A Shot of Adrenaline for the Nation's Largest Municipal Recycling Program

The New York City Council did not meet in its historic chambers at City Hall yesterday.  With portions of the 198 year old City Hall ongoing much-needed renovation, the Council gathered instead at the old Emigrant Savings Bank building, just about a block to the north. 

Despite the “first-day-of-school” atmosphere at the Council’s temporary new home, it was a great day for New York City’s environment.

For one thing, the Council enacted 11 separate bills dealing with various elements of the city’s recycling program.  These bills, if signed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and aggressively implemented by his Department of Sanitation, could set in motion the biggest enhancements to New York City’s recycling program in more than two decades. 

The City’s recycling program, hailed upon its creation in 1989 as perhaps the most ambitious in the nation, has been struggling in recent years.  The City’s residential recycling rate has actually dipped from more than 20% in 2000 to approximately 16% today.  Part of the reason was an ill-advised suspension of recycling of glass and plastic in 2002.  Although recycling collections of these materials returned in 2003 and 2004, the confusion about what should and should not be placed out for recycling has apparently continued.

Fortunately, the new recycling bills hold the potential to boost New York City recycling in a number of ways. 

Here are some of the highlights:

  • One bill, Intro. 148A, directs the Sanitation Commissioner to designate all rigid plastic containers as recyclable materials and to provide for the collection for all such plastics as part of the city’s recycling program once the city’s new South Brooklyn Marine Terminal recycling facility opens (which is now projected for December 2011).  This bill should finally end confusion about which plastics New Yorkers should include in their recycling cans.  It will allow residents to forget about looking for tiny numbers on the bottom of their plastic containers to determine which ones are eligible for recycling. 
  • Another bill, Intro. 165A, requires that by January 2011 every public and private school classroom in New York City must provide a separate receptacle for collection of recycled paper and that recycling receptacles for metals, glass and plastic be located at every school entrance and cafeteria.  This exciting and long-overdue initiative should help instill the recycling habit in millions of younger New Yorkers. And the bill’s supporters hope that schoolchildren will also continue their recycling activities when they get back  home.
  • A third bill, Intro. 158A, directs the Sanitation Department to establish by January 2011 a citywide textile reuse and recycling program.  The Department is to facilitate a program for accessible drop-off bins at convenient locations around the city where residents will be able to recycle clothing and other textiles.  These commodities make up about 5% of the city’s residential waste stream, so finding better ways to reuse and recycling clothing and other fabrics should help keep these useful materials out of landfills and incinerators.
  • Intro. 158A also requires the Sanitation Department to expand “public space” recycling by adding at least 500 new receptacles for the collection of metals, glass, plastic and paper at park entrances, transit hubs and business districts over the next three years.  Within ten years, the law requires the Department to reach a cumulative total of 1,000 such receptacles.  These green and blue containers, which are to be placed right next to traditional waste baskets, should help make recycling easier for New Yorkers on-the-go and serve as an important public education tool.
  • Yet another bill, Intro. 157A, requires the Sanitation Commissioner to provide for the separate collection and composting of yard wastes for eight months a year, beginning in 2012, and to operate one or more yard waste composting facilities to receive the waste collected.  Several councilmembers voted against this bill.  But the majority understood that it makes no economic (or environmental) sense to have the city collect huge volumes of grass clippings and ship them hundreds of miles to out-of-state landfills, when such materials can easily and more cheaply be composted in backyards or in nearby city facilities.
  • Intro. 142A directs the Sanitation Commissioner to establish a voluntary program, in cooperation with paint manufacturers, distributors and retailers, for the collection of unused paint from consumers, so that such paint will be reused or recycled.  If this pilot program proves successful, New York will be among the leaders in the country (Oregon already has such a program underway) in removing unused paints from the residential waste stream.

Among the other recycling bills passed by the City Council yesterday were ones designed to:  expand recycling at all city agencies; step up household hazardous waste recycling; enhance public education activities on recycling; study how to advance food waste composting in the city; increase fines for violation of recycling rules in buildings with 9 or more units; and establish new ten year recycling goals of 25% for city-collected waste and 33% for city-managed waste.

These bills, taken together, should serve as a jolt of adrenalin for New York City’s recycling program.  Their passage demonstrates that -- despite the many challenges of establishing a comprehensive recycling program in the nation’s most densely populated city -- recycling here is becoming a cornerstone of city solid waste policy and one that makes sense economically as well as environmentally for our city.

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As if that weren’t enough, the City Council also enacted strong air quality legislation that will reduce airborne emissions from home heating oil.  Specifically, the bill will cut in half the amount of allowable sulfur in No. 4 heating oil, which is a major source of particulate pollution in New York City.  The legislation also requires that heating oil used after October 2012 must contain at least 2 percent biodiesel fuel.  Since the dirtier fuel grades are still being burned in thousands of apartment buildings here, the new legislation – combined with other actions underway or planned – should significantly cut pulmonary and other health risks to tens of thousands of city residents.

My NRDC colleague, Rich Kassel, has blogged about this issue and our friends at the EDF have prepared an excellent report on the health risks top New Yorkers posed by burning dirty heating oil.  See their links below.

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Special thanks to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, to Sanitation Chairperson Tish James and Environmental Chairperson Jim Gennaro for their determined and leadership on these issues.  Many other councilmembers, who became lead sponsors of the individual recycling bills, also deserve a shout-out, as do dedicated staff persons Laura Popa, Jarret Hova and Siobhan Watson.

Mia Nivarro of the New York Times got it exactly right when she stated that “it was like Earth Day” at the New York City Council yesterday. 

So the Council is off to a great start at the Emigrant Savings Bank.  If Speaker Quinn and her colleagues keep passing legislation like this in their temporary new chambers, New Yorkers who care about environmental health and the quality of city life might consider asking the Council to stay right where they are and not to return to City Hall.       


Rich Kassel’s blog on NRDC’s Switchboard:

Environmental Defense Fund’s “The Bottom of the Barrel” Report:

Mia Nivarro’s article in the New York Times: