Posted by Doug Turetsky, April 13, 2009
While it has cost more to collect and dispose of a ton of recyclables than a ton of trash, the difference is narrowing as the cost of exporting garbage to landfills and incinerators outside the city rises. Last month the city signed a new 20-year contract for transporting refuse picked up by the sanitation department in Brooklyn to landfills and incinerators outside the city. The new Brooklyn contract is estimated to cost $134 per ton, well more than last year’s average citywide cost of $85.11. As a result, the fiscal incentive to promote recycling is increasing.
But the rising cost of exporting the city’s rubbish is only one part of the fiscal equation. Making recycling more cost-effective will also take increasing the city’s recycling rate. (For more details, see IBO’s More Recycling Needed to Help Lower City’s Trash Costs.)
When the Mayor and City Council adopted the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan in 2006, a key part of the plan was to reinvigorate New Yorkers’ recycling efforts. But the amount of paper, metal, glass, and plastic picked up curbside for recycling remains substantially below the city’s goals. And the amount of trash that’s recycled varies widely throughout the city.
The city aims to have 25 percent of the trash it picks up recyclable. In other words, by weight about 25 percent of the trash New Yorkers put out for collection should be separated in the appropriate recycling bins or bags. In fact, the share of recycling has only been about 16 percent since the solid waste plan was passed, which is actually lower than the 19.8 percent recycling rate in 2002. Granted the rate plummeted in 2003-2004 when the recycling program was cut back to just paper, and it took a while to get people back in the habit of recycling the other stuff. And with bottles increasingly being made from plastic and the size of newspapers shrinking (along with their readership), a weight-based goal has more hurdles. But reaching the 25 percent goal seems especially tough if you look at recycling rates at a borough or neighborhood level.
In fiscal year 2008, none of the boroughs had a recycling rate of 25 percent or more, and only 6 out of the city’s 59 sanitation districts had rates of 25 percent or above. Of the districts meeting or exceeding the recycling goal, five were in Manhattan. But some Manhattan neighborhoods were well under the goal. While neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village exceeded the goal, East Harlem and Central Harlem each recycled less than 10 percent of their curbside trash.
In the Bronx, where the overall 2008 recycling diversion rate was 10.8 percent, no district reached a 25 percent rate and 7 of the borough’s 12 districts recycled less than 10 percent of their trash. Among Brooklyn’ s 18 districts the recycling rate was 15.5 percent, and only the district comprising Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook exceeded 25 percent while two districts including Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville recycled at rates below 10 percent. In Queens, where the boroughwide rate was 17.7 percent, and Staten Island, where it was 16.5 percent, no district met the 25 percent goal but no district was at or below 10 percent.
The statistics through the first six months of the current fiscal year look very similar. Only six districts are meeting or exceeding the 25 percent goal: the same six as last year, although the Brooklyn district’s rate has slipped a bit. With the cost of exporting the city’s regular rubbish expected to rise by $80 million over the next few years and reach $395 million in 2012, it may be fiscally prudent to pull the city’s recycling rates out of the trash bin.