The State of Recycling in New York City Is Extraordinarily Grim
And as for organic waste? "We divert virtually none of it, less than one percent."
10:30 AM EDT on September 21, 2022
About one-third of all of New York City's waste is recyclable: paper, cardboard, metal glass and plastic. Roughly another third is organic, like yard waste and food scraps. When Mayor Ed Koch created New York City's recycling program in 1988, the goal was to capture 25 percent of the total waste stream and keep it out of landfills. Local Law 40, passed in 2010, set the bar at 33 percent, to be achieved by 2020.
Decades down the line, New York City is nowhere near these targets. While cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco divert as much as 76 percent and 80 percent of their waste stream away from landfills, New York City currently bumps along at less than 17 percent.
Instead, New York sends the overwhelming majority of its trash either to landfills—the third leading cause of climate change-supercharging methane emissions—or to incinerators like the Covanta Essex plant in New Jersey, which emits hundreds of pounds of lead over Newark’s residential Ironbound neighborhood every year.
New York has been bungling its waste disposal for decades, and there's not much reason to believe that fact is going to change anytime soon, according to the testimony given at a City Council Sanitation committee hearing on Monday afternoon. The hearing was ostensibly to discuss a bill that would require the Department of Sanitation to study ways of reducing single-use plastics, but it also served as a snapshot of New York's ongoing unwillingness to wean itself from its landfill habit, a habit which currently costs it nearly half a billion dollars every year.
The reasons for New York's ongoing failure to manage its solid waste are manifold, but a big one is how it treats organics like food and yard waste. Though organics make up about a third of New York City's waste stream, as Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch told the committee, "we divert virtually none of it, less than one percent."
The City’s previous efforts to start to divert some of its organic waste away from landfills stalled out when the de Blasio administration first withheld funding to expand a limited recycling program, then shuttered it entirely in 2020, then brought it back in a limited, opt-in format that seemed almost designed to confuse and stunt participation.
Now, Tisch and the Adams administration are bringing large-scale organics collection back, but only in another limited pilot program, this time restricted to Queens, beginning October 3. Tisch hyped the Queens collection program as "the nation's largest curbside composting program," and touted the army of Sanitation staffers being sent through the borough to educate residents about the system.
Council Member Erik Bottcher asked Tisch when New Yorkers outside of Queens can expect to get organics collection. "I’d be getting ahead of myself by giving a timeline," Tisch answered. DSNY will evaluate the success of the Queens program "this fiscal year," she said, and make decisions about any expansion of the program after that.
One confounding factor here is that the Sanitation Department is sending out informational flyers and knocking on doors for its borough-wide rollout of an organics collection program that it already plans to suspend again after three months, before bringing it back in the spring.
Tisch testified that this is to capitalize on the low-hanging tonnage of autumn yard waste. "It would set the program off on the wrong foot if we ran not-full trucks in the three winter months," she said, "which is why we're going to resume again in March after the winter pause. That's the rationale." As the program matures, organics collection might eventually run year-round, she added.
But critics worry that this start-again-stop-again stutter is likely to recapitulate the same errors that doomed earlier organics collection efforts. "The current surprise extension of curbside organics collection for the entire borough of Queens must not stop and start. Participation must be mandatory," Oliver Wright, chairman of the Brooklyn Solid Waste Advisory Board, told council members in his testimony yesterday. "The program risks being another expensive failure by not only repeating but expanding upon previous mistakes posing a fatal blow to any hopes of success for this program in the future."
Of course, the main difference between the Queens program and the programs in cities that are actually collecting organics successfully is that most of those places mandate and enforce separate disposal of organic waste. Successful municipal programs also generally involve a pay-as-you-throw policy that imposes charges based on how much non-recyclable waste people generate. The Queens program is entirely voluntary, and there's no meaningful disincentive to keep residents from sending as much waste as they possibly can to a landfill.
Organics aren't the only problem. New York's recycling numbers for paper, metal, plastic and glass are also grim. Nearly half of everything that could be recycled goes to landfill instead. What does make it to the recycling centers in Sunset Park and Jersey City is often tangled up with unrecyclable single-use plastic bags of the sort that were supposed to have been banned in 2020.
Has that ban had any impact on the number of bags in circulation? Tisch said she didn't know, since enforcement of the ban is actually a state responsibility. Tom Outerbridge, the general manager of Sims Municipal Recycling, which runs the two plants that handle New York's recycled waste, told the committee he hasn't noticed any change: "I would not say at this point, I can point out a measurable difference in what we're seeing."
New York City's latest waste management struggles come at a time when the Adams administration is imposing a municipal austerity program, asking City agencies to cut their budgets by 3 percent in the coming year and even more beyond that. With little evidence that Eric Adams is prepared to spend significant money or political capital to get recycling and organics collection on track, the future of New York's trash management may well remain in the dumps.
Nick Pinto served two tours as staff writer at the Village Voice. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gothamist, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, The Intercept, and elsewhere.
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