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August 2007


Recycling in New York City

As the director of the New York City (NYC) Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse & Recycling, Robert Lange is not only responsible for the recycling for his eight million residents, but also for nearly four million visitors who enter the city on a daily basis.

This places a major strain on the infrastructure and administration that must ensure that the systems in place operate smoothly. Moreover, NYC serves as a role model for other cities.

It’s a tall order, but as the city that never sleeps, NYC’s recycling operations live up to that motto.

QUESTION: When do you expect to achieve the maximum rate in terms of recycling for the residential and commercial sectors?

Lange: Achieving the maximum rate for recycling is somewhat of a moving target. The waste stream is not static so future changes in packaging will change the universe of recyclables available for recycling. As far as the pool of recyclables we have already targeted, we now capture on average about 50 percent. This number varies per household.

We have set ambitious goals for the city of capturing between 70 to 75 percent of the targeted recyclables over the next decade. These numbers are ambitious because across the United States, the capture rate for recyclables in all municipal programs is hovering around a maximum of 50 percent. It may be that 50 percent capture is reflective of what individuals are willing to do in the privacy of their individual homes or apartments.

QUESTION: What are the problems that NYC is facing in terms of improving the recycling rate?

Lange: The biggest challenge is motivation - how do you motivate residents in the privacy of their own dwelling to participate at greater and greater levels? It has been more than 15 years since recycling became mandatory in NYC. Even when proper consideration is given to the dynamic and changing nature of NYC’s population, there is insufficient justification to believe that New Yorkers do not recycle at the desired rates because they just don’t know what to do.

The statistical evidence from market research does not validate a continued belief in a failure of education. Rather, what the research does perhaps indicate is a failure of motivation. New Yorkers are not sufficiently motivated to recycle at the rates desired even when educated to do so.

Clearly, motivation is to a degree linked with convenience. How easy is it for someone engaged in a busy life to source separate recyclables from trash and place them in the appropriate area for recycling? In an apartment building, individual motivation is subject to possible enhancement or diminishment through the acts or failure to act of others. Has building management provided proper containers for recycling? Are recyclables placed properly at the curb on collection days? Does the building have sufficient space to store recyclables in a way that does not attract rodents or interfere with the daily comings and goings of tenants? Is that space easily accessible and safe? How do we increase individual motivation when there are so many variables to be addressed?

QUESTION: Where do you stand on the possibility of using fines to ensure that residents participate in recycling?

Lange: We as a city have been reluctant to use enforcement as a tool to motivate the most recalcitrant members of our citizenry. Even though we know from statistical evidence that lack of knowledge regarding what and how to recycle is not the problem, the reluctance to use enforcement as a motivator may have something to do with the fact that both recyclers and non-recyclers are also potential voters.

It may also have a great deal to do with the way this issue has been cast frequently in the press as if it is somehow unfair to issue summonses to residents and landlords without more prior public education spending.

Personally I cannot think of another law in NYC or anywhere else for that matter, where the belief is that this level of remedial education is necessary to insure basic compliance.

The average recycling violation in NYC is presently $25 per violation, an amount that is not likely to motivate the most recalcitrant members of our population to ever greater heights of compliance.

If we are indeed serious about achieving greater recycling compliance, we must increase fines for violations of the law and apply them wherever and whenever noncompliance is found. We do this for street sweeping and we do this for litter. People don’t like it, but people comply.

QUESTION: How does recycling in NYC fit into the state government’s plans to improve the recycling rate and is Albany providing funding for programs and pilot projects?

Lange: As the largest city in the state of New York, NYC drives the state goals. The state does not provide a great deal of money to support recycling. Most of the programs it does have are set up as reimbursement for expenses already incurred. As such the funds help to offset costs but they don’t really act as drivers to stimulate new programs.

QUESTION: How does recycling help to reduce the annual cost for landfilling trash?

Lange: At the present time it doesn’t. However, with trash export disposal costs rising, recycling is expected very soon to be more cost effective than trash collection and disposal. Recycling is a long-term solid waste management solution.

QUESTION: With property in the greater NYC in high demand and extremely expensive, what is the remaining lifespan for nearby landfills and when they are fully maximized, what will NYC do?

Lange: NYC’s last remaining landfill, Fresh Kills, closed in the later 1990s. All of NYC’s trash is presently exported out of state.