Major Cities Propose Recycling Cutbacks

To rid New York City of its lingering $4.76 billion deficit, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, on Feb. 13, proposed an 18-month moratorium on curbside glass, metal and plastics recycling collection.

If the proposal, part of the mayor's 2003 budget, is approved, the city council would suspend all city recycling collection programs except paper recycling beginning July 1, 2002.

Paper recycling generates enough revenue to stay afloat, says Vito Turso, deputy commissioner of public information for the city's Department of Sanitation (NYDS).

“We will continue to collect newspaper and corrugated cardboard because they are viable,” he says. “There isn't a market as we see it right now for metals, plastics and glass.”

The city is paying as much as $240 per ton to operate its glass, metal and plastics recycling program vs. an estimated $65 to $85 per ton to dispose of the recyclables in a landfill, Turso says.

“A number of options were considered,” he says, “but the option we felt that was best and would have the least impact on the citizenry was to curtail metal, plastics and glass for the 18 months … We couldn't let the health of the city suffer by scaling back on regular collection.”

According to city officials, New York also may permanently eliminate glass recycling, which is the most costly material to reprocess.

“New York City is probably the hardest city to successfully have a curbside recycling program in the United States,” says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), Washington, D.C. “Most people live in apartment buildings and are tenants, so they are insulated from recycling and garbage costs because their apartment buildings pay the bill.” Population density and language barriers also can contribute to program failure, he says.

During the 18-month moratorium, the NYDS would set up a public educational campaign to encourage residents to take recyclables to recovery centers. Recycling collection workers would be placed in other jobs within the department. The city would try to find more effective and cost-efficient ways to operate curbside recycling programs “and to bring it back in a more user-friendly format,” Torso says.

But Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition (NRC), Alexandria, Va., says that may be more challenging than it sounds. “It's very difficult to stop something and then start it up again,” she says, referring to the city's plan to reinstitute the programs more than a year later. “Plus,” she adds, “Americans want to recycle.”

The NRC is aware of curbside recycling's economic challenges, but suggests that New York or any other community considering cutbacks seek substantial feedback from the public and experts before making any decisions. Nationwide, the recycling industry employs 1.1 million people and generates an annual payroll of $37 billion, Krebs adds. “That's not insignificant.”

Nevertheless, several cities — Atlanta, Baltimore, Albuquerque, N.M., and Charleston, W.Va. — are proposing recycling program cutbacks to reduce their budgets.

In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin has proposed that the city change recycling collection from every week to every two weeks, and change yard trimmings collection from every two weeks to once a month. The mayor has promised that she will not try to increase fees or reduce garbage collection frequency.

Last year, Atlanta spent $45.5 million to provide garbage collection, recycling and other services, and earned $35.6 million in revenue. Overall, the sanitation program is facing an estimated $12 million deficit, while the city faces an $82 million shortfall in its general fund.

Franklin also has proposed eliminating Atlanta's grass-cutting and vacant lot-cleaning programs, except in emergencies. In total, this could save the city an estimated $2.8 million per year, according to Casey Marks, acting director for the city's public works department.

And if approved, New York's program cutbacks could save the city an estimated $57 million, Turso says.

The New York city council currently is reviewing Mayor Bloomberg's entire budget proposal and plans to hold hearings, make its own recommendations, conduct negotiations and finalize the budget before its June 30 deadline.