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.

Part II: 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.

The 2000s – The New Administration Stumbles at the Start

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took office in 2002, compiled an impressive track record in addressing environmental health and sustainability issues in New York City. But he didn’t start off as a big fan of recycling or of Local Law 19 of 1989, the City’s recycling Magna Carta.

Indeed, in 2002, the Sanitation Department proposed to eliminate recycling collections of metals, plastic and glass. The Bloomberg Administration suggested that such a move would save 57 million dollars a year, although the Department was never able to document that claim.

Again, the New York City Council came to the rescue. Thanks to Speaker Gifford Miller and Sanitation Committee Chair Mike McMahon, a compromise was reached; metals would stay in the program, plastics would be suspended but only until 2003 and glass collections would be suspended but would return in 2004.

Unfortunately, these stops and starts — on top of what had already been a program under attack from the previous administration — further confused the public. In part as a result of these changes, participation in the curbside recycling program declined.

In December 1999, the citywide residential and institutional recycling tonnage collected by the Sanitation Department had reached about 2,500 tons per day, a rate of over 21 percent. By December 2002, however, the citywide recycling tonnage collected by the Department had declined to about 1,550 tons per day, just under 13 percent. And even after the plastic and glass recycling collections were restored, the numbers did not fully bounce back.

In the summer of 2010, the City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Christine Quinn and Sanitation Committee Chair Tish James, enacted eleven new recycling laws. They were designed to update Local Law 19 of 1989 and to advance its original objectives. Among other things, the new laws sought to expand recycling collections to cover additional kinds of plastics, boost recycling in public schools, increase recycling in public spaces, and jumpstart food waste composting.

Another one of the laws established revised goals for recycling tonnages. It modified the original tonnage mandates of the 1989 statute and set 2020 as the final date for achieving a 25% rate for citywide residential recycling collected by the Sanitation Department at curbside and a 33% goal for all residential recyclables – those collected at curbside by the Department as well as residential refuse recycled by other means (e.g., bottles and cans redeemed under the state’s bottle deposit program, composting programs, electronic waste and other retailer take-back programs, etc.).

In a large number of New York neighborhoods, including Manhattan’s Upper West Side pictured here, many residents and building managers are complying with the city’s recycling law by separating newspapers, cardboard, metals, glass and plastics for curbside collection. But, 25 years after the City Council’s passage of Local Law 19, there are still challenges to be addressed in order for New York City to reap all of the economic and environmental benefits of recycling. Photo via: NRDC.

2012 – Team Bloomberg Launches Bold New Recycling Initiatives

In the spring of 2012, the Bloomberg Administration’s big turnaround began. The Mayor sought to make up for lost time by appointing the first-ever Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability, Ron Gonen — a savvy entrepreneur with the talent to help expand recycling cost-effectively. The appointment was championed by Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway, who understood that the rising costs of landfilling could make recycling economically attractive and that stepped up recycling would mesh well with the Mayor’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Then, in the summer of 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would begin collecting all rigid plastics as part of its recycling collections. This change marked what Sanitation officials and waste experts hope will be the beginning of the end of years of confusion as to which plastics go in which receptacles. And it reflects the reality that genuine markets to purchase many (but not all) types of plastic waste have emerged over the past twenty five years.

The Administration also launched ambitious pilot projects designed to jumpstart curbside collections of food waste from households on Staten Island, high rise residences in Manhattan, and city public schools. These demonstration projects were revolutionary because food wastes and other organics account for more than 25% of the city’s residential waste stream. Get food scraps and yard waste out of landfills and incinerators and you’ve struck a powerful blow against pollution-generating and economically unsound waste disposal practices.

At the same time, the Sanitation Department kicked off enhanced programs to make recycling of textiles and electronic waste much more convenient for apartment-dwellers. The Department’s re-fashioNYC program is run jointly with a non-profit group, Housing Works. At the request of building managers, the city has been installing permanent bins for collecting clothing in apartment buildings of ten or more units (over 460 now and more being added); when the bins are filled, occupants notify the Department/Housing Works team, which arranges to empty the bins and reuse or recycle the contents for charitable purposes.

A companion to clothing and textile collections is the city’s recently launched e-cycleNYC program. For this new initiative, the Department has been installing separate bins (now over 300 and more available) in high-rise buildings that give residents a convenient place to drop off their old computers, televisions, and other unwanted electronic waste; when notified that bins are full, the city and its partner, Electronics Recyclers International, collect these wastes for reuse or for disassembly and recycling. (This initiative is supplementing the still-ongoing Lower East Side Ecology Center’s e-waste drop-off program, which has for years been a savior to New Yorkers who could not get themselves to toss old electronics, with their toxic constituents, out with the household trash.)

As 2013 came to a close, the Bloomberg Administration was also celebrating the long-awaited opening of a beautiful, new recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront in Sunset Park. Sims Municipal Recycling – the company that is handling all of the city’s metals, glass and plastic recyclables under a 20 year contract with the city — now has a modern sorting plant that is providing green jobs for New Yorkers and moving most of its recyclables by barge and rail.

Last but not least, Mayor Bloomberg advanced two forward-looking bills that were passed by the City Council and signed by the Mayor in his last month in office. One law set the stage for the Sanitation Department to phase out the polystyrene food and beverage containers in New York City. It requires the Commissioner to prohibit the use of such containers unless she concludes by the end of this year that this problematic waste can somehow be recycled in an economically and environmentally sound manner.

The second law gave another boost to composting and other sustainable organics handling strategies. It directs large scale commercial generators of food waste in the city to insure that their organic materials are sent to composting or similar facilities (rather than to landfills or incinerators) beginning in July 2015 — provided that sufficient capacity to sustainably handle such food wastes exists in the region by that time.

In one of the most promising developments on the solid waste scene in New York City, the Bloomberg Administration started, and the de Blasio Administration is expanding, pilot programs in which the Sanitation Department is collecting food scraps from private residences, high-rise apartments and city public schools for composting. Food waste and yard waste account for more than 25% of the residential waste stream, so organics collections programs like this, if phased in across the city, could dramatically cut the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators, saving city tax dollars and reducing global warming emissions and other pollution. Photo credit: DSNY

A third and concluding section of this blog will review the de Blasio Administration’s record to date in advancing the recycling objectives set forth in Local Law 19 of 1989. It will also identify seven things to look for over the next several years as the new Administration moves forward with what we hope will become the final chapter in the Local Law 19 story — the transformation of New York City into a national leader on sustainable waste practices. Read Part I of the series here.

Part 1: New York City’s History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old (Part I)

By Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director, Natural Resources Defense Council


New York City’s landmark recycling statute — which provided residents here with curbside collection of recyclables for the first time in modern history and generated momentum for stepped-up recycling in cities around the nation — is celebrating its 25th birthday this summer.

On July 14, 1989, the day the new law took effect, dozens of Sanitation Department trucks were rolling down city streets in 14 of the city’s 59 sanitation districts to collect metals, glass and newspapers placed at the curb by homeowners and building superintendents. Voluntary recycling collections, which had already begun in some neighborhoods, were now becoming mandatory citywide. These collections marked the beginning of a still-ongoing odyssey to transform the way residents of the nation’s largest city dispose of their trash on a daily basis.

The program has had its ups and downs over the past two and a half decades. For years, budget cuts, rule changes and suspensions of recycling collections confused residents and dampened participation. As a result of these factors and often tepid agency support for the program, recycling levels have not grown as quickly as envisioned. And, even twenty-five years later, the full objectives of the 1989 recycling statute have not yet been achieved.

Still, it would be best to characterize the implementation of the city’s landmark recycling law as a continuing work in progress. Today more than a quarter of the residential waste stream is being neatly placed out for recycling in some neighborhoods in all five boroughs. The city finally has an impressive, state-of-the-art recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront. And over the past two years the Bloomberg and de Blasio Administrations have been making up for lost time by launching, implementing and envisioning ambitious new programs to boost recycling and to compost food waste — the largest single component of the residential waste stream.

What follows — in three parts — is a look-back at the birth of the city’s recycling law, the trials and tribulations of its childhood and teenage years, and its recent, long-delayed coming of age.

New York City’s curbside recycling program began 25 years ago this summer, as New York City Sanitation Department trucks began fanning out to neighborhoods in all five boroughs to collect newspapers, metals, glass and plastic. Despite many stops and starts along the way, the program has survived, matured and is here to stay. Mayor de Blasio’s new Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, has expressed her determination to advance recycling and food waste composting — making waste collections here more sustainable and more cost-effective as well. Photo via The New York Times

In the Beginning

Although the roots of recycling in New York City go back more than a century, the program’s current incarnation can be traced to the early 1980s. City landfills were closing and in 1984 Mayor Ed Koch advanced a proposal to build five giant garbage burning incinerators across the city. That possibility sparked environmental groups — including NRDC — into action; they vowed to advance more environmentally friendly recycling and waste prevention strategies as new cornerstones of city policy.

As community leaders in Williamsburg and groups like NYPIRG formed a united front to oppose the Koch Administration’s proposed Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator (which was never built), other environmental advocates began meeting with sympathetic City Council representatives and their staffs to help design city legislation intended to jumpstart big-time recycling efforts here.

In 1987 and 1988, a handful of City Councilmembers, led by Ruth Messenger and Sheldon Leffler, began negotiating with the Koch Administration, environmental leaders and other stakeholders. A valued partner in these early efforts was then-Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. They were determined to craft a comprehensive bill that would require the Sanitation Department to provide curbside collection of recyclables for New Yorkers in every neighborhood and regardless of whether residents lived in private homes or high-rise apartments (which were viewed as problematic due to real and imagined limitations on space for storing recyclables).

In March 1989, after nearly two years of contentious debate, the Council enacted Local Law 19 of 1989 — “the New York City Recycling Law.” It stated the City Council’s intent that “the measures taken by the city must establish the most environmentally sound and economically desirable waste reduction, recycling and reuse programs possible….”

The law was comprehensive. It covered everything from recycling by city agencies (including the public school system) and by commercial establishments, to the procurement of goods made with recycled content, the preparation of citywide recycling plans, the undertaking of public education activities, and the creation of citizen solid waste advisory boards.

The heart of the statute was a provision designed to thrust residential recycling collections forward citywide. It set forth a schedule for gradually increasing mandatory tonnage levels that the Sanitation Department was required to recycle over the next five years. It directed that at the end of the first year, the Department was to be recycling 700 tons per day and that by the end of the fifth year, the Department was to have reached a daily recycling level of 4,250 tons per day (equal to about 25 per cent of the estimated total residential and institutional waste that was expected to be collected by the Department that year).

Sheldon Leffler, who was Chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and the bill’s leading shepherd, pronounced the statute “a strong beginning … not the end.” City Council Majority Leader Peter F. Vallone, proclaimed the new law to be “one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the city.” And Mayor Koch’s Sanitation Commissioner, Brendan Sexton, who had tangled with the Council on the bill’s language for months but who eventually supported the legislation and ultimately became a great advocate for sustainable waste policies, told the New York Times: “We are going to recycle like crazy.”

Of course, there was no place to go but up in terms of New York City recycling. Although groups like the Environmental Action Coalition had begun voluntary recycling endeavors in the 1970s, the City was still recycling less than one percent of its daily trash in the late 1980s, before the new law was enacted.

Since the city’s recycling law took effect 25 years ago this summer, students and teachers have been pressing to have recycling collections implemented at their schools, as is evidenced by this 2008 rally on the steps of City Hall. For a very long time, the Department of Education was uncooperative. But with GrowNYC’s Recycling Champions program adding intensive recycling in individual schools, and the Sanitation Department now collecting lunchroom food scraps for composting at several hundred public schools, things are finally beginning to improve. Photo via Switchboard.

The 1990’s — Legal Wrangling Under Mayor Giuliani

By the spring of 1990, the City had succeeded in meeting the recycling law’s first year tonnage mandate. Blue recycling bins, distributed by the City, were a common site outside of private residences in all five boroughs. And the Sanitation Department was collecting at least 700 tons of recyclables per day.

Still, there were trouble spots on the horizon. They included ineffective efforts to educate the public regarding the details of recycling and its importance, lack of cooperation from many building managers and lack of attention from the city’s public school leadership.

Back in 1989, Commissioner Sexton predicted: “I think we will meet the law’s goals. But I also believe we have still some surprises to come, negative and positive.” On this second point, he was certainly correct.

When in 1991, the Department missed that year’s mandatory recycling tonnage number, NRDC brought suit to enforce the law on behalf of Councilmembers Sheldon Leffler and Fred Cerulo, the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board and concerned residents from Staten Island and the Bronx. (Michael Gerrard and the law firm of Arnold & Porter graciously provided pro bono legal assistance.) In response, the City’s lawyers argued that the statute’s tonnage mandates were non-binding “goals.”

But, beginning in 1992, one New York State court after another rejected that theory and ordered the city to comply with the tonnage directive and the other mandatory provisions of the recycling law.

The Giuliani Administration was no great friend of recycling and continued to drag its feet in implementing the statute. In 1996, the NRDC plaintiffs returned to court to enforce the pre-existing court order. This time, Mayor Giuliani’s lawyers argued that using construction and demolition debris to line the roads at the Fresh Kills landfill counted as residential recycling under the statute.

In 1997, the court rejected this argument of the Administration as well. And in 1998, the state’s highest court turned away the City’s last appeal. In total, seven separate court rulings had all gone against City Hall on the question of recycling tonnage deadlines. But as these legal matters made their way through the courts, valuable time was lost. Under revised court orders, the city was given until 2001 to meet the 4,250 tons per day recycling mandate.

Mayor Giuliani, who had called the city’s recycling law “absurd and irresponsible,” then sought to block funding that would have provided weekly (instead of every other week) recycling collections in all five boroughs. Once again, the City Council stepped in. In 1998, under the leadership of Environmental Protection Committee Chair Stanley Michels, the Council unanimously passed a new law directing the city to provide weekly recycling collections to every city neighborhood.


We will publish part II of this series next week.

This series originally appeared on Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Read Eric Goldstein’s blog here.

We thank Eric for allowing us to re-publish his series.

Neighborhoods Burdened by Processing City’s Trash Look to New Sanitation Commissioner

Last month, Mayor de Blasio named Kathryn Garcia as the new commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation. While the Department is mainly known for picking up trash and plowing snow, it is and will continue to be a critical part of building a more sustainable New York.

The Department is a key player in one the city’s long-standing environmental equity issues. Since the closure of Fresh Kills in 2001, the city has been forced to truck its waste to out-of-state landfills, and areas like the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens have become “saturated” with waste transfer infrastructure.

“A Tested Manager”

Garcia, who the city describes as “a tested manager with extensive operations experience,” is leaving her post as the Chief Operating Officer of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, where she oversaw the Bureaus of Water Supply, Water and Sewer Operations, and Wastewater, with a combined staff of 4,000 employees.

“We’ll do it consistently, effectively and equitably, and we will seek out every opportunity to do it better and more sustainably.”

“I am committed to strengthening and expanding DSNY’s programs to deliver…critical services to every resident and business, in every neighborhood,” said Garcia at the press conference announcing her appointment. “We’ll do it consistently, effectively and equitably, and we will seek out every opportunity to do it better and more sustainably.”

Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, is watching carefully. “The jury’s still out on Kathryn- we don’t know exactly what her priorities are going to be,” he told NYER.

An Inefficient and Costly System

Garbage transfer station. Photo credit: sangudo via Creative Commons

Communities like the South Bronx are looking to Garcia to finish the massive job started by the Bloomberg administration: the steady reduction of the city’s waste stream; and the re-configuration of waste transfer operations- away from trucks, and toward a marine and rail-based system.

Trucks carrying trash from residences and businesses currently go to one of 58 waste transfer stations throughout New York City, according to an analysis by Habitatmap. There, the trash is “transferred” on to tractor-trailer trucks, rail cars or marine barges for export out of New York.

“Currently, the South Bronx and the neighborhoods surrounding Newtown Creek host a combined 32 waste transfer stations,” says Habitatmap. “Collectively, these WTS handle over 60% of the 12 million plus tons of waste moving through WTS in NYC annually”.

The concentration of waste transfer stations in a handful of areas means intensified impact for a sliver of New York City’s population. Most of the city’s trash exporting is done by truck, which also adds to the local environmental impact of the stations.

And because the transfer stations are not evenly distributed throughout the city, trucks are forced to travel long distances, further compounding the pollution impact.

Addressing the lack of efficiency and equity in the system, and figuring out how to shrink the amount of trash produced in New York, are key objectives in the city’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. The plan was developed by a coalition of environmental justice and community organizations in concert with the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council.

The Bloomberg administration had very practical reasons for adopting the SWMP. As out-of-state landfills ran out of space, trucking waste out of the city became prohibitively expensive. A truck-based system also adds to the city’s overall carbon emissions; reducing the city’s carbon footprint became a major focus for the Bloomberg administration.

The Toll of Trash

NYC garbage truck and street sweeper. Photo credit: islamoyankee via Creative Commons
NYC garbage truck and street sweeper. Photo credit: islamoyankee via Creative Commons

Arguably the greatest price of the city’s current system is the toll it has taken on public health. Advocates have maintained for years that the stream of diesel trucks in and out of neighborhoods where waste transfer stations are concentrated leads to heightened local air pollution levels.

An analysis this month by the state Comptroller’s office found that Medicaid recipients in the Bronx have the second-highest asthma rate- 130.2 people per thousand- of any county in the state. And the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate “by far” (43.5 deaths per million residents), of any New York county.

Statewide, the disease is most prevalent among children under the age of 17, and it is concentrated in poor communities.

Several factors are believed to impact the risk of developing asthma. According to the state, one of these is “being exposed to exhaust fumes or other types of pollution.”

“Where’s the Equity in That?”

Groups like the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and the New York League of Conservation Voters are urging the de Blasio administration to “fully implement” the 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan, which “relied for the first time on principles of environmental justice and borough equity.”

But Kathryn Garcia and the city face potential opposition no matter how waste transfer is re-configured.

A case in point is the city’s effort to implement one part of the 2006 Plan, the retrofitting and re-opening of four marine transfer stations: two in Brooklyn (Hamilton Avenue and Gravesend); one in Flushing, Queens; and one in Manhattan at 91st Street.

Both the Manhattan and Gravesend/South Brooklyn marine transfer stations are being fought by local residents, who say that the transfer stations will still generate some truck traffic and cause other quality of life issues.

“When this thing [the Gravesend marine transfer station] was first pitched, it was an environmental justice issue,” Ludger Balan of the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy stated to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle last year.

“The idea was equity, where everyone would share the garbage. That idea seems long gone now, and instead of everyone dealing with part of the burden, we’re left to deal with it. Where’s the equity in that?”

Shrinking the Waste Stream

Advocates and policy makers are hopeful that once enclosed marine transfer stations- which can process residential and commercial waste- are operational, the city will start to reduce the volume of waste accepted at land-based waste transfer stations.

That capacity reduction will require an ongoing drop in both residential and commercial waste. At the end of the Bloomberg administration, the city launched several initiatives to double New York City’s residential recycling rate from fifteen to thirty percent by 2017.

Continuing to expand projects that reduce solid waste, such as curbside organic materials recycling, will fall under Kathryn Garcia’s purview.

Commercial Waste Collection: The Final Piece of the Sustainability Puzzle

But reducing and more effectively managing the city’s commercial waste stream is the tougher challenge awaiting the de Blasio administration.

According to the city, about 50,000 tons of trash and recyclables are generated in the five boroughs every day. One-quarter of this waste comes from homes and institutions. The remaining 38,000 tons come from the commercial sector.

According to the city, about 50,000 tons of trash and recyclables are generated in the five boroughs every day.

Commercial waste is not picked up by the Department of Sanitation. Rather, it is taken by private carters to waste transfer stations, which are monitored by the city.

Businesses are required to separate paper, metal and some types of construction waste from their trash, and food service companies are also supposed to separate glass and plastic.

But because the city does not directly oversee private sector waste collection, it has less day-to-day information about the degree of commercial recycling taking place.

The Alliance for a Greater New York –a coalition of environmental and community-based organizations, and labor unions- has proposed a franchise system for commercial waste collection, which they say, would rationalize a system that currently operates like the “Wild West.”

Franchise awardees would be required to meet environmental standards that “increase recycling rates, reduce truck emissions, and more equitably distribute waste handling across the city.” Awardees would also need to follow standards maintaining the safety of waste sector workers.

“If we’re going to landfill, let’s find a way where we’re not killing communities with thousands of trucks—and include commercial waste.”

By operating within designated zones, advocates say, the franchisees would benefit from a steady, efficiently located base of customers.

Eddie Bautista believes that if de Blasio and his team can successfully pioneer a more “forward thinking” commercial waste collection system, it will become a “legacy” of his administration.

For now, advocates are pushing the city and Kathryn Garcia to fulfill the mission of the Solid Waste Management Plan: to aggressively promote residential and institutional recycling; and minimize the impact of waste transfer by establishing marine and rail transfer stations in more areas of the city.

“Waste exporting is a horrible solution anyway,” said Bautista. “If we’re going to landfill, let’s find a way where we’re not killing communities with thousands of trucks—and include commercial waste,” he added.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Bautista concluded, “not simply from the perspective of low-income communities, but for the air quality of the region.”

Recycling Food Scraps Could Transform How NYC Deals With Its Trash

In the eleventh hour of his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leaving a transformative mark on a part of city life that is often overlooked — the waste we produce every day.

By pushing for the composting of organic waste — such as food scraps — through a pilot program and supporting other innovative recycling efforts, the mayor is posing a challenge to his successor: Will the person who succeeds him make New York City a truly sustainable city that finally recycles more than it throws away?

No matter who becomes mayor, organic waste recycling has a strong ally: the City Council. The Council passed legislation on Thursday that would mandate continuation of the organic waste pilot project for another two years.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]