Cover Story: Where Does All the Garbage Go? An Update on New York's Recycling Program

Cover Story: Where Does All the Garbage Go?

There was a time not long ago when New Yorkers could throw just about anything away and not give it a second thought. But in the late 1980s, the federal government enacted strong environmental legislation, including the closure of many landfills because they didn't comply with federal standards. These occurrences, combined with New York City's ban on incinerators in residential buildings, set the stage for Mayor Koch to sign Local Law 19 of 1989. This ushered in the Age of Recycling for residential buildings, changing forever how we dispose of our trash.

Recycling Goals

In addition to concern about the environment, the Koch Administration had another immediate problem: the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, the City's major receptacle of garbage, was reaching maximum capacity. The goal of Local Law 19 was to divert 25 percent of the City's waste away from landfills and into recycling facilities where it could be sorted, processed, and sold for reuse.

Stanley E. Michels, City Council Member and Chairman of the Committee on Environmental Protection, says that the City is "slowly but surely" approaching the 25 percent diversion rate. But, he adds, "It's taking more time than anybody thought."

According to Robert Lange, director of the Department of Sanitation, Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling, the City today has reached a 20 percent diversion rate. But as the deadline for the closing of Fresh Kills approaches, the city has stepped up its efforts to reach full recycling capacity, through a combination of increased public education, more frequent recycling pick-up and increased enforcement.

Even when the city has reached its goal of recycling a quarter of the waste stream, the problem of what to do with the other 75 percent still remains. "How do you divert the more than 13,000 tons of garbage that go to Fresh Kills on a daily basis?" Michels asks.

Fresh Kills is now the only remaining landfill in the City and is slated to close by the end of 2001. By 2002, it is anticipated that all of the City's non-recyclable trash will be exported, but no one is sure yet where it will go or how much it will cost to get it there. "There have been reports of other areas not wanting to take our garbage," says Lange. "The City is in the process of looking into new long-term contracts to export the garbage."

What's Recycled?

Over the years, the City has expanded the recycling program to include more and more types of trash, all of which can be used to manufacture new products. Today the program requires residents to recycle all paper products (including all corrugated cardboard, egg cartons, magazines, catalogues, newspapers, phone books, paper and envelopes, computer paper, paper bags and junk mail). One thousand tons of paper is picked up daily in New York City and shipped to recycling mills throughout the world. All metals, including cans and hangers must also be recycled (most metal cans nowadays are made of more than 50 percent recyclable content). Plastic bottles must be recycled, and are used by the City to fabricate white traffic barriers and orange traffic cones. Glass bottles and jars are crushed and mixed with asphalt to pave roadways. Aluminum, including most soda cans, is the most valuable recyclable material and can be turned around from recyclable garbage to useful new product in as little as six weeks.

The recyling program is mandatory, and there are hefty fines for non-compliance. It is the responsibility of building owners to see to it that their buildings have a recycling system in place and that residents are compying with it. In most co-ops and condos, the management company oversees the implementation of such a system, but boards should be vigilant to make sure that their building is meeting the city's ever-changing requirements.

Complying With Regulations

According to Michels, one of the problems in reaching full compliance is that the City has been picking up recyclables only every other week, which creates storage problems for many buildings. But recently, the City Council passed legislation that will provide weekly recycling pick-ups for every neighborhood in New York by June 2000. "We believe this will result in upping the amount of recyclable materials that will be collected and also in a decrease of the amount of waste picked up by the trucks," says Michels.

To meet City regulations, each building must contain a tenant-accessible recycling area with appropriate signs and posted instructions. Recyclables must be separated from garbage and placed out on the street in specified ways so that it can be identified correctly for collection. Escalating fines will be levied for failure to comply. Further, if the Sanitation Department finds that the amount of recyclables being set out at curbside is sufficiently less than the normal amount generated given building size, it can require that all materials be set out in clear plastic bags. "Therefore," says Kevin P. Farrell, Commissioner of the Department of Sanitation, "unless your building has staff which does the separations, you should be using all reasonable means to inform residents about source separation rules."

In a focus group study that the Department of Sanitation conducted in January 1999 with building superintendents from the five boroughs, supers felt that, while tenants are recycling better than they did in the past, both tenants and superintendents are still relying on instructions from the recycling program's inception rather than the new instructions. "It appears that many building owners/managers have failed to inform their building superintendents regarding the new requirements," says Farrell in response to the study.

Enforcing The Rules

According to Lange, there is a fleet of garbage inspectors who will focus specifically on enforcing recycling regulations in residential buildings. Conferred "peace officer" status, these inspectors will be clothed in blue uniforms resembling police uniforms and will investigate building superintendents' implementation of the recycling program. This enforcement will begin in earnest in late June.

"People who manage buildings don't have a lot to worry about if they follow the law," says Lange. "The law says that they're required to inform their tenants by providing recycling information. In co-ops and condos, it's a matter of notification. We'll be looking to see how the tenants get notified and whether or not there are postings that tell people how and where to deposit their recyclables. If those things are found in the building and it looks like the building has put a system in place to get notification to the residents, there's no problem. But if it appears that there's no infrastructure set up in the building to get materials from the building to the curb, the building will be subject to a violation."

Non-compliance fines will begin at $25 per violation and could escalate quickly for repeat violators, going up to several thousand dollars per day with the issuance of multiple summonses. According to the Department of Sanitation, failure to post recycling regulations is the most common violation of the law. "We're not looking to give out summonses," says Lange. "We're looking for compliance. But the Department and the City must meet the target under Local Law 19, so residents must recycle better and buildings must make an effort to get the materials out to the curb."

IDC/Hi-Rise Recycling Systems, the metropolitan area's largest residential compactor installation and service provider, manufactures and installs automated sorting systems that eliminate the need for manual sorting of recyclables. According to Eve Martinez, the firm's recycling and government relations coordinator, quarterly waste removal reports issued by the Sanitation Department indicate that, when it comes to recycling, multiple-unit, high-rise residential buildings are underperforming compared with other sectors of the City. Martinez says that it's the responsibility of building management to take control of the waste stream. But she also says that it's the residents who ultimately must cooperate for the recycling program to work.

Refuse Systems, a Bronx-based company, also installs automatic recycling systems in mid-rise and high-rise buildings. According to Tania Piarulli, assistant vice president, "Recycling is now and forever. Our children's future depends on it. It takes ten centuries for plastics to decompose. By recycling we can ship materials around the world and they can be reused." She adds that, "Landfills are outdated and we have to make recycling a simple and easy thing to do.

Automatic recycling systems, which allow residents to dispose of all their waste at the trash chute and separate garbage with the push of a button, are becoming more common in newly constructed buildings. They can also be installed in existing buildings, utilizing the existing hopper or compactor. For the average ten-story building, the cost of intallation would be around $35,000 to $40,000, according to Piarulli, who adds that leasing options are available. But for now, most buildings rely on their maintenance staff to pick up from each floor and get materials to the curb in the proper containers.

Public Education

"Given the level of outreach the department has done, I don't see any reason why every individual in New York isn't aware of the law," says Lange. Yet, despite the department's best efforts, notification hasn't always been totally effective.

One of the problems, says Michels, "is that we haven't created a demand for recycled materials in the city of New York. As far as paper and cardboard is concerned, we do have a plant in Staten Island, but it seems to me that we should be consuming the recycled materials."

The City Council has long worked with the City and the Department of Sanitation, providing money to enhance the budget and promote informational campaigns. Ongoing print and broadcast advertising and direct mailings in both English and Spanish are supplemented by a full catalogue of informational brochures and videos available at libraries and through the Department of Sanitation.

Residential management companies agree that the City has kept them well-informed and has provided good materials to be shared with building staff and residents.

"We've gotten all information on a timely basis from the City," confirms Mitchell Barry, CEO of Century Management in Manhattan. "During the 32B/J strike, it was very hard for us to educate the residents and building staffs, but over the course of time, we have been able to educate residents by sending out letters and brochures informing them of the new recycling laws and doing everything that is required of us. I would say that the City is now making an even better effort to increase awareness and compliance. It takes us time to educate our managers, and time for our managers to educate the building staff. And it is true that this program takes away time from building staff to make sure that the residents and the building are recycling properly. But we're supportive of the program and we've done everything possible to enforce it."

Eugene DeGidio, partner at Maxwell-Kates, another Manhattan-based residential management company, agrees, saying that his company understands the importance of educating residents regarding recycling and even posts information about it on the company's website. "We also try to make sure to the best of our ability that the super and the building staff are aware of all the changes and requirements of the Recycling Program," says DeGidio. "In a perfect world, if residents knew and adhered to where to place the recyclables, it would be a lot easier for building staff because the program absolutely takes time in the workday."

"We visit our properties and do walk-throughs regularly to make sure that everybody is doing what has to be done," says Ellen Kornfeld, vice president and director of management at Taranto & Associates, a Manhattan-based residential management firm. "We hold meetings with our superintendents and go over the requirements, and we give full packages of information to both the building staff and to residents. It is problematic in some buildings where residents seem to be uninterested in complying because this puts an added burden on the staff. Recycling has become a full-time job for many of our buildings, and has taken time away from other essential maintenance chores. I think that the City in its enforcement efforts should take into account the burden placed on certain buildings with a limited number of employees."

The Future

As far as Michels is concerned, the City has not yet come up with a suitable plan for what will happen after Fresh Kills closes. He says that in order to bring the garbage someplace else, the transfer stations have to be made seagoing, and that the communities that might receive the garbage will want it in sealed containers, which also needs to be arranged. He also says that the land-based transfer stations are problematic. Exporting garbage over land requires a lot of trucking, which damages roadways owing to the heavy tonnage contained in each truck. Trucking is also slow and raises the issues of noise and traffic. According to Michels, an environmental impact study to explore these issues is planned.

Of the City's recycling efforts, Lange says, "We get a very high level of compliance. New York City's diversion rate is very high compared with even much smaller cities in the United States that have none of the complexities of New York in terms of population and housing.

"As we move forward into the next century," he adds, "it's going to cost people more money as we export all of our trash. The more recycling, the more money will be available because it won't have to be allocated to exporting trash. Also, people in the places that accept our trash want to see that our recycling is serious so they know they're not being taken advantage of. There is also the fact that recycling gives us the chance to turn materials into other useful products. The whole recycling effort makes sense economically and environmentally."

To reach the goal of 25 percent diversion, every City resident must participate. As the Department of Sanitation's Recycling Program slogan says, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It's not just good for the environment, it's the law.

Ms. Dershowitz is a contributing editor for The Cooperator.

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