Virtual Reduction

EACH OF NEW YORK CITY's 8 million men, women and children produces and tosses out 4.5 pounds of trash per day. That adds up to 18,000 tons of waste per day — a lot of trash for a city with no landfills.

To reduce these astonishing numbers, the city's Department of Sanitation has launched an informational Web site. The site,, offers information tailored to the habits of individuals, businesses and government agencies.

The department has been using the Internet for nearly a decade to jawbone people and organizations into reducing trash. In the mid-1990s, the department acquired a $40,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C. The funding was made available under the federal Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA), which sets aside money to promote waste minimization exchange.

“The idea was to create a mechanism to transfer information so that people could improve the way they handle waste,” says Rick Cahill, a spokesman in the EPA's New York office.

New York's original Web site targeted businesses. Then in 2000, Robert Lange, director of the Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, decided to add information on the site for individuals and government agencies.

Lange hoped to raise awareness about waste issues and provide ideas for reducing waste. Avoiding government terminology, Lange opted for an engaging, informal style of writing combined with surprising facts and cartoon illustrations.

For example, the introduction on reducing household organic waste begins with another shocking statistic: New York City residents discard more than 1 million tons of organic waste each year. The section concludes by inviting readers to “get all the dirt on composting in New York City” by visiting the NYC Compost Project, a link that details organic waste disposal options.

The site also offers entertaining features, such as inviting readers to count the number of paper towels they use during a week. The site then calculates how much waste would be produced if everyone in the city had the same habit. Entering 10 paper towels yields the result: 44,246 tons per year.

In the section about reducing waste in government, another calculator tallies how much a government agency or office saves by using both sides of a sheet of paper when photocopying. A 10-person office using 60 cartons of paper per year could reduce paper costs by one-third and eliminate more than a ton of wasted paper.

Each section on the Web site offers a series of virtual tours. In the business section, for instance, a retailer can click on the picture of a store and receive waste reduction advice by running the cursor over various elements of the store: shelves, floors, stock room and office. The business section likewise recommends new waste-reduction ideas.

One case history in this section notes that a Brooklyn baker accumulated large quantities of corrugated cardboard boxes from deliveries. After finding a nearby business interested in buying the boxes, the baker cut its purchasing costs by $2,500, raising profits per sale by $300, or about 10 times the return that conventional recycling would provide.

But why go to the trouble of creating an interactive Web site instead of just telling people to quit using all those paper towels, photocopying paper and packaging? “Waste prevention is an intangible idea,” Lange explains. “It's difficult to change the way people think and act. It took 10 to 15 years to get people to understand that we had a recycling program and what the requirements were.”

Moreover, the Web site continually operates without creating waste of its own. “Over the years, we have produced a lot of paper literature,” Lange says. “Every time something changed, we had to re-do the printing. On the Web, we don't have to print anything, and we can update the material quickly and easily.”

One challenge, however, is judging the site's effectiveness. “There is no way to measure what we have prevented,” Lange says. “That's one of the conundrums of the waste field.” Nevertheless, he has set up a system for tracking site interest. During February, the first month during which site activity could be tracked, 33,000 New Yorkers “clicked” and looked around. Not counting the welcome page and home page, the section for individuals was visited the most, followed closely by the business section, and then the government section.

In addition to purely educational Web pages, the instructional sections also were popular, especially one that describes how individuals can donate used items such as furniture, cars and computers. Recycling tips for individuals ranked fifth in popularity. A section advising government agencies on reducing toxic waste placed 10th.

According to Lange, the site has attracted the attention of other cities. Santa Monica, for example, recently questioned Lange about the site. And the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., is developing a teleconferenced seminar on the New York City site for its members.

Overall, Lange hopes that interest in waste reduction and recycling in the virtual world will lead to cleaning up the real world. If each man, woman and child that clicks onto New York City's Web site cuts waste, just think how many tons of trash they could prevent, he says.