How to Put Recycling in NYC on the Right Track

Last week, Politico published Wasted Potential, a series of articles that highlights issues with waste in New York City. The series is ongoing, but early articles have shined a light on the City’s poor recycling rate, slow progress on organic waste recycling, lack of access to recycling programs in NYCHA, and the climate impacts of these shortcomings. 

NYLCV lauded Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015 when he announced his ambitious plan to nearly eliminate waste sent to landfills by 2030 (often referred to as Zero Waste or 0x30). However, for many reasons, recycling rates have not increased significantly in the years since. Right now, New Yorkers recycle less than 18% of their waste. 

The City’s 0x30 commitment called for a 90% reduction in waste sent to landfills by 2030, using the year 2005 as a baseline. In 2005, 3.6 million tons of waste was landfilled. Based on that figure, achieving 0x30 would mean just 360,000 tons would be landfilled in 2030.

According to the most recent report from NYC’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY), 3.25 million tons of waste was sent to landfills in 2019. That’s a little under 10% of progress towards our Zero Waste goal. Given this slow start, the City would now have to reduce waste by at least 8% per year to reach 0x30, which is no easy feat. 

To their credit, DSNY currently has a considerable number of programs (both mandatory and voluntary) available to New Yorkers that allow them to recycle or donate goods. There’s recycling for paper, metal, glass, and plastic, and disposal services for harmful products like medical waste, paint, and electronic waste. Some communities have residential pick-up for organic waste such as food scraps and yard waste, and there are drop-off locations for those who are not currently served by the residential program. There are also programs that allow New Yorkers to donate or recycle textiles or clothing via drop-off, or by requesting a bin for their building. 

However, people don’t always know about these programs, and some, particularly residents of public housing, may even lack access to basic recycling services that are afforded to the majority of New Yorkers. 

To put our recycling rates on the right track, we need to expand these programs and extend them to everyone. Most critical is the need to expand the residential organics program citywide. This type of waste makes up a third of our waste stream, and when it ends up in landfills, it releases significant quantities of methane as it decomposes. A potent greenhouse gas, methane absorbs heat from the sun at 32 times the rate of carbon dioxide and traps that heat in our atmosphere.

But providing services to more New Yorkers is only one part of the solution. The City must also do all it can to stimulate the behavior change necessary to achieve 0x30, through both policy and budget maneuvers.

For the past several years, NYLCV has been fighting for an investment in public education and outreach around our Zero Waste goal. Last year, we asked for $10 million to be allocated in the budget for this effort. While outreach should inform New Yorkers of the available programs and teach them how to properly sort recyclables and organics, solely focusing on the what and how is not enough. The campaign should explain why these changes are necessary, and make a direct connection to climate change and the City’s sustainability goals.

Furthermore, the City should follow through on their commitment to study a volume-based “Save-as-you-Throw” system: one that would charge NYC residents based on how much waste they dispose of, while allowing free or discounted disposal of properly-separated organics and recyclables. This type of system would provide a strong economic incentive for generating less waste and recycling more.

Reaching our Zero Waste goal will require the cooperation of city officials and private industry, as well as buy-in from the general public. New York City is staring down a crisis of existential importance, and it is incumbent upon our elected leaders to invest our tax dollars in climate action and solutions. Waste policies that were recently implemented, or are soon to come online—including commercial waste zones, a ban on polystyrene, and single-use bag policy—are reasons to be optimistic, but more aggressive actions are necessary.

It is also up to all of us to change our culture of consumption and disposal. While much attention is given to recycling, it is important to remember that reduction and reuse are much more critical. In 2020 and beyond, we must reduce our consumption, expand producer responsibility for the items they produce, reuse or donate items as much as possible, and then focus on recycling.