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New York Prepares to Drop Trash Recycling Program - 2002-05-04

Like other large cities around the world, New York City is struggling to deal with millions of tons of garbage. One partial solution that is widely used is recycling. But New York is preparing to drop its recycling program.

Dealing with garbage is a complicated issue, especially in large cities like New York. City sanitation officials are constantly asking, "Where can we put all of this stuff?" And the response from the communities surrounding every proposed dump site is always the same: "Not in my backyard". As a result, the issue of trash removal is hotly contested in hearings at New York's City Hall.

Like many urban areas, New York City has turned to recycling as a means of managing at least part of the so-called "waste stream". In 1988, recycling was required by law in New York State, and the blue plastic bags used for recycled materials became ubiquitous.

Expensive advertising campaigns aimed at teaching New Yorkers how, what, and where to recycle proliferated during this period. Today, a New Yorker who does not recycle is a rare find.

But earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg announced that plastic, metal and glass recycling should be suspended for at least 18 months. According to Jordan Barowitz, the mayor's spokesperson, the decision is just one of many that have to made in order to offset tremendous budgetary shortfalls. "It's purely for fiscal reasons. The city is facing a five billion dollar budget "gap" in this fiscal year, and we need to achieve savings from every single agency, every single borough, every single commissioner," he says.

He says that simply re-routing glass, metal and plastic recycling through the regular disposal system will eliminate the need for separate collection trucks and sorters, and save the city $52 million over the next year.

But Michael Alexander, Senior Researcher at the National Recycling Coalition, says the decision is short-sighted. "Disposal always looks cheap," he says. "But what we're not factoring into that is that we are burying valuable resources in the ground and we're also potentially creating environmental hazards for future generations."

Mr. Alexander calls New York and large cities like it, "urban mines" that are "chock full of valuable materials" that can be used as raw materials by industry. To suspend the work of "urban miners", he says, will have far-reaching impact. "In New York State, there are 3,500 jobs in the collection of recyclables. But there are over 20,000 jobs in manufacturing companies that then use those materials to make new products. For every one job in collection, you've got six jobs in manufacturing," he says.

Mr. Alexander admits, however, that the market for recycled glass, metal and plastic fluctuates. Sometimes recycling makes economic sense, and sometimes it does not, and this is what concerns New York's financial planners.

Nicholas Themelis, Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, was surprised by Mr. Bloomberg's proposal. He and his team at Columbia put together a report focusing on effective waste management for the Mayor earlier this year, and recycling was a major factor in it. But, he says, City Hall has a point: the recycling industry, as it stands now, is inefficient. "There is a lot of misinformation about recycling," he says. "For instance, an article came out recently which summarized the situation in the United States: 25 million tons of plastic is discarded each year. And if you look at the actual amount that is recycled, it is less than two million tons."

Professor Themelis says that a wiser use of discarded plastic, for example, would be as fodder for plants that transform solid waste into electricity through incineration. These plants reduce dependence on fossil fuels. "Right now, waste-to-energy plants in the United States provide the equivalent of $1.6 billion gallons [6.1 trillion liters] of fuel oil in energy," he says. "If more of it was used, all that's available, it would make something like 10 billion gallons [38 trillion liters]. That's a lot of millions of barrels [of oil] that don't need to be dug out [of the ground]."

Meanwhile, New York City's Sanitation Department has drafted a new Solid Waste Management Program or "SWAMP", as it is called. The cornerstone of the new 10 year plan is a new barge unloading facility in neighboring New Jersey, from which New York City's containerized waste will be transported to "remote disposal facilities."