Waste Not, Want Not: Recycling Rules in NYC

Dear Poopers, Thank you to all who came out yesterday to the Visitor Center at Newtown Creek for the panel on Art and Sustainability. Through the natural, meditative works of George Trakas to Mary Mattingly's futuristic, floating Waterpod, I hope we scratched the surface of how art can promote sustainability in personal, communal and planetary planes. Stay tuned for the next panel, "Newtown Creek: Past, Present and Future" coming up June 23 (more info here).

At that very same Visitor's Center this past Thurs, May 19, I was found sifting through the garbage with a bunch of my Brooklyn neighbors. No, we weren't dumpster diving again (excuse me, "urban foraging"), but taking part in a recycling workshop run by David Hurd and Jae Watkins from the NYC Office of Recycling Outreach and Education (OROE).

The OROE is one arm of GrowNYC, which is not exactly a government program, but a non-profit which, in their words, "improves New York Cityโ€™s quality of life through environmental programs that transform communities block by block and empower all New Yorkers to secure a clean and healthy environment for future generations." After a little context from the quick Mr. Hurd (in regards to both wit and pace--just try to keep up with his jam-packed 5 minute intro to the economics of recycling in NYC), we were treated to a showing of the Emmy-winning NYC TV production The Green Apple: Recycling (click the title to watch). Our group scored highly in the "Choose Which Bin" game Ms. Watkins facilitated afterward, and we challenged Mr. Hurd's encyclopedic knowledge with a barrage of questions. And then we ate snacks.

Here are some of the highlights of what I learned, followed by a few tips on how to be a stellar NYC recycler.

  • From 1947 to 2001, solid waste from all five boroughs was shipped to Fresh Kills on Staten Island, at one time the world's largest landfill. Since Fresh Kills is now getting made over into a sprawling park (with a composting toilet!), the 25,000 tons of trash that New Yorkers and their businesses create each day is trucked away at a total cost of around $300,000,000 each year. Generally speaking, Manhattan's waste is incinerated in New Jersey at a Waste to Energy facility (WTE), while most trash from Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx will wind up in nearly full or at-capacity landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Virginia. (For a complete breakdown, download this Concerned Citizens report. Also check out this great NYC recycling overview from Baruch college.) Paper recycling, on the other hand, happens at Pratt Industries paper mill on Staten Island and makes the city a profit of around $35,000,000/year. In similar economic terms, the cost of carting metal, glass and plastic to a landfill is over $100/ton, while transporting the same ton to a recycling facility costs only $58.

  • In 2004-05, NYC conducted a thorough study of the waste found in both residential and street bins. They learned that 35% of the waste NYC residents produce can be recycled at the curb as pictured on the above pie chart. Of that 35% potentially-recyclable material, only half of it actually makes it to an appropriate bin, leading to a 17% "capture rate." In other words, New York City creates a resource from 17% of its waste.
  • 13% of NYC waste is composed of "other plastics," some of which are indeed recyclable but not collected by the city. (It is possible that the range of plastics NYC can recycle will increase in Fall 20012, when a "materials recovery facility" in south Brooklyn is expected to be completed.) Another 28% is organic matter that could be composted. As it is, all that rotting fruit makes landfills feel gassy, releasing harmful methane and CO2 into the atmosphere if not captured.

So what can we do, humble and concerned citizens, to see that more of our trash doesn't just go to waste?

  1. REDUCE! Let's face it. Much of the stuff we buy is, well, just stuff. The best way to prevent our lives from becoming cluttered is not to accumulate stuff in the first place. Consider also how you might reduce your intake of materials; you could buy a fruit with its own packaging (like an orange or banana) instead of something in plastic, carry a reusable coffee mug or water bottle and, for goodness sake, bring your own bag.
  2. REUSE! The city has a number of programs to help businesses and individuals pass on materials--from furniture to fabric--that they no longer need, preventing landfill waste, raw material manufacturing, and reducing cost. For small-scale, interpersonal trading, consider holding a swap meet or posting on Craigslist or Freecycle. Get creative! Here are 6 ways to reuse that plastic bottle, from crafty coin purses to designer lamps!
  3. RECYCLE! Let's face it: one only needs so many plastic bottle lamps. So the rest go in the recycling bin. But which bin? Inside a bag, too? And should that bag be blue or clear? You already know that recycling rules, now let's learn some regulations (see a complete list from the city here).
  • The machines at the recycling facility can automatically screen out items that are not recyclable, but it takes time and energy. By carefully sorting at home, you make the whole process more efficient and ensure that resources are spent on recycling, not clearing out the waste traps.
  • If you have clearly labeled bins, you don't need the bags! Trash goes in the trash bin, papers in the green-labeled bin, and metal/glass/plastic in the blue-labeled bin. (Call 311 to order your own decals, or click here.) If you must bag, don't be fooled by those blue "recycling bags" in the store--NYC mandates recycling goes in clear bags.
  • Paper means basically what you think it does: magazines, mail, newspaper, cereal boxes, etc. Corrugated cardboard needs to be cut in to small pieces or else flattened and bundled with twine. You don't have to remove every staple or all the plastic windows from your envelopes, but don't recycle anything with lots of tape or glue on it. Paper stained with food (i.e. napkins, paper plates) are also not recyclable.
  • Metals/glass/plastic is a bit more complicated. All household metals are acceptable, and all glass jars or bottles (no mirrors, light bulbs, dishes, etc.), but the plastics are a bit trickier. While most plastic nowadays is recyclable, NYC only recycles numbers 1 and 2, and then only when the neck is smaller than the base as with bottles and jugs. That means all those take-out trays, Starbucks cups, plastic bags and yogurt containers should go in the trash even if they are labeled with a 1 or 2 (something about the melting temperature...). The plastic cap is also not recyclable, so throw that away before recycling the bottle (metal beer caps are ok). Additionally, used cartons and Tetra Paks (from milk, juice, soup, etc.) also go in the blue bin. THUS, you might think of the blue as your "Metal/glass/bottle/jug/carton" bin. Now isn't that easy to remember?
  • When thinking about which bin to use, consider the item holistically. If 51% or more of the product is a recyclable material, then it's recyclable. That Pringles can, for example, has both paper and metal. You could separate the bottom from the cardboard tube and recycle each separately, or just recycle in the green bin since more than 51% of the can is paper.
  • NYC is working on expanding the range of what's recyclable at the curb. In the meantime, any store larger than 10,000 sq/ft or a chain with 5+ stores is legally required to offer plastic bag recycling. CFL lights are recyclable at places like Home Depot and Ikea, while batteries, cell phones and other electronic waste can be taken to your local electronics store (more details here). Or check out this reader-recommended exchange program from Verizon that turns your electronic recyclables into gift cards.

Lastly, remember that 28% organic, gassy waste decomposing in the landfills? Give those veggie scraps, old flower arrangements and grass clippings a rebirth instead of a burial, and compost them into new soil! You can compost at home in a pre-made backyard bin or one you build with friends, an apartment-sized worm bin, or keep your scraps in the freezer (to prevent smell) and drop them off at an actively composting community garden or local collection. (GrowNYC lists a number of drop-off sites in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn--some of which are only offered through June 25 as a pilot program, and I'm sure could use your support.) NYC will even take your fall leaves and Christmas trees to nourish plants throughout the city. For more information or to become a trained compost captain, check out the Lower East Side Ecology Center or the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

While we are not responsible for all of New York City's waste, we can take responsibility for our own. So spread the word!ย  Recycling rules.

Peaceful pooping,

Shawn "The Puru" Shafner