New York: The Largest Recycling Operation in the World

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

DSNY summer graduate interns at NYC SAFE event. Credit: DSNY

DSNY summer graduate interns at NYC SAFE event. Credit: DSNY

By Jonathan Lambert, C+S ’15

How did your family or town get rid of trash when you were a kid? I imagine that most couldn’t answer this question beyond the point of, “well, we put it by the side of the road and someone just picked it up.”

And, for most of my childhood, this was my perception of the garbage system as well; we just put it at the end of the driveway (no recycling), and the garbage truck came and got it every Monday and Thursday.

However, every few months I got a glimpse of the next stop down the line for garbage in my hometown of Madisonville, Louisiana, in the form of trips to the “dump” with my father.  For some reason (perhaps my young environmental scientist coming out), some of my most vivid childhood memories are of these trips to the local dump to drop off loads of excess “junk” such as televisions, clothes, old furniture, broken appliances and yard equipment.

I was astonished by the freedom we had to bring anything we wanted and just throw it away here, and the process of sorting the “trash” into seemingly countless different denominations fascinated me.  However, I also wondered where all this stuff would eventually wind up.

Some of it was perfectly recyclable — even re-usable — and I still have souvenirs such as tennis racquets from the 1970s and vintage vinyl records that I took home from the dump.  I realize now though, that most of the materials I witnessed at the dump in those days, despite their usability, were likely taken to landfills and other larger dumps throughout the country and may have wound up polluting the environment.

Cities throughout the world are beginning to realize the harm done by landfalls though. Increasingly, recycling of not only paper, plastic, and metal, but electronics and appliances that can be harmful to the environment is becoming a more common process.

Given my fascination with this process, it is not surprising that I now work for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) as an outreach intern within the Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability. Throughout the years, I have learned a great deal about recycling and sustainable waste streams from classes and books, but moving to New York served as the penultimate learning experience in this field.

Adjusting from throwing everything in the garbage back in Louisiana to barely throwing anything away was quite a shock, and I had to learn an entirely new set of rules and philosophies about my own waste stream and how it relates to the city and globe as a whole. For some people coming from foreign countries where they have never heard of recycling, this is an even greater shock and can prove a daunting task. However, the city has created a set of programs to make it as easy as possible for residents and the city to communicate about waste and recycling and implement and carry out specific programs geared to make the city more sustainable.

Items recovered at a  NYC SAFE event. Credit: DSNY

Items recovered at a NYC SAFE event. Credit: DSNY

Recycling has been mandatory in New York since the 1980s, and restrictions on the disposal of electronics, toxics and organic material and the use of certain types of foams and plastics are beginning to add up in the city.  New York also has a new goal of sending none of its waste to landfills by the year 2030. As an outreach intern, it is my job to effectively communicate these goals with residents, building superintendents and property managers.

One of the first DSNY programs aimed at increasing recycling within the city is known as the Apartment Buildings Recycling Initiative. The program targets recycling opportunities at the building level (most New York residents live in multi-unit apartment buildings) through training superintendents, managers and residents in proper recycling methods.  It promotes the reduction of everyday waste in the city, but unusual waste such as electronics, textiles and toxics must be dealt with in a different manner in order to divert them from landfills.

Programs such as re-fashioNYC, e-cycleNYC, and SAFE (Solvents Automotive Flammable Electronics) Disposal events are targeted at these less common and more environmentally-dangerous waste items. Re-fashioNYC targets the recycling of textiles through individual building bins, e-cycleNYC uses a similar strategy to recycle electronics, and SAFE Disposal events occur ten times a year for residents to dispose of solvents, automotive parts, flammables and electronics that should not be sent to landfills.

With programs like these being set up in New York, a goal of no waste sent to landfills by 2030 seems within reach, but there must still be tremendous effort put into communication, implementation, and effectiveness of these programs, especially relating to residents who are less familiar with recycling practices and philosophies, like I once was.


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