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As a prominent figure in the national discourse on climate change, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has helped drive the discussion largely through initiatives he has established while running New York City. From planting more trees to improving the city’s air quality to exponentially increasing the city’s bike lanes, Bloomberg has established a new standard for urban environmental policy that his successor will be hard-pressed to match. The one somewhat surprising weak spot in his otherwise solid environmental record has been recycling.

Currently New York City recycles just 15 percent of its waste, a remarkably low number for a major city. By comparison, San Francisco recycles nearly 80 percent of its garbagge—the most of any city in the United States—while Portland and Seattle recycle more than 50 percent.

At a recent press conference in July announcing a revamping of the city’s recycling program, where a goal was articulated of reaching a 30 percent recycling rate by 2017, Bloomberg acknowledged that the current recycling numbers were unacceptable for a so-called “green” city.

“The bottom line is we can do an awful lot better,” he said. “This saves us money, and it dramatically makes the environment that our kids are going to inherit from us better. It’s kind of hard to argue that you shouldn’t do this.”

But is Bloomberg’s recent emphasis on recycling simply an attempt to pay lip service to an area that he has largely neglect over his three terms, or do his administration’s recent efforts to enhance the city’s recycling program and solid waste disposal reflect a “better late than never” approach that will have legs under the next mayor?

To say Bloomberg “ignored” recycling in the early years of his administration would not be entirely accurate. Bloomberg took office at a time when the city was still reeling from 9/11, which left it in a fiscal crunch. In an attempt to save money Bloomberg suspended collection of glass and plastic recyclables, though when a city comptroller’s report showed that suspending recycling did not achieve the desired savings, Bloomberg and the City Council agreed to resume collections in 2003. According to some environmental advocates, however, the city is still trying to make up for the progress lost in its recycling rate as a result of that brief layoff.

“I don’t want to discount the motivation for suspending it, but we’ve seen over time the long-term negative impact it’s had,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. “We were up to 20 or 21 percent recycling when the program was suspended; now we’re at 15 percent, and it’s taken a few of years to get back to 15 percent.”

In the meantime, advocates have pushed the city to build a more equitable and sustainable solid waste management system. Residents of certain communities in the city such as the south Bronx and northern Brooklyn, both historically low-income areas with large minority populations, have long bemoaned the fact that they bear the brunt of the city’s waste burden, with many private waste transfer stations setting up shop in those neighborhoods, especially those in the business of commercial waste disposal.

Private companies largely run the commerical waste industry, and environmental advocates charge that these busi-nesses have many negative components, from a reliance on a fleet of older trucks that contribute to air pollution to poor working conditions and the payment of low wages. The system is largely deregulated and, according to a report on the commerical waste industry issued by the Alliance for a Greater New York, the city’s focus on promoting competition through a largely stagnant rate cap and the absence of a rate floor “has led to a race to the bottom that depresses labor and environmental standards.”

Coupling these problems with the closure of New York City’s last incinerator in 1999 and the Fresh Kills Landfill in 2001, the city has been left with a fragmented waste disposal industry that relies on its trash being exported out of the city, at a great economic cost.

This onerous expense is part of what has sparked Bloomberg’s renewed focus on recycling. New York City spends over $300 million every year to export waste to landfills and incinerators in New Jersey and other destinations outside of the city. Landfills generate 17 percent of the country’s methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 90 percent of the methane generated from landfills comes from food waste and, presumably, land waste. Given the cost—and with the city still in the process of closing a multi-billion-dollar budget gap—environmentalists say that in recycling the mayor has rightly identified a potential growth sector. Some also suggest that Bloomberg recognizes that current landfilling practices are contributing to global warming emissions; there-fore, attacking that problem on the solid waste front could help achieve the mayor’s national goals regarding climate change.

“Public opinion polls have always demonstrated that recycling enjoyed broad political support across all income levels, all five boroughs, all economic strata,” said Eric A. Goldstein, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s New York City environment director. “So all of those factors have combined to bring about a startling change of emphasis and a positive development over the last two years.”

Those positive developments include the hiring of Ron Gonen to be the city’s first deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability. Gonen is a successful business entrepreneur with experience in recycling, having co-founded RecycleBank, a company that incentivizes people for taking “green actions” through discounts and deals from local businesses. Gonen opened up a dialogue with solid waste experts and environmental advocates and began pushing forward with innovative recycling and composting strategies, such as Bloomberg’s announcement that all rigid plastics are now recyclable in New York City and an expansion of the city’s composting pilot programs.

“The biggest change was in breaking down our waste stream to understand what’s in there, and making sure that we line up our recycling programs and waste diversion programs with what’s actually in our waste stream,” Gonen said.

While composting is a major focus of environmental advocates, the city has a long way to go if it wants to match its West Coast counterparts in standardizing the practice. Some have concerns about building equity into the composting program—i.e., educating low-income communities on the benefits of reusing and recycling waste.

“One of the challenges to waste collection is there’s a human behavioral aspect to it,” said Gavin Kearney, the director of environmental justice for the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “You have to get them to do the right thing at their house, and that takes time and requires forming habits and things to get better over time.”


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