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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

City Budget Crisis Slows New York Recycling

Air Date: Week of

Neal Rauch reports that New York City's huge budget deficit is threatening one of the most ambitious recycling programs in the country. The goal was to recycle a quarter of the trash produced by the almost eight million residents of the Big Apple, but both a Democratic and a Republican mayor have cut funding for the program. Critics say the cuts are penny wise and pound foolish.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Trash. As the nation's largest city, New York is caught in a squeeze with the country's biggest refuse problem. City dumps are filled to overflowing. Incineration has residents up in arms about health hazards, and dumping it someplace else is getting to be more costly and difficult. When the trash crisis was predicted years ago, the city adopted the most ambitious big city recycling program in the country. But now, when New York most needs to reduce its trash volume, budget deficits have taken recycling off the fast track. Critics say this could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run. Neal Rauch has the story.

(Trash collectors emptying recyclables into a truck)

RAUCH: In the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, a New York City sanitation truck is making its rounds, picking up bins of plastic, metal, and glass.

(Motor running; sound of glass being crushed)

RAUCH: New York City's seven-and-a-half million residents now separate out about 15% of their trash for recycling. It's a lot of material, but it's not enough. Under a 1989 city law, New York was supposed to be recycling 25% of its residential waste by April of 1994. But former mayor David Dinkins cut the recycling budget, and his successor, Rudolph Giuliani, has also made deep cuts. The city's in the midst of a severe financial crunch, and Robert Lang, Director of Recycling at the Sanitation Department, says that in tough times the pain has to be shared.

LANG: (Backdropped by sirens from the street.) There are very basic services of the Department that are being cut. When dollars are limited that way you have to take a second look at things. You may have to delay your implementation and extend the period of time before you make it, you know, fully effective.

RAUCH: But recycling advocates say the city's cuts are short-sighted. For instance, the Recycling Education and Promotion budget has been cut by more than half. Solid waste disposal consultant Eileen Berenni says that this makes the collection of recyclables less efficient and therefore more expensive.

BERENNI: People don't really know the differences between the different types of plastics that they can put in or can't put in; the papers that they can or can't put in. So that's caused problems on the collection site and that leads to contamination, which further complicates the processing side, because the more contaminated the stream is, the more difficult it is to process and the more expensive it is to ultimately market.

LEFFLER: It's like educating a child. I mean, you have to invest at the beginning in order to get a return throughout a long period of time.

RAUCH: City Councilman Sheldon Leffler wrote the recycling law. He says investment now will not only lower garbage disposal costs over the long run, it will also ease the pressure on the city's only landfill, Fresh Kills on Staten Island. Leffler and other critics say the city is underestimating the ability of New Yorkers to change their habits quickly, and they cite examples that they say prove that the city can get a quick return on its investment in recycling.

(Objects being thrown into a container)

RAUCH: This Brooklyn woman is throwing onions, grapefruit rinds, and used tea bags into a garbage can labeled "Organic Waste." These food scraps and yard waste will be composted. Also, along with the usual cans, bottles, and newspapers, she and other residents of the Park Slope neighborhood recycle things like junk mail and milk and juice cartons. During a 3-year pilot program in intensive recycling, the recycling rate in this middle- to upper-class neighborhood of mostly low-rise buildings rose from 15% to 40%. Perhaps more surprising were the results of a similar program in a different kind of neighborhood: 7 high-rise buildings of low- to moderate-income tenants in Brooklyn's Starret City. This time, textiles were recycled as well. In only one year the recycling rate went up nearly as much as that of Park Slope, where it had taken 3 years. The education or outreach for the pilot programs were run by the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, and headed by long-time activist Dr. Barry Commoner.

COMMONER: In effect, what we did in Park Slope and Starrett was what you do to create the basic science and technology of recycling. We got numbers. We now know, for example, that the way to really do outreach is to do a survey of every building, and we have quick ways of doing that now. Then what you do is concentrate on the lower half of the curve with your outreach.

RAUCH: In other words, the program successfully brought the less diligent residents into the recycling fold. Commoner says the experience of Park Slope and Starrett City prove that intensive recycling can catch on quickly in New York; but budget cuts have effectively killed a major expansion of intensive recycling. Commoner thinks that's a shame. He believes that with current technology, New York could recycle up to 90% of its trash, which in turn would stimulate new industries in the remanufacturing of recycled goods. City Councilman Sheldon Leffler isn't nearly as optimistic as Commoner, but he thinks the original 25% goal is entirely realistic. In addition, he thinks the city could get a big return by turning to its big institutions.

LEFFLER: The schools, the prisons, the hospitals, the subways, are all areas where there's a significant amount of recyclables that could be captured without that much effort if the city would better organize its own, you know, workers and supervisors.

RAUCH: The real problem, Leffler says, is that the Giuliani administration is only thinking about balancing the city's books in the short term.

LEFFLER: There are now term limits in New York. Mayor Giuliani can only serve another 7 years; less than 7 years. This is a problem whose real horizon is beyond that.

RAUCH: The administration dismisses this charge. First Deputy Mayor Peter Powers pins the blame on Leffler and his colleagues on the City Council for not finding a way to pay for the program.

POWERS: The City Council, after taking credit for passing the law, never funded the money to the Mayor's Office so that the Mayor could actually spend the money to implement the law. We are negotiating with the City Council; we have to do one or two things. We either have to take money from other programs, or we have to get realistic and change the law.

RAUCH: Leffler, meanwhile, counters that the Mayor has never asked for any money for recycling, only for funding cuts. Despite all the wrangling, New York's recycling program is still the largest in the country, targeting sectors which other communities don't, like high-rise apartment buildings. Robert Lang at the Sanitation Department says that while budget problems may mean it will take longer than some would like, recycling will succeed in New York.

LANG: It's part of a long-term change in people's behavior. I think that's, you know, over the next 5, 10 years, people will be more and more willing to participate and, because it will be more and more part of their, their habit, their daily habit.

RAUCH: But New York may not have the luxury of time. The city is under court order to recycle 20% of its residential garbage by July 14, a deadline no one expects it to make. The Fresh Kills landfill is filling up. Incineration is probably not politically feasible, and there are bills moving through Congress which would restrict cities like New York from sending their trash out of state. This has critics worried that without more aggressive recycling, New York City could get buried in its own waste. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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