info 05.14.12

Wretched Refuse
Recycling in NYC: A 5-Part Series
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"A small admixture of cans, bottles, and berry-boxes entails extra expense for separation, but is not prohibitory of the process, while any such mixture as we have in New York to-day, of ashes, garbage, and a little of everything, is prohibitory. Garbage must be separated from everything else to be effectively and properly treated, and the other things must be separated from garbage to find, in their turn, any useful outlet."

That's from Street-Cleaning And the Disposal of a City's Wastes: Methods and Results and the Effect Upon Public Health, Public Morals, and Municipal Prosperity by George E. Waring, Jr., the Commissioner of Street Cleaning in the City of New York. Published in 1898.

In 2012, we're still wondering what to do about the berry boxes. (Question from MUG reader: "Are the clear plastic containers that we get with strawberries, take out food, etc. recyclable?") And we have a garbage problem that's worse than ever.

The EPA estimates [PDF] that the average amount of trash of every American is 4.43 pounds per person, per day.

As Edward Humes points out in his excellent new book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, that number is almost certainly wrong. BioCycle, with the Earth Engineering Center of Columbia University, in their 17th annual The State of Garbage in America [PDF] report, puts the number at 7.1 pounds of trash a day—and they make a persuasive case for their methodology.

The EPA says the national recycling rate is 34.1%. New York City's recycling rate in 2011 was a dismal 15%, down from a high of 19% in 2002.

NYC spends over one billion dollars [PDF] a year to manage solid waste. Now that Fresh Kills is closed, we're spending $300 million of that budget to haul the 3.3 million tons of garbage to out-of-state landfills.

Major metropolitan areas have moved the garbage out—yet the problems exacerbated by landfills, wherever they are, still affect us directly. Landfills, with their effluvia of methane and carbon dioxide, have been a factor in the 70% increase in worldwide gas emissions between 1970 and 2004, according to the EPA [PDF]:

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is likely due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations associated with anthropogenic sources, including the extraction, processing, use and disposal of materials.

As a planet, we've done a good job of developing technologies, processes and products with benefits we understand—nuclear reactors, deep-water drilling, single-use plastic bags, to name three—that carry hazards we have understood poorly or underestimated, and consequences we are unprepared to remedy. And yet, inevitably, the ground shifts beneath the unthinkable, the unsinkable sinks.

There are, fortunately, plenty of smart people on the case. Current thinking on the garbage problem has moved toward materials management, as opposed to waste management. The idea is to consider the total environmental impact as we move along the resources, extraction, production, distribution, and waste chain.

The larger picture includes, but is not limited to, recycling. Extended producer responsibility, some of the ideas behind the zero waste and cradle to grave philosophies, and perhaps waste-to-energy processes will figure in the mix that finally addresses the scale of the problem. Encouraging reuse, reducing consumption, waste, and toxicity, incentivizing recycling, and increasing resource recovery—those are the marching orders.

Meanwhile, recycling. Maybe not the whole answer, surely a part of the solution. Tomorrow, What Goes Where, part two in our Recycling in NYC series, where we reveal, once and for all, where the berry boxes go.

Comments? Please have at it on the MUG blog.

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