Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums
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Published: Summer 2000


CNYC thanks Robert Lange, Director, Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, Department of Sanitation, for the following recycling update.

By now most New Yorkers know that recycling is the law in New York City, and that, as the Sanitation Department's recycling bins and bags say in the advertisement, "Without us, it's all just trash." But what New Yorkers probably do not know is that in just over a decade, despite demographic challenges, operational and logistical hurdles, and budgetary shortfalls, the City's recycling program has become the largest, most ambitious and comprehensive program of its type in the nation. As a corollary, the portion of household and institutional waste diverted for recycling compares favorably to other cities and towns, taking into account New York's relative lack of leaf and yard waste. In fact, at the end of 1999, the City's recycling rate passed 20% for the first time.

New York City's recycling program began in the fall of 1986 on a voluntary, newspaper-only basis in one Community Board in Manhattan. In 1988, each borough had a singledistrict newspaper pilot project. Recycling became mandatory with the passage of Local Law 19 of 1989. A period of phasing in the collection of different materials in different com-munity districts and boroughs had its first level of completion in 1995, with the citywide collection of news-paper, magazines, corrugated cardboard, metal cans, glass jars, and plastic bottles collected in two "streams." The list of designated materials collected was expanded between 1995 and 1997, with the addition of "mixed" paper (any clean paper, including direct mail, cereal boxes, paper egg cartons, etc.), milk cartons, juice packs, and bulky metal items. Finally, from 1998 to 2000 there has been an increase in recycling collection frequency to weekly in the districts that had had alternate-week service.

Recyclables -- over 2,100 tons a day -- are collected in Sanitation Department trucks, and are delivered to private processors with whom the Department contracts. Contract prices are a function of processor costs offset by a revenue allocation that depends on changing market prices for secondary materials. The City has had to pay for metal/glass/plastic, and recently has begun to receive modest amounts of money for paper and cardboard. The processors have a contractual obligation and a market incentive to resell the processed material for re-manufacturing or other re-use. While end uses change with changing market conditions, NYC's recyclables have been used to make cardboard, newspaper, glass bottles, aluminum and steel cans, road base, construction fill, and sheet metal. Much of the collected paper goes by barge to the Visy paper mill on Staten Island, which manufactures the inner corrugated medium for cardboard boxes. The mill was built in 1995-1996, with support from the City's Economic Development Corporation.

Recycling diversion is defined as the weight of recyclables set out for collection divided by the weight of all waste material (garbage and recyclables). Three indicators show New York's 20% diversion rate compares well elsewhere in the U.S.

New York City does well compared to other cities with multifamily housing. A recent study of 40 communities conducted for the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that, excluding yard waste, the average diversion rate for multifamily recycling was 14%, compared to 16% for single-family sectors in those communities. (Yard waste in the singlefamily sector added another 16%.)

New York City does better than the national average for comparable materials. The national recycling rate -- 27% in 1996; 28.8% in 1998 -- combines all residential and commercial recycling. In 1998 the Department of Sanitation asked Franklin Associates, which calculates the national rate (for the Environmental Protection Agency), to tell us the residential rate alone for those materials in New York City's curbside program. This is essentially the rate for residential recycling excluding yard waste. For 1997, that rate was 13.1%.

For designated recyclables, New York City has even achieved rates comparable to Seattle, Washington, a city often cited as a national leader in recycling efforts. Seattle's website shows that for all paper and metal/glass/plastic recycling -- that is, excluding yard waste -- the residential rate was 19.5% in 1998. Preliminary data from 1999 are similar.

None of this means that recycling efforts should let up. In fact, there are legal, budgetary, and environmental reasons for recycling more. It must be done first of all to meet Local Law 19 requirements, which, while expressed in tons, are based on 25% diversion. Furthermore, there begins to be a current-cost advantage to recycling as the Fresh Kills landfill is closed down. Until recently, recycling had long-term costs advantages compared to waste disposal only when measuring full resource costs. The close proximity of a city-owned waste disposal site meant that on a current-expenditure basis, recycling actually cost more than waste disposal. But as the City now implements waste export, every additional ton that can be recycled will save the City in export costs. Finally, over the long term, recycling saves resources.

With program growth through added materials and higher service levels complete, raising the diversion rate must come from "capturing" recyclables that end up in the garbage. This means people have to recycle better. The intention to recycle is often in conflict with a desire to save immediate time and effort. The cereal box or magazine may not be recycled because the recycling bin is in a different room, or there is no recycling bin at all.

Precisely how much material is being lost is uncertain, but there are recyclables to be captured. Based on the City's 1989-90 baseline study of the composition of the waste stream, people are now recycling 45%, by weight, of total recyclables. That is, the citywide capture rate is 45%, with capture rates measured for community districts ranging from a low of 15% to a high of 70%. Programs in towns with only single-family homes consider capture rates of 60% to 80% to be very good to excellent.

What would New York City's cap-ture rate have to be to achieve a 25% diversion rate? Again based on 1989-90 waste composition, a 55% average capture rate would increase the amount recycled from an average of 2,100 tons/day to almost 2,700 tons/day, 25% of the total residential and institutional waste stream. This is a significant challenge: a 55% capture rate compared to the current average of 45% requires an overall improvement in recycling performance of more than 20%.

This kind of increase will not happen by itself. Public reminders through the Department's advertising campaigns are the most visible but not the only efforts to get New Yorkers to do even better than they are currently doing in their recycling efforts. There have been information campaigns aimed at apartment house owners, extensive efforts directed to public schools, and targeted outreach to particular districts and language groups. And enforcement of recycling regulations has been stepped up significantly in recent years, as program standardization and weekly collection removed what some perceived to be barriers to recycling. Between the last calendar quarter of 1997 and 2000, for example, the average number of residential recycling summonses issued per month more than tripled.

Paper and Cardboard
What: All clean paper, including newspaper, magazines and catalogues, mail, envelopes, smooth cardboard (cereal boxes), telephone phone and paperback books, and corrugated cardboard.

How: Place paper items together in a clear plastic recycling bag or a labeled bin, preferably labeled with a green recycling decal, or a dump-ster where collection is mech-anized. Tie corrugated cardboard. (Newspapers and magazines may be tied in bundles not exceeding 18".)

Glass, Metal, Plastic, and Foil
What: Glass bottles and jars, metal cans, plastic bottles and jugs, aluminum foil, milk and juice packs, and small metal items (if more than 50% metal); bulk metal items.

How: Place empty and rinsed beverage cartons, plastic, glass, metal, and foil together in a blue plastic recycling bag, or a labeled bin, preferably labeled with a blue recycling decal, or a dumpster where collection is mechanized. Place bulk metal items at the curb next to recycling bags; see flyer for detail.

To encourage recycling, the Department continues to provide an extensive information and outreach support system for New York City residents. Clear program rules are shown in brochures, fliers, posters, and even videos; Department-provided decals designate container types and recycling areas.

Green Decal (to designate containers for mixed-paper recycling)

Blue Decal (to designate containers for recycling beverage cartons, bottles, cans, metal, and aluminum foil products)

Area Decal (to designate a recycling area)

Flyers and Brochures
Recycling Checklist Flyer (English/Spanish, Engish/Chinese, English/Russian)

Recycling Instructions Flyer (English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Greek, French Creole, Polish)

Recycling Mini-Flyer (English/Spanish) Building Superintendents Handbook (English/Spanish)

Building Poster (English/Spanish, English/Chinese, English/Russian)


Sanitation Department website, Order the decals, flyers, and brochures listed here. Get other Sanitation Department information. Address general inquiries to the Commissioner.

24-hour Sanitation Action Center (SAC) telephone line, (212) 219-8090.
Order the decals, flyers, and brochures listed here. Order booklet about residential recycling (Residential Recycling Program Guidelines, in English/Spanish) Get other Sanitation Department information. Speak to an operator with questions.

Yellow Pages directories
See summary of rules; collection maps and schedules; website address and phone numbers.


The following is a list of recycling support and related programs. Dates and locations, where relevant, are provided on the Department's website.

  • Public reminder advertising and information campaigns.
  • Community outreach visits to schools, neighborhood associ-ations, etc., with provision of instructional videos, brochures, posters, decals.
  • Christmas tree collection every January throughout the City, and fall leaf collection in parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Compost produced at Parks Dept. sites is offered back to New Yorkers through programs with the City's Botanical Gardens.
  • Food waste composting at Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
  • Support for product reuse for: (1) non-profit groups through Materials for the Arts; (2) industrial and commercial businesses through NYWa$teMatch; (3) households and shops through a NYC Stuff Exchange, a reuse telephone hotline under development.
  • Support for waste prevention efforts through commercial and residential education.
  • Recycling of public-sector construction & demolition debris, and street & highway asphalt.
  • Commercial recycling rules covering cardboard and paper from all businesses, and special rules for food establishments and garment businesses.
  • Special waste drop-off sites, as of 7/1/00, for NYC residents, for proper disposal of oil, lead-acid batteries, and other selected items.

As this list shows, the big picture of recycling in New York City goes beyond the program that residents participate in every day. It also includes (a) recycling of other DOS-managed waste, such as City construction debris, road material, lot cleaning, etc., along with the smaller composting and office paper programs; and (b) commercial recycling. With intensive reuse of both construction debris and road material, the recycling rate for DOS-managed waste as a whole is over 30% (33% in January 2000), more than the approximately 20% rate for residential and institutional recycling alone. Materials recycled in the commercial sector include, among other things, paper from offices and construction debris. That sector's recycling brings the overall city recycling rate to approximately 50% (52% in January 2000).



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