NYC garbage truck Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

At the Core of the Big Apple: The Trivialization of Solid Waste Management Public Policy (Part Two)

Part two of a three-part series this week examines the trivialization of solid waste management public policy in New York.

In a multipart series this week, Robert Lange, the former director of the City of New York Department of Sanitation's Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, will examine the trivialization of solid waste management public policy in New York. To read part one, click here. To read part three, click here.

NYC, A Cautionary Tale

The political influence on NYC’s solid waste management policy goes back more than two centuries. While business interests may have been the dominant force influencing the course of solid waste management policy (in less than ideal ways) in the past, environmental organizations have taken over that role during the last three decades. For those interested in getting a taste of how politics has been the major force in setting NYC’s solid waste management public policy, I recommend reading “Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York — The last Two Hundred Years” by Benjamin Miller. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the years leading up to the present, where NYC’s current mayor has fully embraced the magical thinking of the environmental advocacy community, as embodied in the document One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City (aka, the OneNYC Plan).

In the 1980s, the City of New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) was vested with responsibility for piloting recycling as an alternative to incineration, which was then the stated major solid waste management goal of the Koch administration. DSNY embraced recycling with little enthusiasm in the face of the challenges it perceived to convince New Yorkers to fully engage in the practice of source separation. After many years of implementation and challenges, both fiscal and operational, recycling became a part of the daily operations of DSNY and the habits of most New Yorkers. Still, recycling achieved at best a 50 percent capture rate of the materials collectively designated for recycling by residents.

As the decades marched on, the recycling rate in NYC stagnated, as it did across the nation, particularly when creative accounting and reporting on the part of many jurisdictions were taken into account. Plateauing was primarily the result of a limit to the average New Yorker’s desire and motivation to recycle. There was also confusion seeded in the public’s mind by the ongoing public political debate regarding recycling, infrastructural challenges inherent in NYC’s housing stock that inhibited recycling participation and changes in the types of waste being generated, primarily the disappearance of print materials and the light-weighting of product packaging. NYC’s leading environmental organizations perceived the stagnation of recycling rates not as an indication of the limits to recycling compliance by the public or even the limits to recycling as a solid waste management tool, but rather as a failure on the part of DSNY to adequately motivate New Yorkers to fully engage in recycling. Some of these environmental organizations had unreasonable expectations of DSNY’s powers of social engineering. NYC’s elected officials, particularly the members of the City Council, began to believe this myth.

During this same period, political term limits became law, causing a major change in the political landscape of NYC. The mayor and members of the City Council were now confined to a limit of two terms in office. Term limits impacted the City Council in two major ways: it brought forward an entirely new crop of political candidates, and it injected new intellectual capital into an anemic political body. Now that City Council members were confined to only two terms in office, their brief moment on the political stage took on greater importance. Their now limited period as a City Council member needed to provide them with the opportunity to garner the public’s attention sufficiently to ensure success in their next election campaign. This new urgency resulted in the proliferation of attention-grabbing legislation. Some totally new pieces of legislation were introduced, as well as amendments to existing legislation, as a means of both not making any substantial change and simutaneously marking territory previously associated with their predecessors in the City Council.

One such series of amendments was roughly a dozen bills passed in 2010, and strategically announced on Earth Day, to amend NYC’s Local Law 19 of 1989, NYC’s Recycling Law. While this legislative effort was primarily a reiteration of existing legislation, it was also an attempt to claim credit for efforts already underway by DSNY. Much of this was done to obscure the fact that the new City Council had, after more than 20 years of resistance by the old guard, finally agreed to remove mandated tonnage targets from Local Law 19, which were inserted in the law as mere numerical place holders. However, those once numerical place holders had by now become sacred numbers in the minds of environmental advocates. To appease the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the leading environmental organization participating in the effort to move from mandated tonnage targets to tonnage goals, a new provision was inserted in the recycling law allowing for the future appointment of a “Recycling Czar,” should recycling rates fail to increase as desired.

All these changes took place midterm during Mayor Bloomberg's and many members of the City Council’s third term, which they had secured for themselves by temporarily overturning the city’s term limits law. As twilight set on the mayor’s third and final term, members of his immediate staff became obsessed with the mayor’s legacy, particularly concerning the environment. The mayor had become renowned all over the world for many of his environmental initiatives, particularly in the area of sustainability related to energy conservation and greenhouse gas reduction. PlanNYC had strategically left out anything to do with solid waste and recycling as those subjects were already adequately covered as part of the city’s 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan, submitted as required to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Yet his one shortcoming, according to the New York Times, was in the area of recycling. Another instance of the paper of record channeling the opinions of the local chapter of NRDC on the topic of recycling, as if fact.

The mantle of improving the mayor’s environmental legacy was taken up by members of the Office of Sustainability, reporting to the deputy mayor for operations. The stated goal was to develop a plan to increase recycling diversion. I believe that the unstated goal was to satisfy NRDC’s desire to be an active player in recycling policy and to participate directly in recycling planning. When the practical realities of moving the recycling diversion needle were presented, along with the political realities resulting from the infrastructure investment cost associated with programs that would bring about real change, the decision to pursue another course was made. Someone decided that what was needed was not new programs. After all, DSNY already had numerous waste reduction and recycling programs. Instead, it was decided that it was time for the “Recycling Czar,” the salesman who would, in essence, convince the public in general, and NRDC in particular, that things were changing for the better, even when nothing was changing but the narrative.

Robert Lange was the director of the City of New York Department of Sanitation's (DSNY) Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling for 20 years. Lange retired in 2016 and is currently working on a memoir entitled “Civil Service Confidential: Witness to Waste,” which is based upon his 28 years as an employee of the City of New York Department of Sanitation and the five mayoral administrations under which he served. He can be reached at [email protected].

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