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

Robert Lange, Commissioner

March 29, 2018

5 Min Read
At the Core of the Big Apple: The Trivialization of Solid Waste Management Public Policy (Part Three)
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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 two, click here.

Enter the Czar.

As the City Council law of 2010 allowed, the deputy mayor hired a “Recycling Czar” in 2012 to oversee the transformation of recycling at DSNY and rebrand the effort as “Recycling and Sustainability.” The new Czar, cut from the same cloth as the tailors and their garments in the Hans Christian Andersen tale "The Emperor’s New Clothes," for almost 23 months of his tenure, promised the public that all things were possible if one only believed. Yet several years after the Czar was dethroned as a result of a change in mayoral administrations, the diversion needle remains in essentially the same place it was before his arrival. The legacy that remains from that brief period is the distortion of critical thinking created by compelling rhetoric and magical thinking. Intelligent people, both in and out of the government, began to believe that certain things were possible in the area of recycling and solid waste management even when direct feedback from operations and fiscal management experts ran contrary to those beliefs.

New York City’s current mayor has both accepted and embraced the closet of garments bequeathed to him by the former deputy mayor’s hired tailor. This has left him exposed, promoting and expanding programs destined for failure. The misfortune for NYC taxpayers is that, while mayors normally have to allocate resources based on financial constraints (which both prioritizes program funding and hones critical thinking skills), the current mayor possesses an excess of tax revenues, thanks to the recent stock market rises and healthy economy. The current collection of food waste by DSNY continues even when less than 20 percent of the households in a participating neighborhood set out any food waste weekly. This costs $2,500 to $5,000 per ton for collection and more than $100 per ton for acceptance and processing compared to the small fraction of this cost per ton represented by the combined cost of garbage collection and disposal. An infrastructure to accept and properly process the small amount of heavily contaminated food waste collected lags many years, if not decades, behind. At the same time, the quality of DSNY collection service previously enjoyed by all New Yorkers has been seriously compromised as management struggles to balance curbside food waste collection expansion with the efficiency of its regular operations. Regrettably for New York City taxpayers, the city’s robust economy, thanks to both the substantial development that was set in motion during the Bloomberg years as well as the health of the national economy, has allowed this inefficient and costly food waste collection program to continue, long past its useful lifespan and demonstrated failure both operationally and as an environmental program. 

The cover of the One New York: The Plan for a Strong and Just City projects a bucolic scene of a child running in Central Park, playing under the watchful eye of his caring mother. This image brings to mind a child who runs after an escaped kite, a child who has not yet fully grasped the fact that the kite is now lost to him, forever. That image encapsulates the content of the nearly 400 glossy, full-color and handsomely illustrated pages of the plan.   This is a plan that has escaped the grasp of its naiveté with regard to meeting challenges and solving problems, particularly in the area of solid waste management.

There are seven “Initiatives” that make up the Zero Waste section of the OneNYC Plan, which taken together are meant to achieve the goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030. Professionals in the area of solid waste management know these initiatives are implausible for achieving anything near zero waste. While not practical from a solid waste management standpoint, they do brilliantly summarize the Seven Commandments of the Elders of Environmental Advocacy in New York City. 

  • Initiative 1: Expand the New York City organics program to serve all New Yorkers by the end of 2018

  • Initiative 2: Enhance the city’s curbside recycling program by offering single stream recycling by 2020

  • Initiative 3: Reduce the use of plastic bags and other non-compostable waste

  • Initiative 4: Give every New Yorker the opportunity to recycle and reduce waste, including NYCHA housing

  • Initiative 5: Make all schools zero waste schools

  • Initiative 6: Expand opportunities to reuse and recycle textiles and electronic waste

  • Initiative 7: Develop an equitable blueprint for a save-as-you-throw program to reduce waste

To use an overused cliché, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This definition is also an apt way to describe the manner in which the government frequently develops public policy.

Almost all of the initiatives proposed have been tried and have fallen far short, both politically and operationally, of the expressed goal of zero waste. What the seven initiatives demonstrate is that while increasing the amount of post-consumer waste recycled by residents, institutions and businesses remains as challenging as it was three decades ago, recycling and reusing former ideas remains a robust practice.   

The government cannot develop responsible and successful solid waste management public policies when it is inordinately influenced by outside forces without direct experience in and deep understanding of the field. It is simply irresponsible and wasteful to repeat strategies that have been tried and failed more than once in the past and promote an expected different outcome. It is imperative that municipalities cease overlooking the sole factor determining success or failure in responsible solid waste management policy: the role of human nature as the first determining factor in diversion rates from the waste stream.

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].

About the Author(s)

Robert Lange

Commissioner, Solid Waste Management Authority, North Hempstead, L.I.

Robert Lange was the prime architect of New York City's recycling program and the director of the Department of Sanitation’s recycling program for 20 years. Prior to leaving city service, Lange was responsible for the Office of Beneficial Reuse Planning, Infrastructure Development & Management, within the Bureau of Solid Waste Management of the New York City Department of Sanitation. He recently accepted a position as the Commissioner of a Solid Waste Authority on Long Island. 


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