Long way to go to improve NYC recycling

In response to my frustration at not being able to recycle my yogurt container, a Northwest connection of mine, Elizabeth said, “Seattle is lucky we can usually compost or recycle most of these items. Though I have no idea how it happened, you probably do…”

Elizabeth – you ARE lucky to be living in an area where you can not only recycle more, but also compost!

NYC has an unusual trash/recycling scenario. All residential trash and recyclables are collected by the city at no charge. So, while residents are required to separate paper materials, and bottles and cans (two separate streams), there is no incentive for them to do so.  It has only been recently that the city has issued fines to building supers if recyclables are not separated appropriately at the curb.  However, even in doing that, the penalty is on the building owner and not the individuals generating trash.  In many other cities, residents pay for trash removal directly.

All businesses on the other hand must contract directly with a private carter for removal of trash and recyclables (for a fee). Commercial recycling laws in NYC require that all non-food establishments separate cardboard and paper; restaurants are only required to separate cardboard and bottles and cans. While the private carting companies are regulated by an independent city agency, and all have a financial incentive to recover as much paper as possible, there is no enforcement of commercial recycling laws.

Compost has entered the picture within the past few years. On a residential level there are community compost programs. The Lower East Side Ecology Center in NYC has a great one.  However, these types of programs are limited in materials accepted (no meat for example) and limited in scale (individual households only.)

Large scale compost programs are dependent on availability and capacity of local facilities. Both Seattle and San Francisco have commercial or industrial compost facilities nearby that can accommodate a large volume of separated organic waste and other compostable materials. Both Seattle and San Francisco also have laws mandating composting of food (and yard) wastes.

The closest commercial compost facility to NYC is in Delaware. The only other options are two farms: one in New Jersey and one in Connecticut. The farms don’t generally accept compostable service ware, and have been known to reach maximum capacity at times. Right now, the cost (and eco-footprint) of transportation alone makes composting for restaurants and other food generating businesses unfavorable.  Even if the city were to mandate composting tomorrow, there just isn’t anywhere to take it.

The good news is that the NYC council amended existing recycling laws earlier this year. Included in those amendments is a feasibility study for composting options (very much looking forward to that) and expansion of commercial and residential recycling regulations.   Things are looking up, but there’s still a long way to go.


About Amy Marpman

Director of Recycling Services at Great Forest, Inc. in NYC. Continually finding the balance of idealism with the practical realities that make or break recycling programs.
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