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.).

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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.

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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.

NYC reduces carbon emissions by 19%, partially from increased use of natural gas

Just two days before leaving office, Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability released data indicating that New York City greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 19 percent since 2005.

According to the city, New York is well on its way toward a 30 percent reduction in citywide emissions by 2030, a major objective of PlaNYC, the Bloomberg administration’s far-reaching sustainability plan.

Carbon emissions from municipal buildings and government operations have also dropped by 19 percent said the city.

To achieve the drop in government emissions, the city has invested heavily in a “clean” vehicle fleet, and has carried out “major reductions” in fugitive emissions from landfills and wastewater treatment plants.

The city also installed 10 new solar photovoltaic arrays across the five boroughs last year, saying that it had tripled its existing solar capacity.

Public health has been enhanced by the drop in greenhouse gas emissions. New York City’s air is now cleaner than it has been in over 50 years due to the “dramatic reductions” in pollutants, said the statement from the outgoing mayor’s office.

The city attributes the drop in emissions to the “cleaner” generation of electricity and steam; reduction of heavy heating oils used in buildings; increased energy efficiency in buildings; and upgraded government operations.

Co-Generation To The Rescue

More New York City buildings are installing co-generation systems. Co-generation, a process in which “a single fuel source, such as natural gas, is used to produce both electrical and thermal energy… operates on a very basic principle: Generating electricity produces heat; cogeneration equipment captures that heat and uses it to supply hot water, steam, space heating – even cooling,” says Intelligen Power Systems, LLC, a Long Island-based power system installation firm on its website.

“Thus, an otherwise byproduct of electricity generation becomes a highly useful commodity.” As opposed to constructing new power plants, co-generation “creates power now, where you want it – and when you need it,” the company adds.

The city of New York has also mandated the gradual transition away from heavier oils to natural gas and other fuel sources, like bio-diesel, for heating and power production in buildings.

Energy use –and waste- in buildings account for a massive seventy-five percent of carbon emissions In New York City. And multi-family residential buildings are the biggest culprits, says the city. “Energy efficiency and distributed generation investments in buildings are the greatest opportunity to further reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions,” the mayor’s office argued.

The Carbon Challenge

And in order to “accelerate” energy efficiency improvements, the city is expanding the “Carbon Challenge” to residential building owners.

The Carbon Challenge, a voluntary program, is a joint initiative with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA. It is described as a public-private partnership, and also includes local universities, hospitals and “global” companies, according to the city.

There is also a major financial incentive to greater energy efficiency and switching from oil to natural gas. Prestige Management President John Chen was quoted in the city’s release as describing the “immediate savings…to the owners, tenants and shareholders within our portfolio…while developing sustainable, cleaner and more efficient sources of energy”.

The city also says it has deployed $50 million in energy efficiency and clean energy financing products via the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation, which was launched in 2010. “Clean Energy” financing includes assisting buildings in switching to natural gas.

Natural Gas

And the supply of natural gas, a fossil fuel which has lower carbon emissions and less particulate matter than oil, is expanding because of new infrastructure projects.

The Spectra pipeline, also known as the “NJ-NY Natural Gas Expansion Project”, began delivering gas on October 21, and is the first new significant interstate pipeline to serve the city in 40 years. The pipeline, which crosses from New Jersey underneath the Hudson River to Manhattan, attracted considerable attention from environmental activists because it delivers gas from a variety of locations throughout the U.S., including areas where hydraulic fracturing is used.

Some environmental groups have argued that the focus of cities like New York should be on transitioning to renewable sources of energy immediately. But the Bloomberg administration and others have maintained that an affordable, lower carbon energy “bridge” is needed as truly renewable sources are developed to scale.

The pipeline “provides a new, more affordable source of natural gas to New Yorkers,” said the mayor’s office.

Michael Bloomberg & Climate Change: What will be the Mayor’s Legacy?

Environmental news outlet InsideClimate News examines this question in an e-book to be published in five installments on their site.

In the book, authors Katherine Bagley and Maria Gallucci argue that, “global warming experts around the world say New York City’s plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard itself from the perils of climate change are a model for other cities. But most Americans, including New Yorkers, know little or nothing about this achievement, or that it was driven by Michael Bloomberg, who next month ends his third term as New York’s mayor.”

What’s your view of the outgoing mayor’s approach to climate change? Send us a message and share your thoughts.

[Read more at InsideClimate News]

City Promises ‘Broad-Based Outreach’ To Communities To Prepare For Future Storms

The city has decided to reconvene two community advisory task forces that weighed in on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s multi-billion dollar plan to protect the city from future extreme weather and the effects of climate change in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the city’s resiliency director told the Gotham Gazette/AdaptNY in an exclusive interview. The task forces will resume meeting this fall.

Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s director of resiliency, also said yesterday that there would be “broad-based outreach” to some of the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods as part of a Department of City Planning study that will examine “how we can ultimately build more resilient communities.” The study will examine issues such as the city’s building codes and the new national flood insurance maps.

The announcements come as the city fields criticism about community involvement in its climate change planning process as detailed in an investigative report by Gotham Gazette and AdaptNY, a digital news platform.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

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]

Exclusive: Environmentalists Call on Bloomberg to Make the Most of Time Left

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure draws to a close, a coalition of environmental organizations is urging him to take action now to make the city more sustainable.

“Now is the time to lock in forward-thinking sustainability policies and prioritize the most critical projects for completion,” the New York League of Conservation Voters and other organizations say in Bloomberg-Countdown.pdf.

The goal of the 2013 New York City Sustainability Countdown is “to help focus the city’s efforts for the remained of 2013.”

The groups argue the city could take immediate steps in several key areas, including preparing for the impacts of climate change; addressing ongoing air quality issues; reducing and de-contaminating the waste stream; making buildings more energy efficient; and increasing mass transit options.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

No Retreat From The Coastline

Striking a tone of defiance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that New York City will not retreat from its coastline despite the threat of rising sea levels and the possibility of storms more catastrophic than Hurricane Sandy.

On the contrary, he argued, the city should not only continue to build along the waterfront but build better.

“As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront. It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it,” the mayor said at the unveiling of a voluminous report detailing the city’s assessment of the impact of Superstorm Sandy and the risks posed by climate change.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

Sustainability After Bloomberg: Candidates Offer Hints of a Vision

One of the most pressing questions about the end of Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor is what will become of his groundbreaking efforts to make New York a more environmentally sustainable city.

In a forum organized last night by the New York League of Conservation Voters, nine mayoral hopefuls provided strands of information that — if nothing else — pointed at the depth and complexity of the challenges ahead.

Several candidates made the point that Bloomberg’s achievements were only the first steps in a lengthy process. Said Republican Joe Lhota: “Bloomberg set us on the path to sustainability. We need to take it to the next level.”

The candidates addressed questions on reducing the city’s carbon output, protecting New York from rising sea levels and future catastrophic storms, transitioning to more sustainable sources of energy, and guaranteeing access to parkland for all residents.

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]