In honor of the Vassar Greens’ On Campus Zero Waste Campaign starting a new composting initiative this semester, check out this recent NY Times article on New York City’s waste management:
IT was warm and sunny on a recent Tuesday and the lunchtime crowd in Bryant Park was in full swarm. Hundreds of Midtown workers sat on the grass or at round outdoor tables sunbathing, talking on cellphones and typing away on laptops.
But mostly they ate — sushi, pizza, chicken pesto salads, turkey club sandwiches — and much of their food came in plastic containers that had no place to go but into the trash.
As any befuddled, frustrated and guilt-ridden environmentally conscious New Yorker knows, takeout food and its containers — salad bar and deli clamshells; plastic cups and utensils; yogurt containers; fancy three-compartment bento boxes — are the bane of this city’s would-be recyclers. They might reuse plastic shopping bags until they rip and religiously bundle every newspaper and magazine for recycling pickup, only to be undone by lunch.
“There’s nothing I can do,” said Doug Richardson, 25, an accountant eating a chicken salad from a deep plastic bowl. “It annoys me. It’s plastic in a landfill.”
Environmental advocates call recycling the weak link in the city’s green agenda, even after legislation was passed last year to overhaul the 1989 recycling law that made New York a 20th-century leader, not a laggard.
How far behind is the city? A survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council this year found that more than two dozen large and medium-size cities in the United States recycle all kinds of plastic containers, while New York takes only bottles and jugs. Another study this year, sponsored by Siemens AG, the global electronics and electrical engineering company, ranked New York 16th among 27 cities in its handling of waste, though it was third in overall environmental performance.
By now, other cities require recyclable or compostable takeout containers and utensils at restaurants — and bins in which to dispose of them. Cutting-edge green cities, like San Francisco, offer curbside collection of food scraps and compostable items at homes, restaurants and offices. And dozens of places now charge residents for their trash by weight to promote recycling and keep refuse out of landfills.
New York, meanwhile, is going backward: it now recycles about 15 percent of the waste collected by the Sanitation Department, which is primarily from residences, down from a peak of 23 percent in 2001. And while city officials have said they are reviewing so-called “pay as you throw” systems, there is no indication that the city might adopt one.
“This issue is simply not getting the attention it deserves,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. “They’ve treated their recycling operation like the after-school clarinet program.”
Environmental advocates suspect a lack of commitment from City Hall. After all, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has tackled idling trucks, dirty boilers and even smokers who foul the air, but in 2002, to save money, he temporarily cut back on curbside collection of recyclables.
Caswell Holloway, Mr. Bloomberg’s new deputy mayor for operations and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said, however, that while recycling faced significant hurdles, a lack of commitment was not one of them.
“The mayor recognizes that a sustainable New York City means that we need to come up with ways to deal with waste,” Mr. Holloway said. “The clock is running on landfills.”
That said, he added, “We could do better.”
We all could. The amount of nonrecyclable waste generated by just one New Yorker can be stunning, as I found out. Saving all the packaging from a week’s worth of takeout food, I ended up with three plastic yogurt containers, a paper salad box, a paper cereal bowl, two Styrofoam plates, one plastic salad-dressing container and seven plastic food containers — the rigid ones with snap-on lids. Also, five plastic cups (each with a plastic straw), a paper cup with a plastic lid, a plastic water bottle and a plain old paper cup (it held milk for my cereal). Also, one plastic fork, one plastic knife and two compostable plastic spoons, which I threw out rather than composting.
And to carry all that food I used three paper trays and a handful of plastic bags.
But change is on the way, Mr. Holloway said. To increase recycling capacity, the city has entered into long-term contracts and is building new infrastructure, like a 100,000-square-foot recycling plant at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park. At the same time, he said, a recently convened team from the Sanitation Department, the mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, and his office is looking at how to divert more waste from landfills.
They’ve got their work cut out for them.