New York Falls Behind Other Cities in Recycling

New Yorkers out and about. | Photo by Niko Balkaran

By Chanardaye Sookram

Garbage that New Yorkers create impacts our lives and our environment. This waste has become so problematic that New York City has demanded its residents recycle. Waste generated by residential, commercial and institutional sources must be recycled, which includes plastic, glass, paper, and metals, to name a few. But do we know if recycling works? If you are a New Yorker and sort your recycling at home, as city law mandates, you probably wonder, as you rinse bottles, stack junk mail, and scrub yogurt containers, does all this effort make a difference?

New York City recycles only about a fifth of garbage collected from its citizens, 18 percent of trash from homes and 25 percent from businesses, according to the city’s Department of Sanitation. When Bloomberg was our Mayor, he vowed to double the effort of improving the residential recycling rate percent by 2017

This promise has fallen short. According to the Sanitation Department, with an estimate of all New Yorkers’ garbage, 68 percent of residential trash and 75 percent of commercial trash would be kept out of landfills. City leaders have promised to improve recycling for decades, but they have dragged their feet in doing so. As a result, New York still lags behind major cities. Many of these cities recycle more than half of their waste. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have much stronger policies than New York.

The effects of not recycling are that the garbage must be trucked out of the city, and organic waste left to decompose contributes to the planet’s global warming problem by releasing methane gas into the air. This undermines the city and state implemented law last year to reduce contributions to climate change.

“New York has to get serious about solving the solid waste crisis,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “Otherwise, it’s going to impact our ability to hit our climate goals.” So how does New York City, a leader in environment and climate change who promotes zero-waste campaign plans to stop garbage exports by 2030, fall short

 of this promise? One reason for this failure, as per Mayor Adams, is the Trump administration’s failure to fight climate change


A third of residential waste is food scraps and yard garbage, all organic materials that can be composted and turned into fertilizers, which can be used to produce energy. The city’s sanitation commissioner, Kathryn Garcia, has been proposing composting as a way to reduce waste.

But a composting program that the Bloomberg administration began in 2013 appears to have stalled, according to Politico, whose recent investigation of New York’s recycling program concluded that the city is not meeting the recycling goals set by the de Blasio and Bloomberg administrations.

Mayor Bill de Blasio promised in his first term to make the composting program citywide by 2018 but has since put funding on hold, as per the New York Times.

Many neighborhoods do not even have the option to get city composting bins, and only the largest restaurants are required to separate food scraps. A big reason for the problem, experts say, is money. Recycling paper and glass can be profitable for the city, depending on markets, but composting costs far more than it can earn. 

The city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY) proposed a new rule to expand its requirements for the third time to cover approximately 8,000 new businesses and 100,000 tons of annual food waste. In a release marking the announcement, Commissioner Kathryn Garcia described this as the “final phase” of a 2013 law targeting commercial organics in the waste stream.”

In 1989 separating garbage was required by all residents, but politicians have not been consistent in New York City about following through. Cities with better recycling rates tend to have tougher mandates and enforcement than New York. For example, in many European cities, residents must pay for every bag of trash and recyclables collected. As a result, their residents sort their garbage and reuse it more.

In Seattle, recycling is collected for free, but there is a fee for each bag of regular garbage. This is called “pay as you throw” or “save as you throw,” garbage collection is an “unmetered utility.” Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, has called such a requirement a “nonstarter.” For now, fines for failing to recycle are charged to property owners, but most New Yorkers rent their homes. In any case, the fine charged to landlords is $25 per violation and can move up to $100, and recycling advocates say inspections are inadequate.

At York College, there is a distinct lack of recycling depositaries. Besides the paper dumpster on the loading dock, which hardly anyone knows about, students have no other options to recycle on campus.

As a New Yorker, I will say this, internet shopping has become increasingly convenient and there has been an increase in people who buy in bulk. This creates a greater need to recycle our waste. New York must catch up with other cities to keep the waste we create out of landfills. Recycling is a must to save our planet.

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