info 05.17.12

Is NYC Doing Enough?
Recycling in NYC: A 5-Part Series

Is NYC doing all it could for the environment? The short answer is no, though that would apply to any place in America, including green stars like San Francisco and Portland.

The scale of the garbage problem, or in a larger sense the materials problem, far exceeds the ability of any one of us, or any one city to surmount. What's needed are national—and international—initiatives that confront the scope of our environmental challenges. Residential waste recycling isn't the least of it, but it's not the bulk of it, either.

The major question is where we're going to find, or how we're going to create, the political will to make meaningful change.

For New York's part, under Mayor Bloomberg, we're doing pretty well.

Surprised? Siemens' Green City Index, which compares 27 North American cities across 31 data points—things like CO2 emissions, promotion of green energy, transit, green space, water and air quality, and waste management—ranks New York #3 behind San Francisco and Vancouver.

Many New Yorkers give the Mayor high marks for his focus on environmental issues, particularly from 2007 on, after introducing the thoughtful, foresighted PlaNYC, looking to New York in 2030.

Both the downturn in the economy and resistance to some of the proposals means there's still a long way to go. The Mayor, though, will be credited with calling attention to the issue (PlaNYC is subtitled A Greener, Greater New York) as well as for genuine accomplishments and milestones under his watch. Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, wrote that Mayor Bloomberg is New York's first sustainability mayor.

On the plus side in recent years: big strides in the effort to plant a million trees, of having every New Yorker within a 10-minute walk of a park, more pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, improved efficiency in new buildings, moving more City-collected waste by rail (and eventually barge) instead of truck, the construction of a large-scale recycling processing facility in Brooklyn.

The City has redoubled efforts to monitor and protect drinking water and protect the watershed. Mayor Bloomberg's position on fracking is a little more… nuanced. He's for it, if it's outside the NYC watershed—a pretty big slice of NIMBY, huh?

This is not to suggest that it's been all successes. Bloomberg's Waste to Energy Plan faces a lot of criticism. Congestion pricing was a non-starter. Waste management in general, and recycling in particular, have not fared as well.

As we noted on Monday, in 2011 New York City's recycling rate was a dismal 15%, down from a high of 19% in 2002. You get the sense of ambivalence about the value of recycling from the City, stemming from the two-year suspension, beginning in 2002, of plastic and glass recycling, blamed on a budget deficit.

Walking on city streets or going down into the subway only reinforces that sense of low priority. According to Sanitation's list [PDF] there are approximately 350 sites around the five boroughs with recycling receptacles. That is shameful, considering that there are over 400 subway stations alone.

Sanitation seems stuck in a can't-do mindset. One staff analyst in the department told us proudly, "No literature of ours says Recycling Saves the Planet." We admire the precision, if not the spirit or the efficacy.

Yes, people can be lulled into thinking that only recycling saves the planet, that that's all we need to do, when that is not all we need to do. It's true that the recycling of residential waste, even if it could be 100%, would not solve our waste problem. Again, we need large-scale solutions that include residential recycling.

However, symbols have value. More public recycling bins would be an important statement by the City about New York's commitment to the environment. A cultural shift from material profligacy to greater responsibility—business, governmental, civic, and individual—needs top-down flag planting in addition to work from the grassroots.

Read MUG tomorrow for another way that we New Yorkers could send a powerful message around the country.

Comments? Head over to MUG's blog.

Part One of Recycling in NYC:
Wretched Refuse

Part Two of Recycling in NYC:
What Goes Where

Part Three of Recycling in NYC:
Plastics 101

The Bowery (from 2010)

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