Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Lunch, Landfills and What I Tossed
IT was warm and sunny on a recent Tuesday and the lunchtime crowd in Bryant Park was in full swarm. Hundreds of Midtown workers sat on the grass or at round outdoor tables sunbathing, talking on cellphones and typing away on laptops.
But mostly they ate — sushi, pizza, chicken pesto salads, turkey club sandwiches — and much of their food came in plastic containers that had no place to go but into the trash.
As any befuddled, frustrated and guilt-ridden environmentally conscious New Yorker knows, takeout food and its containers — salad bar and deli clamshells; plastic cups and utensils; yogurt containers; fancy three-compartment bento boxes — are the bane of this city’s would-be recyclers. They might reuse plastic shopping bags until they rip and religiously bundle every newspaper and magazine for recycling pickup, only to be undone by lunch.
“There’s nothing I can do,” said Doug Richardson, 25, an accountant eating a chicken salad from a deep plastic bowl. “It annoys me. It’s plastic in a landfill.”
Environmental advocates call recycling the weak link in the city’s green agenda, even after legislation was passed last year to overhaul the 1989 recycling law that made New York a 20th-century leader, not a laggard.
How far behind is the city? A survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council this year found that more than two dozen large and medium-size cities in the United States recycle all kinds of plastic containers, while New York takes only bottles and jugs. Another study this year, sponsored by Siemens AG, the global electronics and electrical engineering company, ranked New York 16th among 27 cities in its handling of waste, though it was third in overall environmental performance.
By now, other cities require recyclable or compostable takeout containers and utensils at restaurants — and bins in which to dispose of them. Cutting-edge green cities, like San Francisco, offer curbside collection of food scraps and compostable items at homes, restaurants and offices. And dozens of places now charge residents for their trash by weight to promote recycling and keep refuse out of landfills.
New York, meanwhile, is going backward: it now recycles about 15 percent of the waste collected by the Sanitation Department, which is primarily from residences, down from a peak of 23 percent in 2001. And while city officials have said they are reviewing so-called “pay as you throw” systems, there is no indication that the city might adopt one.
“This issue is simply not getting the attention it deserves,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. “They’ve treated their recycling operation like the after-school clarinet program.”
Environmental advocates suspect a lack of commitment from City Hall. After all, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has tackled idling trucks, dirty boilers and even smokers who foul the air, but in 2002, to save money, he temporarily cut back on curbside collection of recyclables.
Caswell Holloway, Mr. Bloomberg’s new deputy mayor for operations and a former commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said, however, that while recycling faced significant hurdles, a lack of commitment was not one of them.
“The mayor recognizes that a sustainable New York City means that we need to come up with ways to deal with waste,” Mr. Holloway said. “The clock is running on landfills.”
That said, he added, “We could do better.”
We all could. The amount of nonrecyclable waste generated by just one New Yorker can be stunning, as I found out. Saving all the packaging from a week’s worth of takeout food, I ended up with three plastic yogurt containers, a paper salad box, a paper cereal bowl, two Styrofoam plates, one plastic salad-dressing container and seven plastic food containers — the rigid ones with snap-on lids. Also, five plastic cups (each with a plastic straw), a paper cup with a plastic lid, a plastic water bottle and a plain old paper cup (it held milk for my cereal). Also, one plastic fork, one plastic knife and two compostable plastic spoons, which I threw out rather than composting.
And to carry all that food I used three paper trays and a handful of plastic bags.
But change is on the way, Mr. Holloway said. To increase recycling capacity, the city has entered into long-term contracts and is building new infrastructure, like a 100,000-square-foot recycling plant at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in Sunset Park. At the same time, he said, a recently convened team from the Sanitation Department, the mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, and his office is looking at how to divert more waste from landfills.
They’ve got their work cut out for them.
NEW YORK CITY produces more than 14 million tons of waste a year, and city officials say that roughly half of it is recycled. But most of that is dirt from the construction and demolition industry, which accounts for half of all solid waste.
Recycling efforts are less successful in the two categories that account for the other half of the city’s waste: trash collected from businesses and commercial buildings, which use private haulers to handle it, and residential, government and institutional customers served by the Sanitation Department.
One issue is behavior. City officials say residents sort less than half of all materials that could be recycled; most items are improperly discarded in the trash. Both convenient recycling and the tracking of scofflaws are daunting because of the nature of housing in the city — tall multifamily buildings with large numbers of occupants. (And many residents blame confusing recycling rules.)
The city has less information on commercial recycling, but officials say most businesses, too, are not capturing as much as they could for recycling.
Last year, the City Council passed legislation to require the recycling of rigid plastics — all those containers for yogurt or Chinese takeout, as well as others like medicine bottles and flower pots — and divert 8,000 more tons of plastic from landfills and incinerators each year. But that expansion hinges not just on the opening of the new recycling plant, but also on an assessment of costs.
Still, city officials say that it is more expensive to recycle than to send trash to landfills and incinerators for disposal, and that they have to weigh those costs against environmental goals.
The city also has to give people somewhere to put their recyclables, especially out on the streets. With the heaviest pedestrian traffic in the country, New York has only 500 recycling bins on streets and in parks, compared with about 25,000 wastebaskets. Sanitation Department officials say that to keep costs down, they place the bins mostly in areas along existing collection routes, where volunteers from the community help by replacing and storing bags when they fill up. The new recycling laws approved by the City Council last year call for an expansion, but only to 1,000 recycling bins in public spaces — by 2020.
“I used to live in San Francisco, and there were containers for trash, compost, plastic and glass and paper,” said Yana Rachovska, 26, an architect who now lives in Astoria, Queens. “It was citywide. We had no choice.”
Things are even worse underground in the subways and on commuter rail platforms. Two years ago, a blue-ribbon commission convened by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority recommended better and more uniform recycling on subway and train platforms. But not much has changed, some commission members said. And recycling efforts are far from uniform. Metro-North stations, for example, have recycling bins, but Long Island Rail Road stations do not.
Officials of New York City Transit, the agency within the transportation authority that operates the subways and buses, say that the city’s 468 subway stations are too crowded and spread out for extra bins and that the expense of managing them would be prohibitive. The officials said all subway trash was sent to a processing plant in New Jersey to be sorted through, in a system known as post-collection recycling.
Post-collection, however, is considered a less reliable method of recovering materials like paper that can be easily soiled by other trash, and those materials make up half of the recyclables collected at subway stations.
Michael G. Zacchea, the operations officer who oversees “asset recovery” for the transit system, said about half of the waste from the subways was recycled, but environmental groups and some public officials expressed skepticism.
“There’s just no way that the quality of the paper is going to be usable,” said City Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, a Manhattan Democrat, who has been pressing the transportation authority to provide recycling bins on subway platforms.
“You see everybody getting into the stations with the newspaper and their coffee,” she said. “It drives me crazy.”
The inconsistencies of New York’s recycling test visitors as well. One tourist from Redwood City, Calif., Dawn E. Garcia, wrote on her Facebook page after her visit last summer:
“At the end of an entertaining week as a tourist in New York City, I loved it BUT I have one burning question: Why don’t New Yorkers recycle?”
Ms. Garcia, 52, the deputy director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, said she had wanted to throw away a plastic water bottle during a walk to the Museum of Modern Art from her hotel near Grand Central Terminal — some 15 blocks — but could not find a recycling bin along the way.
“I was just surprised how many places don’t have them,” she said. “I’m loath to drop a can or water bottle in the trash, and I was walking a long time with that water bottle.
“When you ask people, they give you this blank stare. ‘Recycling?’ ”
Indeed, one of the major reasons to have recycling bins on streets and in transit hubs is not to divert waste — they capture just a fraction of a city’s total waste stream — but to build the recycling habit and reinforce the message that recyclables are not really garbage.
“It wouldn’t make sense to say, ‘At work and at home you put your recyclables in one bin, but on the street throw everything away,’ ” said Timothy Croll, solid waste director for Seattle Public Utilities. “Then people start to get confused.”
Seattle has 682 public trash cans on its streets, and more than half of those, 351, have a recycling bin for aluminum cans, plastic bottles and paper parked next to them, city officials there said.
In San Francisco, everyone, including people in charge of restaurants and offices, must separate refuse among three bins: recyclables (paper, glass, metal and most plastics), compostables (food scraps, paper food wrappers and yard waste) and trash. San Francisco also bans plastic foam containers for takeout food, and plastic bags at large supermarkets and chain pharmacies. And like dozens of the nation’s largest cities, it has instituted a system that charges residents for the trash they throw out. “A lot of people are motivated by money,” said Juliana Bryant, zero waste coordinator for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.
And when it comes to composting, New York really lags. In San Francisco, residents dump the contents of their kitchen compost pails into compostable bags and then into green bins for weekly pickup by the city.
In New York, there is no curbside collection of food scraps, the largest single component of residential waste. Instead, New Yorkers with no backyards who are committed enough to compost typically either freeze their food waste until they can drop it off at a greenmarket or other collection site, or keep worm bins in their homes to do it themselves.
Commercial food waste is an even bigger missed opportunity, city officials said in this year’s progress report of PlaNYC, the mayor’s environmental agenda. About 600,000 tons of food are thrown away each year by restaurants, grocery stores, hotels and other businesses and institutions. The closest facility to process food waste for composting is 150 miles from the city.
The study released this summer by Siemens AG found that while New York trailed only San Francisco and Vancouver in overall green efforts like improving air quality and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, it trailed most other cities in the study in managing waste because it relies primarily on awareness campaigns rather than direct incentives for waste reduction. But environmental groups working to improve recycling rates say any laws must be accompanied by measures to enable people to comply with those laws, simple steps like providing color-coded bins to minimize confusion about where items go, and more costly actions like finding or creating more facilities that can process recyclables.
One such effort is under way in New York by food service chains like Starbucks and Pret A Manger. Under a pilot program with the environmental organization Global Green, the restaurants are collecting soiled coffee cups, sleeves, salad boxes and other paper packaging separately, to test whether they can be recycled.
Annie White, director of the project for Global Green, said results so far were promising — customers were using the right bins, the stores did not find the collections a burden, and many paper mills were interested in the test, though none were actually recycling the materials commercially yet. She said the pilot was expanding to 150 storefronts over the next year, from the initial 10, and was expected to serve as a national model.
“This is material that previously hasn’t been collected,” she said, “but there’s strong demand for fiber.”
RESTAURANTS, of which New York has 24,000, say their customers are demanding more recycling.
The Green Restaurant Association has about 80 certified members in the city, which can earn different star ratings based on their environmental efforts, like reducing energy consumption in dishwashing or hiring companies to compost their food waste.
But collection efforts are still minimal in the “front of the house.” While some chains, like Le Pain Quotidien (a Green Restaurant Association member), compost their own food waste and offer compostable utensils and containers made of recycled paperboard, they do not collect the materials separately, so there is nowhere for these materials to go except the trash bin. There, they will eventually break down and release the greenhouse gas methane along with other organic decay; and they will not be recovered as compost that could be turned into fertilizer.
“A compostable packaging needs to go to a composting facility to be a good environmental choice,” Ms. White said.
Other restaurants are encouraging reuse with discounts and freebies. Just Salad, a New York City chain with seven outlets in Manhattan, sells a special reusable plastic salad bowl for $1 and gives customers two free toppings every time they use it.
Nick Kenner, a managing partner of the chain, said the bowl was a big hit. “One out of four walk-in customers brings back the bowl,” he said.
One of those customers, Stan Shargordosky, 38, a software engineer recently refilling his salad bowl at the West 37th Street store, explained, “I don’t want my plastic bowl to end up in a landfill and take 500 years to decompose.”
Peter Noce, 27, an accountant in Midtown eating a sandwich and carrots with hummus in Bryant Park recently, takes matters into his own hands, bringing food in his own Tupperware plastic container that he takes back home to Long Island for reuse.
“I bring it back, wash it, try to be green,” he said.
Mr. Noce also takes home his plastic water bottles to redeem them for a nickel at the grocery store. “There’s a lot of waste in general. I’m a nonwaster.”