New York City's History-Making Recycling Law Turns 25 Years Old (Part I)

New York City’s landmark recycling statute celebrated its 25th birthday.

New York City’s landmark recycling statute -- which provided residents here with curbside collection of recyclables for the first time in modern history and generated momentum for stepped-up recycling in cities around the nation -- is celebrating its 25th birthday this summer. 

On July 14, 1989, the day the new law took effect, dozens of Sanitation Department trucks were rolling down city streets in 14 of the city’s 59 sanitation districts to collect metals, glass and newspapers placed at the curb by homeowners and building superintendents. Voluntary recycling collections, which had already begun in some neighborhoods, were now becoming mandatory citywide. These collections marked the beginning of a still-ongoing odyssey to transform the way residents of the nation’s largest city dispose of their trash on a daily basis.

The program has had its ups and downs over the past two and a half decades. For years, budget cuts, rule changes and suspensions of recycling collections confused residents and dampened participation. As a result of these factors and often tepid agency support for the program, recycling levels have not grown as quickly as envisioned. And, even twenty-five years later, the full objectives of the 1989 recycling statute have not yet been achieved. 

Still, it would be best to characterize the implementation of the city’s landmark recycling law as a continuing work in progress. Today more than a quarter of the residential waste stream is being neatly placed out for recycling in some neighborhoods in all five boroughs. The city finally has an impressive, state-of-the-art recycling facility on the Brooklyn waterfront. And over the past two years the Bloomberg and de Blasio Administrations have been making up for lost time by launching, implementing and envisioning ambitious new programs to boost recycling and to compost food waste -- the largest single component of the residential waste stream.

What follows -- in two parts -- is a look-back at the birth of the city’s recycling law, the trials and tribulations of its childhood and teenage years, and its recent, long-delayed coming of age.

New York City's curbside recycling program began 25 years ago this summer, as New York City Sanitation Department trucks began fanning out to neighborhoods in all five boroughs to collect newspapers, metals, glass and plastic. Despite many stops and starts along the way, the program has survived, matured and is here to stay. Mayor de Blasio's new Sanitation Commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, has expressed her determination to advance recycling and food waste composting -- making waste collections here more sustainable and more cost-effective as well.


In the Beginning

Although the roots of recycling in New York City go back more than a century, the program’s current incarnation can be traced to the early 1980s. City landfills were closing and in 1984 Mayor Ed Koch advanced a proposal to build five giant garbage burning incinerators across the city.  That possibility sparked environmental groups -- including NRDC -- into action; they vowed to advance more environmentally friendly recycling and waste prevention strategies as new cornerstones of city policy.

As community leaders in Williamsburg and groups like NYPIRG formed a united front to oppose the Koch Administration’s proposed Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator (which was never built), other environmental advocates began meeting with sympathetic City Council representatives and their staffs to help design city legislation intended to jumpstart big-time recycling efforts here.

In 1987 and 1988, a handful of City Councilmembers, led by Ruth Messenger and Sheldon Leffler, began negotiating with the Koch Administration, environmental leaders and other stakeholders. A valued partner in these early efforts was then NYC Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin. They were determined to craft a comprehensive bill that would require the Sanitation Department to provide curbside collection of recyclables for New Yorkers in every neighborhood and regardless of whether residents lived in private homes or high-rise apartments (which were viewed as problematic due to real and imagined limitations on space for storing recyclables).  

In March 1989, after nearly two years of contentious debate, the Council enacted Local Law 19 of 1989 -- “the New York City Recycling Law.” It stated the City Council’s intent that “the measures taken by the city must establish the most environmentally sound and economically desirable waste reduction, recycling and reuse programs possible….” 

The law was comprehensive. It covered everything from recycling by city agencies (including the public school system) and by commercial establishments, to the procurement of goods made with recycled content, the preparation of citywide recycling plans, the undertaking of public education activities, and the creation of citizen solid waste advisory boards.

The heart of the statute was a provision designed to thrust residential recycling collections forward citywide. It set forth a schedule for gradually increasing mandatory tonnage levels that the Sanitation Department was required to recycle over the next five years. It directed that at the end of the first year, the Department was to be recycling 700 tons per day and that by the end of the fifth year, the Department was to have reached a daily recycling level of 4,250 tons per day (equal to about 25 per cent of the estimated total residential and institutional waste that was expected to be collected by the Department that year).

Sheldon Leffler, who was Chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee and the bill’s leading shepherd, pronounced the statute “a strong beginning … not the end.”  City Council Majority Leader Peter F. Vallone, proclaimed the new law to be “one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the city.” And Mayor Koch’s Sanitation Commissioner, Brendan Sexton, who had tangled with the Council on the bill’s language for months but who eventually supported the legislation and ultimately became a great advocate for sustainable waste policies, told the New York Times: “We are going to recycle like crazy.”

Of course, there was no place to go but up in terms of New York City recycling. Although groups like the Environmental Action Coalition had begun voluntary recycling endeavors in the 1970s, the City was still recycling less than one percent of its daily trash in the late 1980s, before the new law was enacted.

Recycle at School.JPG

Since the city’s recycling law took effect 25 years ago this summer, students and teachers have been pressing to have recycling collections implemented at their schools, as is evidenced by this 2008 rally on the steps of City Hall. For a very long time, the Department of Education was uncooperative. But with GrowNYC’s Recycling Champions program adding intensive recycling in individual schools, and the Sanitation Department now collecting lunchroom food scraps for composting at several hundred public schools, things are finally beginning to improve.


The 1990’s -- Legal Wrangling Under Mayor Giuliani

By the spring of 1990, the City had succeeded in meeting the recycling law’s first year tonnage mandate. Blue recycling bins, distributed by the City, were a common site outside of private residences in all five boroughs. And the Sanitation Department was collecting at least 700 tons of recyclables per day. 

Still, there were trouble spots on the horizon. They included ineffective efforts to educate the public regarding the details of recycling and its importance, lack of cooperation from many building managers and lack of attention from the city’s public school leadership.

Back in 1989, Commissioner Sexton predicted: “I think we will meet the law’s goals. But I also believe we have still some surprises to come, negative and positive.” On this second point, he was certainly correct.

When in 1991, the Department missed that year’s mandatory recycling tonnage number, NRDC brought suit to enforce the law on behalf of Councilmembers Sheldon Leffler and Fred Cerulo, the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board and concerned residents from Staten Island and the Bronx. (Michael Gerrard and the law firm of Arnold & Porter graciously provided pro bono legal assistance.) In response, the City’s lawyers argued that the statute’s tonnage mandates were non-binding “goals.” 

But, beginning in 1992, one New York State court after another rejected that theory and ordered the city to comply with the tonnage directive and the other mandatory provisions of the recycling law. 

The Giuliani Administration was no great friend of recycling and continued to drag its feet in implementing the statute. In 1996, the NRDC plaintiffs returned to court to enforce the pre-existing court order. This time, Mayor Giuliani’s lawyers argued that using construction and demolition debris to line the roads at the Fresh Kills landfill counted as residential recycling under the statute. 

In 1997, the court rejected this argument of the Administration as well. And in 1998, the state’s highest court turned away the City’s last appeal. In total, seven separate court rulings had all gone against City Hall on the question of recycling tonnage deadlines. But as these legal matters made their way through the courts, valuable time was lost. Under revised court orders, the city was given until 2001 to meet the 4,250 tons per day recycling mandate. 

Mayor Giuliani, who had called the city’s recycling law “absurd and irresponsible,” then sought to block funding that would have provided weekly (instead of every other week) recycling collections in all five boroughs. Once again, the City Council stepped in. In 1998, under the leadership of Environmental Protection Committee Chair Stanley Michels, the Council unanimously passed a new law directing the city to provide weekly recycling collections to every city neighborhood.

Read Part II and Part III of this blog series.