New Plan, New York

January is the month of good intentions: fewer cigarettes, more money in the 401(k) account. For New York City, the new year means a new attempt at bolstering its lagging recycling rate. This month, the city is launching the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, which is part of its larger, 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan approved last summer.

The annual Mayor's Management Report, released in September, pegs the city's curbside recycling rate for fiscal year 2006 at 16.4 percent and the total diversion rate at 31.5 percent. Both rates mark declines compared to 2005 and fall nearly six percentage points short of 2006 targets. The report attributes the drop in total diversion to a “sharp decrease in the volume of clean fill material and reusable construction materials needed for landfill cover and access roads at the Fresh Kills Landfill.”

While the recycling percentages don't stack up to those in some large cities, and critics have accused the city of failing in its education efforts, New York has to deal with a unique set of challenges. Among the hurdles are the city's size, language diversity and the high percentage of multi-family housing, says Chaz Miller, state programs director the National Solid Wastes Management Association, Washington. “In a city like New York, you have to find a way for credible recycling out of apartment buildings,” he says, adding that such housing is a notoriously difficult environment for establishing successful recycling programs.

The New York City Council proposed the new office to address those issues. In a press release, the council said that Mayor Bloomberg's initial Solid Waste Management Plan “lack[ed] specific proposals to increase waste reduction, reuse or recycling.” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn added, “By creating a new office to focus on these important goals, we can help keep New York City at the forefront of new recycling initiatives and technologies.”

The Office of Recycling Outreach and Education will employ six staffers and operate on an annual budget of $7 million under the Council on the Environment of New York City, rather than the Department of Sanitation. One of its first goals will be to inform residents about recycling: why they should do it, how to avoid fines and options aside from the curbside program, according to David Hurd, the office's director, who has 27 years of recycling experience mostly in the New York area.

Five recycling coordinators will meet with community districts within each of the five boroughs to determine recycling needs and develop community-specific plans. “We will approach this community district by community district to address the cultural diversity of the city,” Hurd says. That means educational materials for some areas will be printed in Korean or Chinese, while others will be in Russian or Spanish.

The city also is increasing the types of plastic that residents can recycle and will test public-spaces recycling. Other groups are getting involved as well. The New York City Housing Authority, for instance, introduced new bins and an educational campaign in two neighborhoods to create consistency within its public housing developments.

Initiatives in other cities indicate New York's efforts could pay off. In January 2005, Seattle — not satisfied with its recycling rate — began banning paper, cardboard, glass and plastic bottles and jars, aluminum and tin cans, and yard debris from residential garbage and paper, cardboard and yard debris from commercial trash as part of Mayor Greg Nickels' “60% Recycling Plan.” In January 2006, the city then began fining commercial violators rather than leaving behind educational materials as it did the previous year. For residences in violation, their garbage is not collected. The Seattle Public Utilities reported in November that the city reached a record residential recycling rate of 52.1 percent for 2005, 2.7 percentage points higher than the 2004 rate.