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August 2007

New York City improves recycling programs

Recycling became mandatory in New York City in August, 1989. While the Department of Sanitation would like to increase the capture rate, the administration is pleased that it has attained a 17 percent diversion rate and a more than 50 percent capture rate of the designated recyclable materials from residential dwellings, or 3.5 million households.

The City’s overall diversion rate, when residential and commercial recycling are combined, is greater than 60 percent.

“Everything takes time,” says Robert Lange, the director of New York city’s (NYC) DSNY Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse & Recycling, “but given that recycling is only about 25 years old in the United States, to have a well developed infrastructure that works is not bad.”

Following a series of pilot programs in the late 1980s, recycling became the norm in the city’s five boroughs, which are home to eight million people and four million daily visitors.

Recycling applies to both the residential and commercial (commercial, industrial and institutional) sectors. While there are problems associated with its size, NYC enjoys certain advantages by being in a concentrated area. And in many ways, the city encompasses most of the elements found in America’s large cities.

City crews cover recycling for the residential sector, which ranges from single-family homes to multi-unit apartment and condominium complexes. The private sector handles recycling in the commercial sector.

As manufacturing continues to leave NYC, Lange notes that it has become easier to improve recycling in the commercial sector.

Economic incentives also drive recycling. “Until the mid-1990s,” says Lange, “all of NYC’s private carters were controlled by local small businesses ­­­and they did not have their own landfills. They had to shop for landfill space and there was an economic incentive for them to keep material out of the landfill, so they brought it back to the their transfer stations and sorted it out.

“In the last 12 to 15 years,” he adds, “the economics of these commodities became stable and it is easier for businesses to make deals for their private carting, where an assumption about revenue from recycling can be made.”

The recycling infrastructure in NYC is undergoing change based on increasing property values and where materials are being shipped.

“Most of what leaves NYC now goes to China, other parts of Asia and India,” says Lange. “It’s in these locations that a lot of the sorting takes place that would have been done in the city before. It is easier for people to just bale material and ship it to locations.”

The DSNY collects the basic recyclable materials – all types of paper products - even certain kinds of poly-coated paper; glass bottles and jars; plastic bottles and jugs, which are primarily 1 and 2 plastics, and various plastic materials; and all metal products – aluminum beverage containers, hubcaps, etc.

New York is a bottle bill state, which ensures that cans and bottles are returned and affects NYC’s recycling revenue.

“Some of the most valuable commodities are removed from the metal, glass and plastic stream,” says Lange. “If there was no bottle bill, it is likely that we would be paid rather than having to pay. Ten to 12 years ago, we calculated that for every one percent increase in the amount of aluminum, it would increase revenue generated by $15 to $20 a ton. With the increase in the value of commodities, it would be higher.”

Revenue is lost through direct redemption of bottles and because of the denseness of the city, scavenging of materials from bins.

“We lose about two or three percent more compared to another area that doesn’t have scavenging for aluminum,” says Lange.

“As well, people sometimes forget that bottle bills are not recycling laws,” he adds. “They are anti-littering laws and sometimes they do not include a provision requiring the materials to be recycled. There has been an attempt in New York State to revise the bottle bill and expand it, explicitly directing that all the material has to be recycled.”

While Lange stresses that “it’s not easier to do anything in NYC,” e-cycling only accounts for one percent of the city’s waste stream, but steps are being taken to collect this material locally and to secure state regulations to make it mandatory.

“A state law on e-cycling is coming,” he says. “The city has its own proposed law and the city has presented a version of that to the State to try to get it passed. We operate electronic events in all five boroughs in the spring and fall. The events grow exponentially every time we hold them. It’s definitely in the collective consciousness that e-waste is something not to throw out.”

The DSNY is undertaking a review of materials for future recycling collection based on technology and financing. This could include the phasing in of 3 through 7 plastics.

Construction and demolition debris (C&D) is definitely recycled in NYC. “The economics lead to converting that material into a material that can be re-used rather than having to pay for the disposal costs associated with it,” says Lange. “But what the city is really looking at long-term, under Mayor Bloomberg, is sustainability issues. You have to look at things in a multiple kind of way.

“The city also has to look at the infrastructure for accepting C&D and transporting it out of the city so all these things have a very low impact on the quality of life for New Yorkers and wherever it is ultimately going,” he adds.

NYC is studying the possibility of a recycling industrial park or cluster.

“There doesn’t seem to be a consensus to set aside, on a large scale, that kind of property for that purpose,” says Lange. “It is happening on a small scale. The material recovery facility (MRF) that the Sims Group is probably going to build on a pier, a city piece of property in the South Brooklyn Marine terminal, will process all of the city’s metal, glass and plastic. It will also process a large portion of the city’s paper.”

In order to deliver the material to the new facility, the DSNY will drop it off at four locations by the waterfront. From these points, it will be transported by barge to the Brooklyn facility.

This reduces the impact of the recycling hauling vehicles on NYC’s already stressed road and highway network.

“This kind of transport is very low- cost compared to the cost of transporting vehicles – both the cost of operating them and the time involved,” says Lange.

While the city can do more to increase the recycling rate, Lange says that recycling is a complicated issue in NYC.

“There are some impediments in the commercial sector and my office is undertaking a very elaborate study to explain what those impediments are and propose ways of solving them, perhaps through different regulations or by setting up the carting stream differently,” he says, “but basically looking at the infrastructure as a whole – how it provides service and how it enhances or diminishes recycling in the commercial sector in New York City.”