Waste to Reefs

main104Upto 2500 NYC subway cars have been dumped into East Coast Waters with the hopes that they will become reefs for marine life.  As you can see by the photo, it seems to work.

It all began when the tourism boards of a few east-coast states received some discarded cars from New York City’s Transit Authority.  These cars were stripped of their doors, windows, wheels, and interiors, loaded onto a barge, slowly moved to a suitable spot and shoved one by one into the water by a crane.


dcea4ad7482227b82a800aa33562a3c6f7b0624dd23e90a030dc0dcec6536a3b_largeOnce settled, on the ocean floor, they act as protective coves or reefs encouraging marine life to habituate and grow.  Since pollution and extensive fishing have been steadily eroding the flora and fauna on the ocean floor, vast areas that were once a safe haven for fish lie barren, like underwater wastelands. The structure and material of a subway car allows aquatic life to safely return to their former nesting and breeding grounds.

The Artificial Reef Project started in 1985 under the direction of The National Fishing Enhancement Act and the Secretary of Commerce.  The plan promotes and facilitates responsible, effective artificial reef use based on the best scientific information available.  An artificial reef is any structure constructed or placed in ocean waters to enhance fishery resources for commercial and recreational fishing opportunities.  The founders gave guidance on various aspects of artificial reef use, including types of construction materials, planning, siting, designing and managing the progress of the reef.  They reviewed available information sources and discussed research identified at the time.  Other issues, such as liability and mitigation were also introduced.  Their goal was to get groups of knowledgeable individuals from federal, state, and local universities and private sector entities to periodically revise and update the general information in more detail for their specific situations.  http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/PartnershipsCommunications/NARPwCover3.pdf

Concrete, airplanes, boats, oil and gas platforms, and now subway cars are some of the materials used for artificial reef structures.

In 1990, five stripped subway car bodies were placed on a New Jersey reef at a depth of 65 feet.  One year later, diver surveys indicated that these cars were still providing a three dimensional structure for reef development even though a center section of some of the cars had collapsed.  It wasn’t clear if the damage was due to deterioration over time or from the initial impact when dumped.

In 2001, the NYCTA offered 1300 obsolete subway cars to states wanting material for their artificial reef programs. These cars (9 tons, 9’X9.4’X51.5′) were composed of sheet steel .07″ thick with a small amount of (non-friable) asbestos between two layers of the walls.  The asbestos was found in small enough quantities and was bound to (non-friable) solid matrix providing no mechanism for detrimental effects to the marine environment.  The Philadelphia office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) were satisfied with its safety.  Both NY and Philadelphia regions of the EPA provided guidance on the issue.

In 2003, 517 cars were deployed in 85 feet of water on one Delaware site.  The cars now support an assemblage of invertebrates along with dense populations of sea bass and tautog, a favorite NYC table fish with dry white flesh and a delicate flavor.  Delaware signed an agreement for 400 cars that was later amended to 1100.  Water testing for asbestos concentrations showed levels similar to background levels in seawater and within the EPA’s drinking water standard.

In the last decade, South Carolina has deployed 200 NYCTA subway cars on reef sites ranging from 90-120 feet deep.  After only three months, divers found a diverse array of fish species inhabiting the structures.  Virginia has 150 cars and Georgia has 50 nestled on their ocean floors.  The Ocean City Maryland Reef Foundation, however rejected subway cars based on negative public perceptions of asbestos and Florida declined subways cars because the sheet metal does not meet state standards for durability.

The Artificial Reef Materials Guidelines state:

  • Subway cars, though made of relatively thin gauge steel, are engineered for strength and are much more structurally complex than railroad boxcars.
  • Subway cars have a projected lifespan of 25 to 30 years.
  • Subway cars have shown to be fully functional as artificial habitat, offering trophic support to reef fish by supporting invertebrate communities.
  • Subway cars have considerable vertical relief and surface area and are available in large numbers.
  • Subway cars require little or no cost to artificial reef programs because the NYCTA cleans and delivers them on site.
  • Concerns associated with these artificial reefs are; depth of deployment so that boats can safely pass over, competition between scuba divers and fishermen, attracting over fishing to known reef locations,  specific types of marine species these structures attract are not diverse enough, and strong hurricanes can move or destroy the structures which can damage existing reefs.
  • The materials guidelines offers a cool chart documenting storms and associated changes to various structures.  A once successful site in Florida, made from millions of tires are now painstakingly being removed because a hurricane tossed them around and caused extensive damage to local reefs.    http://myfwc.com/media/131591/ArtificialReefMaterialsGuidelines.pdf

How You Can Help:

  • This issue seems counter intuitive and yet it works.  Let’s hope time bares this out and that using our largest waste for reefs is the right reason.  If you have concerns, your local Departments of Fishing, Departments of Tourism and Departments of Commerce can give you more information.
  • The unintentional 75% increase of fish, off Louisiana shores, was a direct result of oil and gas platform bases turning into artificial reefs.  Results like this have most environmental agencies and fishermen supporting the practice.
  • Start scuba diving!   Wreck dives were the origin of artificial reef success.    http://www.scubadiving.com/travel/florida-florida-keys/12-wrecks-you-should-dive

Until next week,  images

Garbage Girl


Waste Scavengers


It’s hard to imagine how scavengers removing 15,000 horse carcasses from NYC streets in the late 1800s could create a controversy or be fined.  From the 1850s until the 1930s, the carcasses of dead horses and other animals from New York City streets were taken to rendering plants surrounding Dead Horse Bay by Floyd Bennett Airfield to become glue, fertilizer and other products.   As sad as this is, it sounds like a legitimate service to me due to the obvious repulsiveness.  http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/dead-horse-bay

Modern Municipal recycling programs, however, want to control and sell recycled items to recover some of the huge expense of managing our waste.  So what does this mean for today’s scavengers who collect and sell our recyclables?

A $2000 fine is set for disturbing, removing, or transporting by motor vehicle any amount of recyclable material (placed out at curbside) for collection or removal by the DSNY.  The law seems to exempt people who scavenge with bags or carts.  http://www.nyc.gov/html/dsny/downloads/pdf/rules/digest/DSNY_Rules_Reg.pdf

There are up to 64 million scavengers in the world today. Despite these numbers, we know little about the impact of scavenging on global capitalism and development.  The World’s Scavengers: Salvaging for Sustainable Consumption and Production by Martin Medina alters popular perceptions about scavenging.  He demonstrates that many widely held beliefs are wrong such as; scavenging is not primarily the activity of the poor nor is it a strictly marginal activity.  The economic impact of scavenging can increase industrial competitiveness and be compatible with a sustainable waste management system.  Scavengers’ contributions should be recognized and understood as they represent an adaptive response to poverty, (a service in itself) and could be seen as an addition to a city’s resources.   http://www.amazon.com/The-Worlds-Scavengers-Sustainable-Globalization/dp/0759109419

In Brazil, for example, Pimp My Carroça is a project by “Artivist”,  Mundano, that gives visibility to recyclable material collectors by transforming their carts through art and raising their self esteem.  It is a collaborative action that uses humorous graffiti and poignant messages to promote interaction between the collectors and the society.

“When the carrocas are new and colorful, with funny messages, people started to interact,” Mundano says. “One day they are completely invisible and the next day people are like, ‘Whoa! Nice cart, can I take a picture?'”

A waste picker wheels a trash cart with Mundano's art and spreads the word: "My cart doesn't pollute." i

A waste picker, (catadores in Portuguese)  wheels a trash cart (carroca in Portuguese) with Mundano’s art and spreads the word: “My cart doesn’t pollute.”

Mundano shared his project at the TEDGlobal Conference in October.    https://www.ted.com/talks/mundano_pimp_my_trash_cart?language=en

“I can’t imagine Sao Paulo without their work,”  Mundano exclaims. They are “invisible superheroes.”  One third of Brazil’s trash gets diverted from landfills by waste scavengers,  according to the Brazilian recycling organization, Cempre.

Martin Medina adds that Brazil’s federal government actually hires some groups of scavengers.  But local authorities are slow — sometimes even unwilling — to embrace the catadores.  They often fail to see that these people not only clean up the streets but can save the country billions of dollars by recycling materials that would otherwise be thrown away and put in landfills.

Trash pickers collect 90 percent of waste that gets recycled in Brazil yet local governments give them little support. The message on this cart: "One catadore does more than an environmental minister."

The message on this cart: “One catadore does more than an environmental minister.”

Mundano hopes the next step is for residents to ask the waste pickers to stop by and collect recyclable materials from their homes.

Back in NYC, Brokelyn writers, Tim Donnelly and Conal Darcy, set out to discover how much money  could be made collecting the bottles and cans that our law (The Bottle Bill) requires stores to take back for deposits.  http://brokelyn.com/how-much-can-you-make-collecting-cans-and-bottles/     They suggest that waste pickers have become an important part of the New York ecosystem siting that New York State alone chugs through 2.5 billion bottles a year or the equivalent of enough bottles to reach the moon, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.    “A lot of those bottles they’re collecting come from trash cans, not recycling cans. So the bottle collectors are the only thing preventing those one-use plastic containers from eternal landfill damnation (which is the fate of about about 30 million single-use containers every day).”

Based on average earnings of two trips, 9/2 and 10/21, in a best-case scenario where redemption machines were not full and actually functioned, Tim and Conal came up with this great chart!

1 can Simpler Times beer (plus tax and bottle deposit) $.79 16 9 minutes
1 packet Ramen noodles $.39 8 4.5 minutes
Falafel (Sahadi’s) $3 60 33 minutes
Movie matinee (Kent Theater) $5 100 55 minutes
Colt 45 (40 oz) $2.75 55 31 minutes
1 night in NY Loft Hostel (Bushwick) $40 800 7.5 hours
1 year of Law school (Brooklyn Law) $44,000 880,000 8,148 hours (339 days)
Cigarettes $11 220 2 hours
Used bike (Schwinn, via Craigslist) $75 1,500 14 hours
iPad (16 GB) $499 9,980 92.5 hours

How You Can Help:

  • Set aside bottles and cans in separate bags so scavengers don’t have to pick through your goopy garbage.
  • A washed bottle or can is so much more pleasant to handle.
  • You pay $ for the bottle or can to get recycled.  You are a big part of making sure it gets through its entire lifecycle.
  • A friendly nod or acknowledgement could make a working person feel so much better.
  • Check out how much better Dead Horse Bay looks today than it has in the past.  Some things have improved!  It is now part of Gateway National Recreation Area with a golf course and trails.

Until next week,

Garbage Girl

Polystyrene Waste Banned!

ecofashion_weekend_02_thumb1 New York City is moving to the forefront of a growing   environmental trend!!  Last year,  Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an ambitious plan to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 from its 2005 levels.   This year e-waste is illegal to throw in the garbage.  And Now!  Stores, food service establishments and manufacturers won’t be able to possess, sell or offer single-use styrofoam containers, cups, even packing peanuts beginning July 1 with a grace period until January 2016 for companies and administrators to work out the realities.

The reason is purely environmental.  Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) cannot be efficiently recycled through NYC’s curbside pickup program.  “These products cause real environmental harm and have no place in our city.  We have better alternatives.  If more cities across the country follow our lead and institute similar bans, those alternatives will soon become more plentiful and cost less.  By removing nearly 30,000 tons of expanded polystyrene waste from our landfills, streets and waterways, we will be taking a major step towards our goal of a greener, greater New York City,”  the mayor said.

Styrofoam (the trademark name given to EPS by Dow Chemical) containers are popular in restaurants that offer a takeout option and hundreds of food carts and trucks that populate New York’s streets.  Such vendors will have to seek out recyclable alternatives, though businesses with less than $500,000 in annual revenue can apply for exemptions if using alternative containers would cause “undue financial hardship.”  Compostable plates will be the new norm at the city’s public school cafeterias.  Packing peanuts cannot be sold within the city, but peanuts can still be placed in packages that are shipped into New York.  All other rigid polystyrene products will continue to be landfilled.  CD cases, single serve containers and some decorative items. Unknown-1

Though New York is the largest city to ban this type of “dirty foam,” other cities including San Francisco, Seattle and Portland have enacted similar measures.

In the year since the ban was first proposed, EPS manufacturers like Dart Container Corporation were given an opportunity to prove that foam foodservice items could be economically and logistically recycled within the city’s five boroughs.  Dart representatives stated,  “We conducted real world tests that unequivocally proved this feasibility.”  After consulting with corporations, nonprofits, vendors and other stakeholders,  the Department of Sanitation determined that expanded polystyrene foam cannot be recycled efficiently through its curbside pick up program.  Post-consumer EPS can be recycled but most communities that offer EPS collection do so through a drop-off format.  The largest opponent of the ban, Dart Container,  partnered with Plastics Recycling, Inc. (PRI), to buy all New York City rigid and expanded foam polystyrene if DSNY agreed to collect it and optically sort/bale it by Sims Municipal Recycling.  Dart agreed to fund the addition of sorters at Sims’ Brooklyn plant and the expansion of PRI’s facility.

The decision to ban came down to several reservations that administrators had regarding Dart’s proposed recycling plan and timeline.  City leaders felt putting such an infrastructure in place would take too much time.  DSNY contends the addition of sorters at the Brooklyn Sims’ facility would take up to two years and PRI’s expansion would take until late spring 2015.

Question marks continue to surround the company’s ability to process post-consumer polystyrene because grease contamination renders polystyrene non-recyclable.  Its volume alone makes it uneconomical to store, transport, degrease and wash it before recycling.  And, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia warns, if PRI decided after five years to ditch the endeavor, DSNY and Sims “would still have to manage the costs and complications of designating EPS as recyclable.”

According to Brandon Shaw, PRI’s marketing manager,  “Post-consumer foam is a growing market, there’s more demand for it than there ever.”  He told Plastics Recycling Update,  “People are just told it can’t be recycled and they believe it, but we do it every day.  The new plant just allows us to do it more efficiently and on a larger scale”   PRI claims that they already recycle 60 million pounds of polystyrene per year.  A third of that total is post-consumer BUT mostly garnered from drop-off sites.

The Restaurant Action Alliance, a lobbying group, also condemned the ban, suggesting that it would increase costs for eateries.

“While much of the waste we produce can be recycled or reused, polystyrene foam is not one of those materials,” said Commissioner Garcia. “Removing polystyrene from our waste stream is not only good for a greener, more sustainable New York, it also helps the landfill communities who receive the city’s trash.”  Environmental groups have long decried polystyrene as a hazard that clogs the nation’s landfills.

Polystyrene is a petroleum-based plastic made from the styrene monomer.  It is a light-weight material, about 95% air, with very good insulation properties and is used in many types of products.

The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with Styrene, its basic building block.  Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The polystyrene manufacturing process is the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste according to the EPA and The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam.  The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.

Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave) that threaten human health and reproductive systems.

These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable, rapidly depleting, and heavily polluting resource.

Some polystyrene foam manufacturing releases hydrocarbons into the air where they combine with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, to form tropospheric ozone, a serious air pollutant.  Though polystyrene manufacturers claim that their products are “ozone-friendly” or free of CFCs, this is only partially true.  EPS manufactured with HCFC-22, was originally thought to be less destructive than its chemical cousins, CFC-11 and CFC-12, but according to an Institute for Energy and Environmental Research study, HCFCs are three to five times more destructive to the ozone layer than previously believed.

By volume, polystyrene takes up more space in landfills than paper, and will eventually re-enter the environment when water or mechanical forces breach landfills.

Polystyrene foam is often found in our environment as litter.  This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.

While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available but the market is small.

Production of environmentally friendly packaging material has stepped up to replace those peanuts.  Corn and other seeds lead the way.  Some are already available as replacements.  Perhaps the problematic recycling situation will be solved by replacing the product.

Polystyrene recycling is not “closed loop”.  Collected polystyrene cups are not remanufactured into cups, but into other products, such as packing filler and cafeteria trays.  This means that more resources will have to be used, and more pollution created, to produce more polystyrene cups

How You Can Help:

  • Select post-consumer recycled paper, bamboo, corn plastics, etc.  They’re renewable resources.
  • Become aware when your favorite “take out” services use polystyrene.  Let them know you can afford a few cents more for recyclable containers.
  • Take shipping peanuts to your neighborhood Shipping Store.  They love them.
  • Paper does the job of keeping your coffee hot just fine.  Or use a refillable container that gives you great satisfaction and delivers your coffee just the way you like it.
  • Egg cartons have been made of paper for a very long time.  Refuse to buy eggs in styrofoam cartons.
  • Fruits and vegetables really don’t need individual protection with styrofoam.  Buy fresh and get healthy.
  • Never microwave food in a styrofoam container.
  • Styrofoam is essentially not recyclable.  It creates such huge volume that it is formidable to handle, clean or transport.  It doesn’t take THAT much styrofoam to fill a semi-truck or a landfill!

Until next week,piled-waste-plastics-1212Garbage Girl



Residential e-waste disposal is now illegal in NYC.  The New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act is in its final phases to address e-waste.

The statistics:

1. 80 to 85% of electronic products were discarded in landfills or incinerators, which can release certain toxics into the air.  http://ewasteguide.info/hazardous-substances

2. E-waste represents 2% of America’s trash in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste. The extreme amount of lead in electronics alone causes damage in the central and peripheral nervous systems, the blood and the kidneys.

3. 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed worldwide every year. http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/ecycling/faq.htm#general

4. Cell phones and other electronic items contain high amounts of precious metals like gold or silver. Americans dump phones containing over $60 million in gold/silver every year.

5. Only 12.5% of e-waste is currently recycled.  http://www.electronicstakeback.com/w

6. For every 1 million cell phones that are recycled, 35,274 lbs of copper, 772 lbs of silver, 75 lbs of gold, and 33 lbs of palladium can be recovered.

7. Recycling 1 million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year.

8. E-waste is still the fastest growing municipal waste stream in America, according to the EPA.

9. A large number of what is labeled as “e-waste” is actually not waste at all, but rather whole electronic equipment or parts that are readily marketable for reuse or can be recycled for materials recovery.

10. It takes 539 lbs of fossil fuel, 48 lbs of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water to manufacture one computer and monitor.

11. Electronic items that are considered to be hazardous include, but are not limited to: Televisions and computer monitors that contain cathode ray tubes, LCD desktop monitors, LCD televisions, Plasma televisions, Portable DVD players with LCD screens.

Our awakening environmental awareness and corresponding tightening of environmental regulations  increased our outrage to the disposal of hazardous wastes where we live thus escalating disposal costs. This pushed companies to seek cheaper disposal options for hazardous wastes in the developing world, where environmental awareness was less developed and regulations and enforcement mechanisms were lacking. The ugly underbelly of economic globalization uses the “competitive advantage” of cheap labour in poorer areas of the world to give them a disproportionate burden of toxic wastes, dangerous products and polluting technologies.  Developing countries are receiving low pay to perpetuate our most toxic industries becoming a global dumping ground for our toxic wastes at a high cost to their environments and health.

Unregulated, unprotected e-waste recycling

Unregulated, unprotected e-waste recycling

It was against this background that the Basel Convention was formed in 1989 to combat the “toxic trade”. The Basel Convention created a multilateral environmental agreement to pass a landmark decision that reverses this deadly trend and bans the export of hazardous waste from rich to poorer countries.

The provisions of the Convention center around the following principal aims:

  • the reduction of hazardous waste generation and the promotion of environmentally sound management of hazardous wastes, wherever the place of disposal;
  • the restriction of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes except where it is perceived to be in accordance with the principles of environmentally sound management
  • a regulatory system applying to cases where transboundary movements are permissible.

The Basel BAN Amendment furthers this initiative with a trade barrier erected for the environment, and for human rights, supported by developing countries in recognition of the present disparate economic playing fields that, if exploited, will shift pollution problems to those least able to deal with them, rather than solve them at their source.

BAN, Basel Action Network,   http://www.ban.org  is the world’s only organization focused on confronting global environmental injustice, economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts. Working at the nexus of human rights and the environment, they confront the issues of environmental justice at a macro level  in support of the principle of global environmental justice where no peoples or environments are dispro-portionately poisoned and polluted due to the dictates of unbridled market forces and trade.  BAN’s mission is to protect the groundbreaking, precedent-setting BAN Amendment from attack by industry and free-trade zealots who see it as a threat to globalization-as-usual.    BAN also promotes sustainable, fair solutions to our consumption/waste crises by banning hazardous waste trade and promoting green, toxic free democratically designed consumer products.

BAN is a charitable organization based in Seattle, Washington working domestically and globally with a focus in Europe (due to strong leadership in global environmental initiatives), Asia (due to being primary victim area of toxic trade) and in the USA (due to poor record of global stewardship and their indiscriminate dumping of toxic wastes such as electronic waste and toxic ships). Its sad to learn that San Francisco’s A rating was the focus of a BAN mission so this is not only global issue. http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/video/10263296-californias-e-waste-creating-toxic-mountain-in-arizona/

The “effluent of the affluent” is a by product of what became known as the NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Back Yard).  In the name of development, globalisation and free trade, it is, in fact, a violation of environmental justice and can be considered a crime against the environment and human rights. It is vital to halt this unsustainable and unacceptable trade not only as it disproportionately destroys the environment and health of those in developing countries, but because such “environmental cost externalisations” serve as a disincentive to sustainable global solutions.  Greening our manufacturing processes and products through “green design” and through “toxics use reductions” is a much Better Way.

http://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-electronics/  The Story of Electronics, released in November 2011, employs the Story of Stuff style to explore the high-tech revolution’s collateral damage—25 million tons of e-waste and counting, poisoned workers and a public left holding the bill. Host Annie Leonard takes viewers from the mines and factories where our gadgets begin to the horrific backyard recycling shops in China where many end up. The film concludes with a call for a green ‘race to the top’ where designers compete to make long-lasting, toxic-free products that are fully and easily recyclable.

How You Can Help:

  • Go to http://www.nyc.gov/html/dsny/html/faq/dispose.shtml and learn how to discard all waste.
  • Go to http://www.electronicstakeback.com/w to learn how to discard e-waste.  Staples, Best Buy and Office Depot are heading take back programs.  Push your favorite big box retailer to follow their lead.  Amazon.com could also use some pressure to facilitate take backs for their suppliers.
  • Become knowledgeable about your electronic devices.  These tools serve us in important ways but they are also taking a toll on our environment and our health.
  • Electronics can no longer be discarded in your residential garbage.

Until next week,

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 12.40.48 PMGarbage Girl

Recycling Waste in NYC


My New Year’s resolution is to reduce the amount of garbage I throw away.  With that in mind, I looked into the New York Environment Report on recycling past, present and future.

A large number of New York residents and building managers comply with the city’s recycling laws by separating paper, cardboard, metals, glass and plastics for curbside collection.  But! 25 years after passing Local Law 19 there are still important challenges to be addressed in order for NYC to reap all of the economic and environmental benefits of recycling.

In 1989, The City Council passed Local Law 19 sending dozens of Sanitation Department trucks down city streets to collect metals, glass and newspapers placed at the curb by homeowners and building superintendents. This law marked the beginning of an ongoing odyssey to transform the way residents of the nation’s largest city dispose of their trash and establish the most environmentally sound and economically desirable waste reduction, recycling and reuse programs possible. The law’s leading shepherd was Sheldon Leffler, Chairman of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, supported by Peter F. Vallone, City Council Majority Leader and Brendan Sexton, Sanitation Commissioner.  The following is a timeline of what they started.

1970s   Environmental Action Coalition began voluntary recycling endeavors.  The City recycled less than one percent of its daily trash.

1984    City landfills were closing.  Mayor Ed Koch proposed building five giant garbage incinerators across the city. That possibility sparked environmental groups, including NRDC, to block their construction.

1987 -1988    City Council members, Ruth Messenger and Sheldon Leffler along with valued support from Comptroller Harrison J. Goldin began negotiating with the Koch Administration, environmental leaders and other stakeholders to craft a comprehensive bill that would require the Sanitation Department to provide curbside collection of recyclables for New Yorkers in every neighborhood regardless of whether residents lived in private homes or high-rise apartments (which were viewed as problematic due to real and imagined limitations on space for storing recyclables).

1990     The City successfully met the recycling law’s first year 700 tonnage mandate per day.  Blue recycling bins, distributed by the City, were a common site outside of private residences in all five boroughs.  However, public education regarding the details of recycling and its importance, lack of cooperation from many building managers and little attention from the city’s public school leadership made a true success wanting.

1991     The year’s mandatory recycling tonnage was not met.  City lawyers argued that the mandates were “non-binding goals”.   NRDC sued to enforce the law on behalf of Council members Sheldon Leffler and Fred Cerulo, the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board and concerned residents from Staten Island and the Bronx.

1992     One New York State court after another rejected the “non-binding goal” theory and ordered NYC to comply with the tonnage directive and other mandatory provisions of Local Law 19.

1996      The Giuliani Administration tried to abolish recycling, calling the recycling law “absurd and irresponsible”.   The NRDC plaintiffs returned to court to reenforce the pre-existing court orders.

1997       Giuliani argued that using construction and demolition debris to line the roads at the Fresh Kills landfill counted as residential recycling.   Numerous legal maneuvers made their way through the courts losing valuable time.

1998     New York State’s highest court and seven separate court rulings all went against City Hall on the question of recycling tonnage deadlines and the city was given until 2001 to meet the 4,250 tons per day recycling mandate.  Mayor Giuliani, then sought to block funding that would provide weekly recycling collections in all five boroughs. Under the leadership of Environmental Protection Committee Chair Stanley Michels, the City Council unanimously passed a new law providing weekly recycling collections to every city neighborhood.

1999      Citywide residential and institutional recycling tonnage collected by the Sanitation Department had reached about 2,500 tons per day, a rate of over 21 percent. (the full objectives of the 1989 recycling statute have not yet been achieved).

2002     Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office with an impressive track record in addressing environmental health and sustainability issues in New York City.   However, when the Sanitation Department proposed to eliminate recycling collections of metals, plastic and glass, allegedly saving 57 million dollars a year, the citywide recycling tonnage declined to 1,550 tons per day.

2003      NYC Council Speaker, Gifford Miller and Sanitation Committee Chair, Mike McMahon reached a compromise with the administration that metals would stay in the program, plastics would be suspended until late 2003 and glass would be suspended until 2004.

2004    Public confusion increased as curbside recycling decreased due to these false starts on top of program attacks from the previous administration.

2004-2010  Ron Gonen is the city’s recycling czar in charge of many private initiatives.

2010     The City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Christine Quinn and Sanitation Committee Chair, Tish James, enacted eleven new recycling laws expanding recycling collections to cover additional kinds of plastics, boost recycling in public schools, increase recycling in public spaces, jumpstart food waste composting and revising goals for recycling tonnages.    2020 would be the final date for achieving a 25% rate for citywide residential recycling collected by the Sanitation Department at curbside and 33% goal for all residential recyclables. (bottles and cans redeemed under the state’s bottle deposit program, composting programs, electronic waste and other retailer take-back programs, etc.).

2012    Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway noted the rising costs of landfill could make recycling economically attractive and mesh well with Mayor Bloomberg’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.  Into his third term, Bloomberg’s big turn around begins, appointing the first Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability, Ron Gonen.

2013     The Sanitation Department launched programs to make recycling textiles and electronic waste more convenient for apartment dwellers.  re-fashioNYC run jointly with Housing Works and e-cycleNYC run with Electronics Recyclers International to collect these wastes for reuse or disassembly and recycling. These programs supplemented the ongoing Lower East Side Ecology Center’s e-waste drop-off.

2013     Sims Municipal Recycling sorts NYC’s metals, glass and plastics recyclables under a 20 year contract in a modern East River plant, providing green jobs for New Yorkers and moving most of its recyclables by barge and rail reducing CO2 emissions.

2013     Mayor Bloomberg  sets the stage for the Sanitation Department to phase out polystyrene food and beverage containers in New York City.   He boosted composting and other sustainable organics handling strategies by insuring large scale commercial generators of food waste are using composting or similar facilities.


Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and Acting Deputy Sanitation Commissioner for Sustainability Bridget Anderson are sending encouraging signals that the era of waste policy reform has finally arrived.

2014      Mayor Bill de Blasio enters office.  The initial signals from Mayor de Blasio and his Sanitation Department hold the promise that the city will at long last achieve the recycling and sustainability objectives of Local Law 19 of 1989.

2014     Kathryn Garcia is appointed as Mayor de Blasio’s Sanitation Commissioner.  A former top official at the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, she is committed to sustainability by embracing the view that waste should be treated as a resource generating revenue from our recycling vendors when they sell or directly reuse the material and by growing the organics collection pilot projects to reach over 240,000 single and multi-family households and schools in all five boroughs.

2014     GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education plays a big role in building recycling and composting programs in the city’s schools and assisting the Sanitation Department in much-needed public education efforts.


The Council’s new leaders on waste issues (left to right) Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander, and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso will keep NYC at the center of innovative waste planning.

2015    Seven issues to watch as the waste policy reforms of the de Blasio Administration and the New York City Council move forward:

  • The single greatest step the City can take to divert waste from landfills and incinerators is to phase in programs that separate out food scraps and yard waste for composting and/or sustainable anaerobic digestion.
  • Effective public education efforts are essential to the long-term success of recycling in New York City.  The Department of Education needs to cooperate with the de Blasio administration to insure that every school classroom has recycling bins and every school lunchroom collects food scraps for composting.  GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education needs sustained funding.
  • Lack of recycling participation remains a serious problem in some areas.  New York City Housing Authority needs to make recycling convenient and the Sanitation Department needs to enforce reluctant building managers to improve their waste-handling practices.
  • Property owners and building managers need to take advantage of refashioNYC and e-cycleNYC. The City Council needs to build these programs to larger scale.
  • Continued reduction and elimination of polystyrene food and beverage containers and plastic take-out bags.  They contribute disproportionately to litter and pollution problems on streets, at parks and in waterways, while causing slowdowns at recycling facilities.
  • The Sanitation Union, the Department of Sanitation and the de Blasio administration need to work cooperatively in ongoing labor discussions about flexibility in trash collection routes and schedules so as to provide financial benefits to all parties.
  • The de Blasio Administration and the City Council, with their enormous purchasing power, need to use the city’s procurement process to strengthen markets for recyclables currently being collected and to help build new recycling industries with strong and vibrant markets for the materials in the New York region.

This timeline originally appeared on Switchboard, the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council written by Eric Goldstein. 

How you can Help:

  • Make waste reduction a conscientious part of your life.
  • Consider the sorters along the conveyor belts when you recycle food containers.  Wash them out to reduce smells and yucky guckiness.
  • Combinations of plastics in one item cannot be recycled.  Remove lids and rings from bottles.
  • Become aware of recycled products and support those markets.
  • Note the contents of your bags of mixed recyclables. Does it look easy to separate into glass, metal and plastic?
  • Make the importance of recycling known to our elected officials.

Until next week,  images

Garbage Girl