Can Single-Stream Recycling Work in NYC?

Great Forest’s Amy Marpman recently spoke with City Limits about NYC’s current recycling system in a piece that explores the city’s single-stream recycling ambitions.

There are many factors that can affect how well a recycling program is working.

Single-stream recycling is more convenient for the average person and we know that making recycling easy to accomplish does work.  But it has trade-offs, as discussed in this recent NPR story,  because “…you can’t unscramble an egg.”

Some fear that single-stream may increase volume of materials collected for recycling, but not quality.  Estimates are that about a quarter of single-stream recycling may end up in the landfill because of contamination.

For commercial office buildings, single stream will not necessarily increase recycling rates, especially since GMP (glass, metal and plastic) makes up a small percentage of total building material by weight.  Even if 100% of all recyclable materials are captured, the recycling rate could remain steady.

Moreover, many haulers now cart away commercial recyclables in the same truck (bagged separately), so switching over to a single stream requirement would not require any major operational changes for a commercial building.

The key point to remember is that whatever system is in place, education, training and monitoring is essential. Every office will have different recycling challenges that can be overcome with planning.

City Limits’s series on trash in NYC brings up some interesting issues about the move towards the new OneNYC plan (formerly PlaNYC). We will keep you updated.

The City Limits article on single-stream offers a great overview of the recycling challenges facing the city, reminding us of some interesting facts:

Ever since it became law in 1989, recycling in New York has been a struggle. In 1996, Mayor Rudy Giuliani called the recycling law “absurd” and “irresponsible”…

The commercial diversion rate (in NYC) is believed to be around 25 percent.

The rate of residential material diverted from the city’s waste stream… has remained stagnant between 15 and 16 percent in recent years.

(In NYC), the net cost to collect metal, glass and plastic will be $75 per ton as compared to a minimum of $90 per ton for exporting to landfills… however, when it comes to paper, the city actually makes money. The city is projected to earn $11 per ton of paper collected.

Paper is one of the most consistently valuable commodities for the city. For that reason, there is some concern about how paper will fare in single-stream recycling.

Single stream recycling would presumably make the process easier, but it may not change the minds of those who don’t care about participating in any kind of program.

Recycling rates have always varied among community districts—with participation highest in Manhattan and lowest in the Bronx—for reasons which even academics can’t quite explain.

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