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Like the noisy approach of a garbage truck at dawn, the day when New York City must recycle more than it throws out is heading closer, prodded by swelling population, the rising cost of transporting waste, and the shrinking space for dumping it. The Solid Waste Management Plan finalized last year recognized this growing need and set a goal of diverting – meaning to keep out of a landfill or trash-burning plant – 25 percent of city waste in 2007 and a whopping 70 percent by 2015.

But like a sleepy citizen who forgot to put the trash at the curb, the city is falling behind these goals. In the first four months of fiscal 2007 the city’s diversion rate was only 15.8 percent, down from 2006’s already-low 16.4 percent.

Passage of the 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) last summer was a victory for low-income neighborhoods that finally won a reprieve from the garbage transfer stations in their midst, and for the Bloomberg administration after two years of lobbying over where to put new waste management facilities called for in the plan. But the challenge of meeting its recycling requirements is clear – which is why City Council insisted on creating a new Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. The new office is part of the Council on the Environment of New York City, a privately funded citizens’ organization in the Office of the Mayor founded in 1970. It will promote trash reduction and diversion well beyond the present efforts of the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which didn’t respond to requests for comment.

According to Staten Island Councilmember Michael McMahon, chairman of the council Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee and one of the architects of the SWMP (or “the swamp” in waste-savvy lingo), there needs to be much more public consciousness-raising. “I think the city hasn’t done the education necessary,” says McMahon. DSNY “is great at picking [recycling] up on the curb but they aren’t good at promoting it.”

Though it’s possible that the current diversion rates reflect residents consuming different items, like reading fewer newspapers or buying products with lighter packaging, many say the rates also testify to a hangover from 2002 when Mayor Bloomberg suspended metal, glass and plastics recycling to save money during the post 9/11 fiscal crisis.

“People who previously were in the habit, lost the habit. People got really confused,” and the administration never cleared it up, says Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

In an office on Chambers Street, with a freshly painted hallway and recycled furniture inside, the new Office of Recycling is just gearing up for what Director David Hurd says will be a “community district by community district” approach to improving recycling compliance. Hurd, who was appointed on Dec. 11 and reports to Deputy Mayor for Administration Ed Skyler, comes to the job after a long career in environmental work, from developing composting programs in the Bronx in the late ’70s to serving as an advisor to TetraPak, where he worked to convince jurisdictions to include aseptic containers, like those for Parmalat and some soymilk brands, in their recycling programs.

Now, it’s his job to convince more New Yorkers to recycle aseptic containers, milk cartons, soda bottles, newsprint, and toasters. Yes, toasters; even some veteran New York recyclers might not know that metal toasters can be recycled. “Household metals” (like toasters and bed frames) are a category of recyclables that has a low capture rate, meaning a lot ends up in the trash bag rather than the recycling stream. Another problem category is “mixed paper,” which includes envelopes, junk mail, computer paper, and cereal boxes.

Hurd, who just finished filling out his staff of five borough coordinators last month, plans to target those low-capture products as well as neighborhoods with low diversion rates. He’s armed with the results of DSNY’s massive Waste Composition Study, an in-depth survey of what was in the trash and recycling bins of every neighborhood in the city at four points in time between 2004 and 2005. It shows, for example, that paper constitutes about half of the trash in high-income households in high-density neighborhoods, but not even a quarter of the refuse in low-density, middle-income areas. And it shows that citywide, one-fourth of what ends up in the trash is actually recyclable.

Hurd says that a very local approach, enlisting community boards and local organizations as partners, will allow his office to identify specific obstacles to recycling in a particular neighborhood, such as language barriers or building superintendents who don’t understand the rules. But even if New Yorkers complied perfectly with current recycling laws, the city cannot reach its goal of 70 percent diversion because the items covered make up only 35 percent of the waste stream.

“We’re going to have to go well beyond the current program,” Hurd says. He’s setting up a pilot program this spring in which textiles will be collected at the city’s greenmarkets for recycling. But old shirts and torn socks represent only around 6 percent of the waste stream. It’s hard to see how the city will reach its diversion goal without tackling other organic waste, like food; all told, organics make up around 50 percent of the trash haul.

Right now DSNY and the Economic Development Corporation are studying technologies for New York to divert more material, including a kind of energy-producing decomposition called anaerobic digestion. There’s also a pilot program planned for gathering recyclable material from sidewalk trash bins.

Other cities are finding ways to get food waste out of the trash stream. One pioneer is Toronto, which collects food waste and other organics weekly and turns the stuff into compost through anaerobic digestion that also produces energy used to power the plant. All other residential trash is picked up only every other week, while commercial customers’ waste gets picked up for $3.10 Canadian (about $2.60 U.S.) per bag, providing both olfactory and financial incentives for people and businesses to recycle. “We want to make it really difficult for you to use your waste bin,” Geoff Rathbone, the head of Toronto’s recycling program, told a Feb. 28 forum here sponsored by Gotbaum and the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association.

Some in New York City think a far easier approach to recycling organics would be to allow New York restaurants to use food waste disposers in their sinks, so the material could be collected at sewage plants and used for compost. But that effort has been opposed on environmental grounds. Richard Lipsky, a lobbyist for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, says unless the city gets serious about options for business, the recycling goals will remain out of reach. “The city and advocates always say that we need more education,” Lipsky says. “Does it ever really work, is the question.”

There are critics who believe the SWMP did not go far enough, pointing to cities like San Francisco, which has set a goal of exporting (to landfills or trash incinerators) zero waste by 2020. Whether zero waste is a realistic goal for any city is subject to debate. But there’s no question that exporting garbage is going to get increasingly expensive for New York. And that cost pressure will increase the incentive for the city to cut down on the black bags it ships out.

“It was a whole lot easier when we had landfills,” says Sanitationmen’s president Harry Nespoli. “It doesn’t look like any more landfills are going to happen. And they’re talking about a million more people coming in to New York City. What are we going to do with the waste?”

– Jarrett Murphy

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