new fines and regulations that will apply specifically to the NYECC, but in the meantime they are focusing on education and outreach. “We are trying to bring both the design and construction sides up to speed,” Ms. Bocra said, noting that many firms were not consciously breaking the rules.

For their part, developers seem skeptical about the new era of enforcement, complaining that compliance with the NYECC will cost both time and money. But this much seems clear from the de Blasio administration: Build it green, or face a fine.