Part-Time Recycling Equals Full-Time Failure

February 26, 1999

By Michael Jessen

New York City's 7.3 million residents are a diverse group of people, but they have one thing in common: They are part-time recyclers.

This in spite of the fact the city has one of the most comprehensive recycling programs on the continent. Every resident receives curbside recycling, whether they live in a single-family home or a 50-story apartment building.

In the last two years, New York has spent $12 million on extensive recycling public education and outreach, including mailings, seminars, advertising, information on the World Wide Web, market research and how-to-materials published in eight languages.

In addition, New York has a dedicated force of recycling police officers, who issued more than 75,000 summonses worth $1.9 million for violations of the city's recycling rules in 1997.

Although the city-wide recycling rate improved by 25 percent in 1997, New Yorkers are still only separating about 40 percent of the designated recyclable material. Why? New York is a city of part-time recyclers.

Local Law 19, passed in 1989, called for the city to recycle 4,250 tons of residential material per day. Yet, residents are separating only 17 percent of their waste for collection in the recycling program, which equates to about 2,000 tons per day of recycling.

Pilot projects in five New York City boroughs -- Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Upper Manhattan -- were introduced to test the effects of enforcement on part-time recyclers. The Manhattan pilot was conducted at two multi-family buildings, each containing 95 apartments.

Sanitation recycling officers sorted through the garbage of selected residents, removed the non-soiled recyclables from the garbage, and placed them, along with recycling instructions, in a clear bag on the homeowner's steps. If officers found five or more pieces of recyclable material in the garbage, they issued a warning to the resident. The warning was in the form of a summons, but carried no fine, although it is usually a $25 offence. Showing residents the recyclable contents of their garbage seemed the clearest way to reinforce the educational material and the warning summons.

The studies showed the percentage of residents who were full-time recyclers varied from a low of 13% in the Bronx to a high of only 28% in Queens before the inspections. After the feedback of returning the recyclables to their doorsteps and the warning summonses, residents recycling properly in the Bronx improved to 54% and in Queens to 79%.

The study participants represented a cross-section of the city, in terms of geography, income, housing density and cultures. The ability to store or hold the recyclables did not appear to make a difference. It did not seem to matter how often their recyclables were collected, nor did it matter how long ago they were last collected.

Part-time recyclers were also discovered after a comprehensive waste composition study conducted last summer for the North Okanagan Regional District. The district has a combination curbside recycling program where residents put all recyclables in a blue bag and a number of recycling dropoff centres.

A total of 64 samples weighing approximately 136 kg each were taken at the district's five landfills. This waste was then sorted into 31 categories. The study revealed that during the summer of 1998, organic material such as kitchen waste, yard waste, landscaping waste and wood was the major component of all five landfills, averaging approximately 30% of the landfilled waste. Two easily compostable items -- kitchen vegetable waste at about 13% and yard waste at about 11% -- constituted the bulk of this organic material.

Paper products were the second largest component of the waste headed for the landfill, at an average of 22% for all landfills. Easily recyclable corrugated cardboard, newspaper, packaging paper, and non-packaging paper made up the bulk of these paper products.

Remove all the organic material and recyclable paper and the district's landfilled waste is reduced by HALF! But not with part-time recyclers and composters.

Part-time recyclers abound in the Central and West Kootenay. Current estimates indicate about 30% of the recyclable materials in the waste stream are currently diverted through area recycling programs. Do we really want to spend money to identify and cajole those who don't recycle as much as they should? Is this really a good use of taxpayer's dollars?

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not beyond our control. We must become less wasteful and reuse our resources wisely. Non-recyclers and part-time recyclers must become full-time recyclers. The work of our own hands will determine our destiny. It is the only way we can live.

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