Mixed Results: Why the City’s Trash Industry Mostly Flunks Recycling

Home Brooklyn Life Mixed Results: Why the City’s Trash Industry Mostly Flunks Recycling
Mixed Results: Why the City’s Trash Industry Mostly Flunks Recycling


Last month, the Transform Don’t Trash coalition—a group that includes several environmental and legal organizations in the city—published a report called ‘Not At Your Service.’ The report studied waste collection and disposal agencies serving small businesses in the city and threw up some startling facts about the inefficiency and lack of transparency that plagues New York’s trash-management sector.

Interestingly, it also highlighted the fact that recycling can be selective. In theory, recyclable waste is supposed to be separated at source and then sent to recycling centers, while the rest is trucked to a landfill. But levels of waste separation vary wildly depending on the material. According to the report, while only a small section of businesses separate their plastic, paper, and glass (between 26 and 38 percent), an overwhelming majority—around 91 percent—made it a point to separate their cardboard.

The reason? Profit. Cardboard is more valuable, which means there’s more of an incentive to recycle it. This discrepancy reflects an interesting dynamic within the city’s recycling industry. While many discuss the environmental benefits of repurposing waste, there are strong economic factors in the mix as well. This is especially the case in the commercial sector, since unlike residential trash—which is the responsibility of the Department of Sanitation—waste generated by commercial establishments is collected and disposed of by private haulers. Different categories of waste have different market values and ones that benefit haulers and recyclers more are often given priority.

Take the case of cardboard, for instance. There is a huge demand for North American waste cardboard in China, since recycling it is a cheaper alternative to producing fresh cardboard packaging for its manufacturing industry. Justin Wood, an environment justice organizer with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (a member of Transform Don’t Trash), explained that these factors often influence the performance of city waste haulers. “One big issue we’ve seen with commercial collection in NYC is that there’s a very short-term outlook. Cardboard has historically been one of the more valuable materials, and we’ve seen that it’s separated more than other waste categories. From what the businesses we surveyed told us—and this is consistent with what the city found in its last survey—private haulers consistently ask customers to separate cardboard because it’s profitable to them. On the other hand, glass, plastic, and food waste are often mixed in with garbage that’s sent to a landfill,” he said.

In fact, there is a thriving business in salvaging cardboard—in some cases, illegally. Back in 2012, three men were arrested in New Jersey for just that; a story published in City Lab details how they collected waste cardboard from loading docks while pretending to be licensed haulers, eventually making off with about 900 tons in three months—valued at $103,000 dollars.

On the other hand, metal, glass, and plastic—collectively referred to as MGP waste—is generally not seen as a priority. According to Transform Don’t Trash’s report, only 26 percent of businesses separate glass, 39 separate plastic, and 38 separate paper. Brigid Flaherty, the coordinator of the Transform Don’t Trash campaign, said, “We know that given the waste stream, we could be recycling as much as 90 percent of the waste we generate—but the majority of it still goes to the landfill. Even when small business owners separate their waste, they don’t know whether haulers are following through with recycling it. Right now, it really is only profitable to recycle cardboard and the market is not giving good prices on MGP.” Haulers, she added, are less inclined to separate these materials for recycling, since they’re paid more to transport the waste to a landfill.

The issue of incentive is clearly a critical one in New York’s waste management sector, and seems to tilt against the recycling of metal, plastic, and glass. However, there is a community that makes money off recycling those materials—the city’s canners. The canner community collects bottles and cans from specific brands; as per New York’s Bottle Bill, they can redeem each piece for 5 cents.

Ana Martinez de Luco, the co-founder of a recycling center in Brooklyn, explained that there is a thriving industry around this practice: “According to the Bottle Bill, bottles and cans are sold with a five-cent deposit. This is paid by the customer and they can redeem it later by returning the bottle to the store. But because it’s only 5 cents, most people just throw it in the garbage. Canners simply pick up what others discard and bring it to centers like this to redeem the 5 cents.”

Bottles being stored at Sure We Can, in Brooklyn
Bottles stored at Sure We Can, on McKibbin Street in Brooklyn. (Kavya Balaraman/The Brooklyn Ink)


Martinez de Luco’s recycling center, called Sure We Can, caters to over 350 canners and receives thousands of bottles and cans daily. At the center, they are sorted according to brand and then sent back to distributors for re-bottling. There is very little data as to the size of the industry, but she estimates that there are more than 10,000 canners in New York.

Wood believes that the canning sector is a great example of incentive aligning with environment-friendly practices. “That deposit is an incentive and because of it, you see more waste being kept out of the landfill,” he said. As for metal, glass and plastic waste? “We really want to see a similar system that incentivizes businesses to produce less waste and separate it,” Wood said.  “But right now, it’s sort of free for all.”



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.