Recycling Street Waste

New York City produces a lot of garbage. Over 36,000 tons of solid waste is produced every day by the city’s 8,300,000 residents and millions of workers and visitors. While New York still has not developed an effective waste management system, and the Bloomberg Administration made some unfortunate changes in recycling rules in their first term, there seems to be a growing awareness that we have a major problem on our hands. The solution to our waste problem has four key dimensions:

  1. Waste reduction.
  2. Better waste transport.
  3. Better waste disposal.
  4. Increased recycling.

A small, but symbolically important part of the recycling puzzle is recycling waste in public spaces. Have you ever wondered why New York City’s streets don’t feature the same recycling receptacles alongside the waste bins that you find in Toronto, London, Portland, Seattle, and other cities? Well, this is starting to change. Thanks to a public space recycling program piloted in New York City last year, we now have recycling bins in a small number of parks and other public spaces, and legislation has been proposed to expand the program.

New York City first experimented with public recycling containers in the early 1990’s, when recycling became mandatory in the city, but discontinued the practice after finding contamination of recycling bins too high to justify the added expense of separate recycling collection. However, through an agreement between the Bloomberg Administration and the City Council as part of the October 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan, New York City is making another attempt to recycle waste in public spaces.

The pilot program that started in 2007 yielded much better results than in the old days, especially with paper recycling bins, which had an average contamination rate of 5%. Bottle and can recycling was not as successful, yielding both less waste (measured in tonnage) and having a much higher contamination rate of 37%. The program has now moved out of the pilot phase, and been expanded to thirteen sites throughout the city, with at least two in each borough.

According to Kathy Dawkins, Director of Public Information at the NYC Department of Sanitation, "Public Space Recycling works in some public spaces but not universally. The two main ingredients for success are heavy foot traffic and additional local control like a BID or [a] well maintained…heavily used park such as Union Square and Battery Park."

Might this program expand to become the rule, rather than the exception, in public spaces in NYC? Earlier this year, Council Member Jessica Lappin introduced legislation to expand the public recycling program to parks throughout the City. According to her office, at a hearing of the City Council in February, "the Department of Sanitation testified to the success of the program and suggested that the Council Member’s legislation be amended to include more sites in heavily trafficked areas." The Sanitation Commissioner has agreed to 22 sites, "and the program is rolling out this summer. After these sites are tested we will be amending the legislation to include even more sites for public recycling."

As the Department of Sanitation points out, "all plans are subject to available funding." They are considering selling advertising on recycle bins as one way to fund their cost.

According to Kate Krebs, Executive Director of the National Recycling Coalition, recycling bins are now found in many cities in the United States, as well as sporting venues, parks, and institutions. However, Krebs notes that, "They are not everywhere-they are not standard yet."

One factor which may prove a challenge in promoting public space recycling is that although in New York the amount of waste-and therefore recyclables-tossed into street corner garbage cans appears tremendous, waste from public spaces only represents a small fraction of the City’s total waste stream.

Even so, it makes sense to do what we can to make it easy for people to keep recyclables out of landfills. Also, expanding public space recycling would reinforce NYC’s image as an environmentally forward-thinking city, and it could help other cities to establish the practice.

As Krebs says, "If we could get a toehold in a city like New York…then I think it would be standard."

In addition to increased recycling in public spaces, Krebs dreams of having a uniform receptacle to be used nationally. "I want a standard recycling bin for the U.S. that would be as easily recognizable as a blue mailbox." And, this is something the National Recycling Coalition has been advocating for. Says Krebs, "We run a bin grant program where we give away bins for public spaces, and we are working with bin designers to develop a standard look and feel for public spaces."

Even if you haven’t seen any of the recycling bins in NYC’s streets and parks, you may have noticed that trash cans in subway stations now bear signs saying, "Can it for a greener planet!" According to these signs, recyclables are sorted from the trash after collection. This system was implemented after recycling containers put on platforms on a trial basis yielded high contamination rates, questioning the value of the work of maintaining recycling bins and the security risk. The MTA’s current system of sorting out recyclables after waste collection means that 40% of that waste is diverted from a landfill.

New Yorkers seem to think they don’t have the time to dispose of paper in a paper bin and bottles in a bottle bin. We also thought we’d never learn how to replace subway tokens with swipe cards. Somehow we managed to cope. It may take a while, but we can learn how to sort public garbage. You know, every litter bit helps….

Recycling Street Waste