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




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