More Than Half of All New Yorkers' Recyclables Go in the Trash

A DSNY Collection Truck dumping paper recyclables into a barge on Staten Island, 2007
A DSNY Collection Truck dumping paper recyclables into a barge on Staten Island, 2007
Michael Anton

As much as 56 percent of recyclable materials tossed out by New Yorkers ends up in landfills, according to a new report out today from the Independent Budget Office.

The office reviewed the Department of Sanitation 2013 Residential Waste Characterization study, the most recent data available, which breaks down recycling rates by material. The main factor dragging down the recycling rate: putting waste in the wrong bins.

"Material that ends up in the refuse stream or the wrong recycling stream is not recycled," according to the report, which was compiled by Daniel Huber. "In fact, such contamination makes recycling more expensive."

Most of what New York recycles is glass and cardboard; each had capture rates in excess of 70 percent — 75 percent for glass. There's little monetary incentive to pilfer glass from recycling bins, as only bottles with a deposit have monetary value outside the waste stream, and public awareness to recycle glass is high.

Cardboard boxes and other paper-product waste produced in the city have a 71 percent recycling rate. Commodity prices are higher than the cost of processing cardboard, meaning the city earns income to recycle paper.

Just 28 percent of aluminum cans, a highly valuable metal collected by DSNY from New York City residences, is recycled. The below-average rate reflects a habit of throwing cans into regular trash bins headed for landfills. While aluminum does not contribute significant landfill emissions, its production is energy intensive, which incentivizes scavenging and drives down city recycling rates.

The lowest recycling rate went to plastic dishware, like the cutlery tossed into thousands of New Yorkers' takeout bags every day. Just 5 percent of these single-use plastic cups, plates, and cutlery items enters the city recycling stream, while the vast majority is sent to landfills, where it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Considered "rigid plastic," the items weren’t required to be recycled until 2013. The report notes that even with a mandate, it can take years to change public habits about recycling.

The Sanitation Department has not yet responded to a request for comment on the report.

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A little more than a year ago, Mayor de Blasio announced an extensive climate change reduction and sustainability plan, part of which said that the city would contribute no residential waste to landfills by 2030. New York City, which has no landfills, produces more than 33 million tons of waste annually — more than any other city in the country and more than most other major international cities, including ones that are far more populous, such as Tokyo. The plan, which includes curbside, single stream and organics recycling, zero waste schools and expanded recycling opportunities in public housing, calls for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and an additional 90 percent reduction in commercial waste contributions to landfills.

While small gains have been made in reducing residential waste sent to landfills in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, commercial recycling rates remain at an abysmal 24 percent, below the 34 percent national average and far behind leading cities like Seattle, San Francisco, and San Jose, California, who recycle in excess of 60 percent, and produce much less trash.


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