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Executive Summary

In the summer of 2002, New York City suspended glass and plastic recycling due to record budget deficits. A year and a half later, the city has reversed course and decided to restore its full recycling program.

This remarkable turnaround is due in part to a greater recognition that recycling is more cost-effective than some observers originally thought. Analyses by the city comptroller's office and environmental advocates revealed that the controversial recycling suspensions did not save the $40 million that the Sanitation Department had predicted. In fact, the gap between the cost of recycling and waste disposal has shrunk by more than 85 percent in the last decade, due primarily to increased recycling rates and skyrocketing trash export expenses. Paper recycling -- more than half of the city's operation -- is already less expensive than trash disposal. And with city officials now poised to enter into a landmark 20-year contract for processing recyclables, overall program costs will drop even lower.

Despite this positive economic outlook, our organizations strongly believe that the city must now undertake major reforms to make recycling even more cost-effective. We recommend 10 concrete strategies that can further reduce recycling costs and ensure a successful rebuilding and expansion of the city's recycling program. By making recycling more economically stable, these changes will help expand New York's program and prevent the city from repeating the numerous changes in residential recycling rules that have eroded public confidence in the city's program.

All of the recommendations in this report will create a stronger program, but three of them call for sweeping changes:

Create a More Powerful Recycling Office

The current structure of the city's recycling program significantly hampers its ability to put cost-saving strategies in place. City officials should create a new recycling office that is more business oriented and on at least equal footing with the city's other solid waste units. With these changes in place, the city can better focus on reducing the costs of processing our recyclables and developing stronger markets to sell them.

Streamline the Collection System

Collecting paper, metal, glass, and plastic accounts for more than 85 percent of the direct costs of running the city's recycling program, and so collection presents the greatest opportunity for shaving recycling expenses. By changing collection practices and streamlining routes and schedules, the city could dramatically lower its recycling costs.

Strengthen the Public Education Program

A poll of residents in all five boroughs conducted in 2001 revealed that people remain confused about what can be recycled under the city's recycling program. The recent cutbacks to the recycling program only added to the confusion, and this confusion costs the city money. When the wrong items are placed in recycling bins or recyclables are mistakenly added to trash, the city's solid waste costs go up. A better-educated public will help the city collect cleaner, betterquality recyclables, boost recycling rates, make collections more efficient, and save more money.

In addition to saving money, strengthening New York's recycling program will also reap greater environmental benefits within and outside city limits. It is well documented that recycling conserves natural resources, including timber, water, and mineral ores. The recycling of recovered items also uses less energy and produces less pollution, including the release of greenhouse gases, than manufacturing new products from virgin materials. And recycling decreases the need for landfilling and incineration, both of which generate significant environmental problems.

This report concentrates on strengthening New York City's core residential and institutional (e.g., schools, public hospitals) recycling and composting programs. The report is not intended to cover many other important strategies the city could pursue to reduce its overall solid waste costs and help the environment. Most prominently, our report does not directly discuss waste reduction measures the city could initiate (e.g., promoting reuse of durable goods, reducing consumer packaging). These actions could be even more environmentally preferable than recycling, although overall have been harder to put into practice in the city and around the country. Nor does this report discuss potential manufacturers' responsibility and take-back initiatives -- now in force throughout the European Union -- that could reduce the amount and toxicity of the waste stream, as well as shift some of the costs of managing municipal wastes from taxpayers to the producers of consumer goods. Lastly, our report does not address other pressing solid waste issues in the city, particularly the need to develop an environmentally and fiscally sound plan to handle the city's nonrecyclable trash.

While this report sets forth recommendations on strengthening discrete components of the city's recycling operations (e.g., collection, processing, market development, public education), viewing these different elements as interdependent, and understanding how decisions in one area affect the rest of system, is critical to creating a vibrant and fully cost-effective program. Lastly, even though we focus on the city's residential and institutional recycling program in this report, from both an environmental and economic perspective, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of integrating all solid waste planning efforts. For example, it is essential that planners examine the city's entire waste stream -- including commercial recyclables and trash -- in designing any new transfer facilities and other infrastructure improvements. Likewise, streamlining the city's costly truck collections requires officials to study both regular trash and recycling patterns throughout the city. It is our hope that this report, in addition to sparking the adoption of cost-saving reforms in the recycling program, will also assist the city's ongoing efforts to develop a new comprehensive strategy for the city's monumental trash loads.

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last revised 3/29/2004

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