In New York City, where on a daily basis, more than 250,000 businesses generate more than 9,000 tons of waste, the rules of commercial recycling have changed. And, as of August 1, 2017, enforcement begins.
While the city says the rules make it easier for businesses to comply, some haulers say it is still difficult for commercial businesses to navigate the rules and do the right thing in terms of recycling.
“The city’s goal is to make recycling consistent at home, at work and at play,” says Bridget Anderson, Deputy Commissioner, Recycling and Sustainability, NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY). “Commercial recycling rules used to be different from the residential rules. Now they are consistent.”
Not everyone agrees.
“I don’t know how fair it is to compare what you and I do in our houses separating a couple of bottles here and there and couple piles of newspapers, with a building that’s 90 stories tall with 800 different companies,” Action Environmental Group CEO Ron Bergamini, J.D. Whether that makes it easier for people is whole other animal.”
As the city’s largest commercial recycler, Action has long supported recycling, Bergamini says, but he is reserving judgement on whether it’s appropriate to expect the same results at home and at work—especially in New York City.
The recycling rules came about as part of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. The new rules, published in February of 2016, explain specifically what commercial businesses can recycle and how. They came with a one-year warning period, which comes to a close Aug. 1.
Based on a review of official reports from the approximately 30 NYC waste and recycling facilities primarily handling commercial waste (i.e. non-residential waste) located within the five boroughs, the labor union-backed Transform Don’t Trash NYC found that the industry recycles less than a quarter (22 percent) of the commercial waste stream. Last August, DSNY also recommended that the city move ahead with implementing commercial waste collection zones.
The one-year warning period for the new commercial recycling rules has been a busy time for DSNY, which has conducted more than 9,700 outreach site visits to businesses and 75 training sessions for more than 1,700 representatives to help them comply with the laws, says Anderson.
All businesses in New York City are required to recycle certain materials and ensure to their best ability that those materials are properly handled by their private hauler.
The law requires businesses to update their recycling policies to include better labeling and proper separation of recyclables—either source separated or single stream. In fact, the rule changes make it illegal to mix recyclables with trash, and for haulers to do so.
But is this rule change the right move to increase the commercial recycling rate in the city?
“I think the recycling rate is a metric that folks worship a little unnecessarily,” says Bergamini. “It’s one metric that stands out and it’s an easy one, so I think we overuse that, frankly…. But overall I don’t think (the rule) is a bad idea conceptually, but again, it’s a lot easier from the cheap seats,” he says.
There are challenges, he adds.
“I suspect we’re in chapter one of this story,” Bergamini says. “What I hear from the field are lots of questions. We certainly, in the last five or six weeks, we’re fielding, I want to say, 50 percent more calls than usual. Folks are interested. They’re trying. Most people I find try to do what’s asked of them here.”
“Businesses want to comply and we have had productive conversations, trainings and site visits,” she says.
As with any broad change in rules, the start of the enforcement phase for the updated commercial recycling regulations will identify what works, and what needs additional focus, says Kendall Christiansen, executive director, New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, an association of locally-owned and operated waste and recycling service companies—including haulers and processors.
“This update places the primary burden on all businesses to properly separate designated recyclables and make arrangements for their collection; the city’s service providers are making adjustments to their collection systems, as well as to their processing facilities to ensure that properly separated recyclables are managed and find their way to markets,” Christiansen says.
Recycling of commercial waste has a long history in New York, in the modern era dating back to the regulations adopted in 1992, and to the market-dictated recycling that has always occurred with scrap metals, office paper and other materials, says Christiansen.
However, he adds, the broad array of businesses in a city like New York—ranging from small storefronts like nail and hair salons to massive office buildings—coupled with a steady decline in office paper and the diversion of beverage containers in a bottle-bill state will require creative approaches that increase effective diversion while minimizing collection costs.
Bergamini agrees glass is a problem as the area lacks a regular outlet for glass.
“So if I were in charge I would cross glass off the list,” he says.
But he gets that doing so could turn those who are recycling away from the process.
“What happens when people find out that glass isn’t being recycled in a meaningful way is I think it detracts from the whole law, frankly,” Bergamini adds. “It gives people less confidence and respect for it. You do get a lot of that in office buildings I think. Is it really making its way or is it somewhere along the way getting mixed in. So the cynicism of New Yorkers is alive and well.”
Bergamini says he’s talked to policy makers about it and while they recognize the problem they don’t have solution.
Additionally, Action Environmental in some cases is sending three trucks—composting, trash and recycling—to service a building, which he says seems counterintuitive to thinking environmentally.
With the composting rule, which has been enforceable for a year now, he says there is inconsistency in how it’s interpreted.
Small businesses tend to be concerned about enforcement as the $100 to $200 ticket matters. And while haulers aren’t ticketed, Bergamini says they hear about it.
“Make no mistake; we’re the ones they call, and they try to pawn it off on us,” he says. “And maybe sometimes it is our responsibility, but we’re sort of sitting back on this one with our fingers crossed and waiting to see what happens. I try to look at the glass half full most of the time, but I expect there to be some issues regardless. I think the good news is people are certainly willing to try.”
Christiansen says haulers are, too.
“Our members are working with the city to ensure a smooth transition that achieves the city’s environmental goals. As we are the front-line service providers, we also expect to play a critical role in problem-solving as the enforcement period begins,” he says.