Talkin' Trash: Recycling Resurrected New York City finds that recyclables are a terrible thing to waste. By Pat Joseph
By the start of the 21st century, separating recyclable items from the household trash was a part of life for most New Yorkers—and, indeed, for most Americans. So it came as a surprise, in July 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) suspended curbside recycling of glass and plastic. Facing a massive budget deficit in the wake of September 11, Bloomberg argued that the move would save the city upward of $39 million while losing little of environmental value.
Plenty of old bottles and cans are recycled into more of the same. But these everyday materials also get radically transformed into roads, carpets, bike parts, and other products:
The announcement bolstered the nationwide notion that recycling was passé. With consumption of packaged food and drink up (and more often being enjoyed away from home), recycling rates of plastic containers were dropping: from 33 percent in 1995 to 20 percent in 2003. For the first time in 15 years, Americans were tossing more aluminum cans—by far the most valuable commodity in the waste stream—into the trash than into the recycling bin. After Bloomberg scaled back New York's program, other cities threatened to follow suit.
But any rumors of recycling's death were exaggerated. Having recently closed its last landfill—Staten Island's Fresh Kills—New York City had to export all of its waste out of state. Taking advantage of the demand, these private landfills boosted the price per ton of garbage nearly 50 percent in three years. The city comptroller subsequently discredited the analysis on which Bloomberg's original numbers were based, saying that New York had realized "minimal, if any, savings" from the suspension.
Yet even recycling's staunchest supporters admit that the mayor had good reason to scrutinize the city's program. According to Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), "New York had a system that was badly in need of repair." One of the main problems was that the city relied on short-term contracts with processors—typically, five years with ten-day cancellation clauses—so companies had no incentive to upgrade their facilities.
That has since changed. When Bloomberg fully reinstated recycling in April 2004, his administration inked a 20-year contract with Hugo Neu Corporation, the country's largest private recycling company. Hugo Neu plans to build a centralized, state-of-the-art facility in South Brooklyn, where automation will streamline the sorting process. The waterfront site will be serviced by rail and barge, cutting down on truck traffic, generally the most economically and environmentally costly part of recycling. It will also feature a "green" roof, supplemental solar power, and on-site stormwater treatment.
"Recycling has matured, and New York is a perfect case study," says Mark Izeman, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Here is Bloomberg, the businessman mayor, recommitting to something he had criticized based on economics. That sends a powerful message to other cities."
Restarting suspended programs is not as easy as flipping a switch. Before glass and plastic pick-up was discontinued in New York, the city had been recycling 20 percent of its waste stream. That figure dipped to about 12 percent during the suspension and has slowly climbed back up to almost match the earlier rate—still less than the nationwide average of 30 percent. But whatever work remains to be done, says the NRC's Krebs, recycling in New York was never really broken. "It just needed a tune-up."
Pat Joseph is the current-affairs editor for sierraclub.org.