How Frosty the Snowman Is Hurting New York City Recycling

Initial reports suggest that New York City’s Sanitation Department did a much better job in clearing the city’s streets of Tuesday night’s nine-inch snowfall than after the now infamous December Blizzard of 2010.  Hats off to the Department and the Bloomberg Administration for the apparent effectiveness of yesterday’s storm clean-up.

But before breaking out the champagne, allow us to point out several continuing problems with the Department’s policies involving snow removal and recycling.

As first reported by WNYC’s Ailsa Chang, the Sanitation Department has confirmed that without public notice it has cancelled this year’s annual Christmas tree recycling program, because it was “overwhelmed” with snow cleanup and garbage removal.  In previous years, more than 1,300 tons of trees have been collected and turned into compost as part of the successful tree recycling program. 

The cancellation of this year’s program is particularly noteworthy since, under new legislation passed this summer by the City Council and signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg, the Sanitation Department was required to have expanded its Christmas tree recycling program from one week to two.  Instead, the Department has scrapped the program and will pay to ship the trees – by truck and rail -- to out-of-state landfills and incinerators.

Of course, snow removal must be the Department’s first priority in the aftermath of severe storms.  But why is recycling so often on the very bottom of the Sanitation Department’s priority list?

Why, for example, did the Department announce the other week that, following its clean-up of snow from the December Blizzard,  it would restore regular trash collections, but that collections of recyclables would be postponed?

This practice of making trash collections a higher priority than recycling collections is an approach the Department follows even in absence of a major snowstorm.    It happens after most three day holidays, when recycling collections are suspended on the holiday Monday and not restored until the following week.

 As if that weren’t enough, the Department’s budget’s practices have historically and inexplicably allocated some of the costs of snow removal to the city’s recycling budget.  This, according to a comprehensive study DSM Environmental prepared for NRDC in 2008, has had the effect of skewing the costs of recycling to make the program appear much more expensive than it really is.

The reality, as this independent study showed, is that if you remove  improperly included snow removal and other miscalculated expenses, the overall costs of recycling and of trash disposal are nearly the same -- and recycling could become cheaper for city taxpayers than other options over the next several years as the costs of out-of-state landfilling continue to escalate. Yet despite Sanitation’s acknowledgment that the DSM analysis was basically sound, the Department has apparently not yet corrected its accounting approach on this issue.

Thus, even though recycling of Christmas trees and other city trash reduces global warming pollution, saves natural resources and is now cost-competitive with the price of export of trash to distant landfills and incinerators, the Sanitation Department continues to use snow removal to undercut the city’s recycling program.  

Maybe someone at Sanitation should be reminded that addressing climate change and advancing sustainability are key parts of the Bloomberg Administration’s mayoral legacy.

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    Photo Credit: John Flanigan -

    The Sanitation Department has terminated its Christmas Tree recycling collections this year, but has apparently continued to allocate some of the costs of snow removal to the recycling program -- making the costs of recycling appear artifically higher than they really are.