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

May 5, 1995

Air Date: May 5, 1995


City Budget Crisis Slows New York Recycling / Neal Rauch

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. (07:45)

The Black Market in Newsprint / Joe Richman

A national paper shortage has caused the price of used newsprint to soar. Joe Richman reports on a night he spent on patrol with the New York City "recycling" police. Their mission: to rid the city of curbside newspaper bandits. (06:57)

Apartheid's Environmental Legacy

One year after the election of a majority government, black communities still bear the scars of minority rule. Maria Mbengashe, director of the Community Environmental Network, speaks with host, Steve Curwood about the water, soil, and waste problems that plague many communities in her country. She says average South Africans are still hopeful, but they're getting impatient for changes in their lives. (05:16)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1995 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Joel Southern, Robin Finesmith, Neal Rauch, Joe Richman
GUEST: Maria Mbengashe

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

One year after free elections in South Africa, there's still an environmental hangover from apartheid.

MBENGASHE: People originally think ah, South Africa is just going to be forgotten. Everything is well now that people have voted. But apartheid has left a lot of problems, one of them being environmental problems.

CURWOOD: Also, the soaring price of newsprint has touched off a new crime wave in New York: the theft of old newspapers put out for recycling. New York's finest are cracking down.

MAN: You're going to arrest me? For taking the paper?

MARTINEZ: Yeah. It's against the law in New York City to take anything that residents put out on the curbside; it's city property. It belongs to the Sanitation Department, Transit.

CURWOOD: On Living on Earth; first the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: From Living on Earth, I'm Jan Nunley. The Environmental Protection Agency is under fire for altering a regulation protecting farm workers from toxic chemicals. The modifications will increase training requirements for workers, but will also allow workers to enter pesticide-treated areas sooner than regulations had previously permitted. EPA officials say the changes are necessary in order to help businesses avoid economic losses. A spokesman for the Farmworker Justice Fund says the agency is creating a mess out of a rule that was weak to begin with.

Despite rising threats and some attacks against Federal environmental officials, a Republican senator wants to disarm officers who patrol the nation's forests and wildlife refuges. Idaho Senator Larry Craig told the Associated Press that people were increasingly frightened by the presence of what he called an armed Federal entity in the west. Craig, who's an outspoken opponent of gun control and a board member of the National Rifle Association, says there is no reason for agents of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or the Fish and Wildlife Service, to be armed. Forest Service officials had no comment on the senator's statements. The FBI is still investigating the bombing of a Nevada Forest Service office in March.

A fight is brewing in Congress between Alaska and Washington State as hearings begin on the Magnussen Fisheries Act governing fishing within the US's 200-mile territorial waters. The outcome may determine how the Act is reauthorized and the success of efforts to stem the depletion of the nation's fish stocks. From Washington, DC, Joel Southern reports.

SOUTHERN: At issue is the use of individual quotas to curb the number of fishermen competing for North Pacific fish and crab stocks. The Seattle-based factory trawler industry wants quota systems put into place as soon as possible; but the smaller-scale fishing operations based in Alaska are worried they'll be put out of business if the big factory trawler companies are able to buy up and horde quota shares. Alaska Congressman Don Young chairs the committee that oversees the Magnussen Act. He's taking a go-slow approach to individual fishing quotas to protect the interests of his constituents. He's also trying to have portions of the North Pacific catch set aside to aid fishing-dependent rural villages in western Alaska. But Washington State legislators argue Young is not playing fair, and they're trying to slow down consideration of his proposed changes to the Magnussen Act to get concessions for the factory trawler industry. For Living on Earth, I'm Joel Southern in Washington, DC.

NUNLEY: The Federal Government may close part of the Gulf of Mexico to shrimpers to save the lives of endangered sea turtles. In the last 15 months hundreds of Kemps-Ridley sea turtles have been found dead along the Gulf coast. The National Marine Fisheries Service says the shutdown is a last resort. In the meantime they're increasing the number of inspectors to make certain shrimpers are using turtle excluder devices. Shrimpers say they're following government regulations, and officials acknowledge that turtle deaths can be blamed on the very few who don't. But shrimpers warn the government may destroy the industry in its efforts to save the turtles.

The Clean Air Act, which helped shut down the market for high sulfur coal, may now be responsible for its comeback. From Living on Earth's midwest bureau, Robin Finesmith explains.

FINESMITH: When the second phase of the EPA's Acid Rain Control Program takes effect in the year 2000, sulfur dioxide emissions will have to be reduced even further, essentially requiring all coal fired plants to install smokestack scrubbers. With those in place, high sulfur coal will burn just as cleanly as the low sulfur supply. That means a renewed market for the midwest mines, home to a plentiful supply of high sulfur coal. The midwest industry was hit hard by the first phase of the acid rain plan, but producers are now hoping that an increased demand for electricity and rising transportation costs for western coal will make high-sulfur coal competitive once again. Taylor Pensano is Vice President of the Illinois Coal Association. He says with coal already supplying nearly 60% of the nation's power, the high-sulfur industry hopes to not only recapture some of its old market, but pick up new customers as well. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.

NUNLEY: Nuclear plant owners say the Department of Energy is breaking its agreement to provide short-term storage for spent nuclear fuel. The DOE recently announced it isn't legally obligated to accept high-level waste and spent fuel rods from utilities. A 1982 law requires DOE to provide interim storage facilities for those wastes by 1998, while a long-term site is under construction. Plant operators have paid more than $10 billion to fund the dump site, but so far there's no location for it; and until there is, DOE says it won't take the waste.

Even though it's illegal to hunt endangered species, you can still eat them. Nabisco's Barnum's Animal Crackers has put out a special edition featuring 16 different endangered species cookies in a redesigned box. The company is also donating 5 cents from the sale of each box to the World Wildlife Fund. Going green hasn't hurt the company's bottom line; since the box was unveiled, sales of the cookies have tripled.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

City Budget Crisis Slows New York Recycling

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.

Back to top


The Black Market in Newsprint

CURWOOD: New York City is still gung-ho about one of its recycling programs: the curbside pickup of old newspapers. A nationwide newsprint shortage and burgeoning demand for recycled paper stock has jacked up the price of old newspapers so much that the revenues from paper recycling are helping to offset the city deficit. But the old newspaper bonanza has also touched off a crime wave of sorts and spawned a new kind of police dragnet. Joe Richman recently went on a night patrol with the New York City Sanitation Police.

(Police radio: "Bravo at 4 lanes working a [inaudible]; they want it clear.")

RICHMAN: Officer William Martinez is driving through Manhattan in an unmarked Chevrolet 4x4 with a Greenpeace sticker on the dashboard. He's undercover, sort of, and hot on the trail of a suspect.

MARTINEZ: I'm going up the block; I think I see something up the block, so make a right here.

RICHMAN: Martinez checks in with his partner, who's in another vehicle, and then heads down Second Avenue towards the van he spotted. Martinez stays a half-
block or so behind the van, and changes lanes periodically so it won't look like he's following. He thinks there are newspapers in the van, but to make an arrest Martinez must catch the driver in the act: snatching newspaper bundles that are supposed to belong to the city.

MARTINEZ: Timmy is snagged. I'll take those papers.

RICHMAN: But after a few blocks, the van driver, realizing he's being tailed, speeds off through a yellow light. Better to let him go and catch him another day, says Officer Martinez.

(More police radio dialogue, mostly inaudible)

RICHMAN: The New York Sanitation Police are not your typical cops. All the officers are former trash collectors and until recently they concentrated mostly on what William Martinez calls sanitary crimes.

MARTINEZ: Littering, uncovered receptacles, dirty sidewalks, obnoxious liquids, which is urinating, unleashed dogs...

RICHMAN: But now the job has changed. In the last few months, as the value of paper has skyrocketed, Martinez and his partner William Lugo have had their hands full with the paper bandits. And this night in particular has just become very busy. Officers Martinez and Lugo pull up behind a white van with Virginia license plates. The van is parked next to a pile of bundled newspapers. The driver has been caught red-handed.

MARTINEZ: You do this often? So why'd you start tonight?

MAN: I came up from Virginia. My friend said they pay good money for paper. He said you can go and take it. I said okay, I'm there.

MARTINEZ: You just came from Virginia just to do this?

MAN: The guy told me if I fill up a van, he said he gives me like 200 bucks to fill up a van. I said okay, I'm there.

MARTINEZ: A loaded van? Two hundred bucks?

MAN: That's what he said. I said I'm there, I'll do 3, 4 a night.

MARTINEZ: And you just came from Virginia just to do this?

MAN: Yes.

MARTINEZ: All right. Just -

MAN: I'll put the paper back.

MARTINEZ: That's not the point.

MAN: I won't take it.

MARTINEZ: We're going to issue you several summons; we're going to have to just take you down to the precinct just to make sure.

MAN: You're going to arrest me?

MARTINEZ: Park your vehicle.

MAN: For taking the paper?

MARTINEZ: Yeah. It's against the law in New York City to take anything that residents put out on the curbside; it's city property. It belongs to the Sanitation Department, Transit. Okay, follow me.

RICHMAN: It is illegal to take refuse off the street in New York City. Of course, it's a law that until recently was not strictly enforced. In the last few months, Officers Martinez and Lugo have made about one or two arrests a week on average. But this is not an average night. On the way to the police station, Officer Lugo spots another suspicious van and 3 more paper thieves.

LUGO: Let's see your license and registration or your ID. Put the cigarette down; put the cigarette down, no smoking.

(Police radio squawks)

MARTINEZ: I have 3 perps and another van. I have 4 perps [inaudible]; I need some assistance.

(Police radio squawks)

RICHMAN: The Sanitation Police aren't pros at collaring criminals the way the NYPD is. And on a busy night things can get a little confusing. Two more sanitation cops arrive on the scene for backup, but there still aren't enough officers to drive all the police cars and the 2 confiscated vans back to the police precinct. So they have to rely, in this case, on the nearest Public Radio reporter.

Right now, I am driving a police car, and we're going up a one-way street. That's cool.

The whole scene might seem a little silly. Handcuffs, sirens, police backup, all to catch people stealing discarded newspapers. Just a year ago the city was paying recyclers $25 a ton to take the paper. But now, fetching up to $60 a ton, old newspapers are a source of income. And the Sanitation Department estimates that unless they clamp down on paper thieves, the city could lose up to $4 million a year. Of course, enforcement is expensive, too. Right now it might not be worth spending millions on overtime to protect a bunch of old sports sections and New York Times book reviews. But Sanitation Department Commissioner John Doherty says that newspapers and other recyclables are a growing resource for cities like New York: one that is sure to pay off down the road. And Doherty says it's important to send a message now to any would-be street corner entrepreneurs.

DOHERTY: We're really running them through the system as a deterrent. I mean, we could issue a summons out in the street; that would be very nice. But that doesn't always do it. You have to let people know, especially in the beginning when you want to stop something like that, that we're very serious about it. That we are going to arrest you; we are going to put you through the system. And you may stay in a holding pen overnight until you're released in the morning. But I think once people see that happening, they're not going to be going out there and picking through the garbage and taking the newspapers.

(Precinct processing)

RICHMAN: It's 3 AM by the time Sanitation Officers Martinez and Lugo get to the police station with their paper perps. Most likely the 4 offenders will just end up with stiff fines. But in the meantime they'll be frisked and held overnight for booking, along with all the evening's drunks and drug dealers. Officer Lugo says he admits to feeling a little sorry for these guys.

LUGO: I know they didn't commit a murder or anything; they just committed petty larceny. If I could make it a little easier for them I'll speak to them nicely; I'm not going to harass them and give them a hard time. I'm going to treat them, you know, like a gentleman; I'm going to treat them the right way. But this is what our job is and this is what I'm going to do.

RICHMAN: As Officer Lugo leads the 4 paper thieves to a holding cell, a precinct cop looks up and says, "What's this?" Another officer, standing in the corner, says quietly, "You don't want to know." For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Richman in New York.

Back to top

(Policeman: "Go to sleep; you got a long night." A cell door shuts; the key turns. Music up and under: "New York, New York")

CURWOOD: In a moment, our story on South Africa. But first, if you'd like a transcript or a tape of this broadcast, send $10 to Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. You can also leave us a comment on our listener line at 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988. Or zap us on the Internet; that address LOE@NPR.ORG. That's LOE@NPR.ORG.

(Music up and under)

Apartheid's Environmental Legacy

MBENGASHE: People originally think ah, South Africa is just going to be forgotten. Everything is well now that people have voted. But apartheid has left a lot of problems, one of them being environmental problems.

CURWOOD: A year after South Africa's first all-race elections, vast areas of the so-called black homelands still suffer from deforestation and soil erosion. Mining operations have left toxic wastes and thousands of people suffering from related illnesses. And huge urban shantytowns still have little or no sanitation. Maria Mbengashe is an environmental activist with the African National Congress, and director of the Community Environmental Network in the eastern Cape. She says some of the greatest challenges to South Africa's new government come from poverty and the burden that apartheid placed on the region's ecology.

MBENGASHE: On a daily basis, particularly for those people who are living in so-called shanty areas or shacks, it's hard. Most of them don't have access to tap water, don't have sanitation, I mean trailers and so on. And they just have to, like in terms of water sometimes, they have to walk long distances to get maybe a communal tap nearby.

CURWOOD: Is it clean water? Is it safe water?

MBENGASHE: It's clean water, yes. You know, especially in urban areas it's clean. But in rural areas, yes, it's sort of unsafe water. In terms of refuse collection, people actually dumped any place nearby; so that becomes a health hazard. Let alone the old practice of siting waste dumps, hazardous waste dumps, next to black townships; so this is a major problem people are facing. Despite the fact that they have voted.

CURWOOD: What kind of effect on people's health is this? Is there a lot of disease as a result?

MBENGASHE: Yes. In the eastern Cape, for example, we have the highest rate of asthma. We have the highest rate of gastroenteritis; we have the highest rate of TB.

CURWOOD: What about the rural areas? What's the environmental legacy of apartheid there?

MBENGASHE: In the rural areas, mainly because of the homeland policies, people who have literally dumped in desolate, dry areas which are not suitable for any form of agriculture, but to survive people have actually tilled the land and we have problems of soil erosion, land degradation. And poverty, out of all that.

CURWOOD: This is such a harrowing picture you paint in the townships. Are people getting angry or are they too sick to get angry and organized?

MBENGASHE: People I think, especially after election, they are sort of getting impatient that, you know, we want delivery. We want to see, you know, our quality of life changing. So you know, they are hopeful but actually they are getting impatient.

CURWOOD: Where does the environment stand on the priority list of the new government?

MBENGASHE: I think the new government has started to be aware that environment is important. And I think ANC, for example, just before the election, they called in a mission, [missionaries?] into South Africa, actually trying to look at priority areas with regard to environment. So I think there is a realization that environment needs to be put on the agenda.

CURWOOD: So far have there been any major changes? It's my understanding that the present Minister of the Environment is from the old guard.

MBENGASHE: Unfortunately, yes. But I think there is a positive move. The fact that there is this committee, which was nominated by Parliament, to restructure the Council, it's sort of a step forward. So we are hoping that through civil society pressure, through this committee suggesting a number of changes within the Ministry, we are hoping that things will improve.

CURWOOD: Where's the money for this going to come from? I mean, there's a critical need for housing in South Africa right now that could take up really, probably, every dollar or rand you could get your hands on. How are you going to pay for this?

MBENGASHE: Well, with the reconstruction and development program, we are hoping that some money, you know, coming from business, outside funding, we are hoping that the issue of finance will be alleviated. And of course, encouraging people to pay for services. Because with the legacy of apartheid, in the past people, as a measure of pressurizing government, people were discouraged to pay services. But what, you know, the move today is people must be encouraged services because at local level, we also have to pay for services so that the quality of life, it's improved.

CURWOOD: So in other words, the rent strikes and the refusal to pay for essentially taxes has to stop and people have to do this now.

MBENGASHE: Yes. But this has to come together with also signs of improvement and provision of services.

CURWOOD: Boy, it's a tricky set of steps to take.

MBENGASHE: It's a tricky, it's a tricky thing.

CURWOOD: These problems seem so huge and overwhelming. How do you feel about this? Do you have hope?

MBENGASHE: Yes. They are overwhelming mainly because in the past, people were not participating in any form of decision-making. But given the fact we have a new government now, and people are being involved, people are taking part in decision, one has hope that some of the problems will be addressed. Because environmental problems in South Africa are mainly legacies of apartheid in most instances.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Maria Mbengashe is Director of the Community Environmental Network in the Republic of South Africa. Thank you for coming.

MBENGASHE: Thank you.

Back to top

(Music up and under: song about Nelson Mandela)

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's associate producer is Kim Motylewski. Our staff includes Peter Thomson, Deborah Stavro, George Homsy, Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, and Constantine Von Hoffman. We also had help from David Dunlap and Jessika Bella Mura. Our WBUR engineers are Keith Shields and Mark Navin. Special thanks to Larry Buteliere and Jim Donahue. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation at the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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