New York City Reneges on Recycling

New York City’s recycling program has suffered the biggest setback since its inception in 1989. In mid-June, at the 11th hour in budget negotiations, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council agreed to suspend the collection of plastics for one year and glass for two years, saving the city $45 million for the next two fiscal years (paper and metal collection will continue). "The recycling program is not, with the exception of paper, saving the ecology of the world very much," Bloomberg said sardonically in February. "And it is very expensive." Only a court intervention could countermand Bloomberg’s order.

New Yorkers are likely to be confused as the recycling rules change. No plastic or glass in the bins!© Photos to Go

But the costs of implementing this yo-yo approach to recycling won’t come cheap either, critics charge. Money must be spent to reeducate the public on new recycling laws. The Bloomberg Administration embarrassed itself by taking a hard line on improperly sorted material, then changing its mind at the last minute. "The irony is, the mayor thinks he’s saving millions," says Suzanne Shepard of the New York chapter of the Sierra Club, "but this will cost millions too." The disruption to New Yorkers" waste-disposal practices will only hinder recycling in the long run, others fear. "We’ve worked hard to create a climate of recycling and conservation," says Vicente "Panama" Alba, a delegate with Laborers Local 108, which represents recycling workers. "All of that is being undone. It’s going to take years to recuperate from this."

Earlier in the year, facing a budget gap of nearly $5 billion, the mayor proposed an 18-month suspension of the city’s collection of glass, metal and plastic. Bloomberg’s budget office cited the high costs of recycling these materials ($240 a ton) as opposed to simply landfilling them ($130 a ton). What the mayor’s office failed to note, however, is the possible increases in landfilling costs by suspending the program.

According to the New York Public Interest Research Group, landfill operators may raise per-ton disposal rates, since the city has nowhere else to go. (The city closed its own municipal landfill, Fresh Kills, in 2000.)

The mayor also pointed to the city’s high contamination rate: an alarming 40 percent of non-paper recyclables end up in the waste stream. But much of that comes from poor education, as well as the city’s refusal to invest in proper sorting technology, environmentalists respond. "The city has never really taken recycling seriously," says Alba.

The Bloomberg Administration says it will study ways to make recycling more efficient and economical during its interim absence. While that’s going on, union leaders say, hundreds of recycling workers are expected to lose their jobs.