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As recycling rates stagnate and the city lags behind on its waste reduction goals, New York residents and activists told how they can catch up at a solid waste hearing Tuesday.
During the New York City Council Sanitation and Waste Disposal Committee hearing, speakers called for the city and its Sanitation Department to allocate more resources to public recycling education, advocated more organic waste collection programs, and suggested ways to include contributions from underserved residents.
In 2015, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to reduce landfill by 90% by 2030, but the city has been slow to meet that goal, speakers at the hearing said.
Several speakers raised particular concerns about what they see as a lackluster curbside recycling diversion rate. The Department of Sanitation’s target diversion rate is 23% for the year, but the actual diversion rate for fiscal 2022 was 17%. That was a slight decrease from the previous year and about one percent less than in 2020 and 2019, according to the mayor’s current situation report. After accounting for donation programs and other collection methods, the rate was 19.6%, the report said. In 2022, DSNY collected 616,100 tons of recycling, up from 692,400 tons in 2021.
Councilor Sandy Nurse, Chair of the Sanitation Committee, introduced a bill in April that would require DSNY to report on the city’s progress towards achieving zero waste in landfills. It would also require the city to meet the 2030 zero waste goal. It’s part of a larger package of zero-waste laws introduced in April.
“The city’s goal of zero waste to landfill by 2030 needs to be mandated and pursued — and the bills to improve access to municipal recycling and introduce universal curbside composting are essential to get us there,” he said Nurse in a statement.
Larger organic matter diversion programs are also needed to divert waste from landfills, said Jessica Tisch, commissioner at the Department of Sanitation. “Organic is the biggest opportunity we have to reduce the waste stream,” she said. The material makes up about a third of the waste stream, “but in practice we discard less than 1%.”
New York City is expected to launch its curbside organic program in Queens next month, which would cover about 2.2 million residents. Tisch said the program is the largest in the country, “as well as the cheapest and easiest to use — that’s a success factor.” The city has previously offered curbside programs in select areas, but the Queens rollout is its largest effort yet and has the greatest focus on making them accessible to a wide range of residents in the borough, DSNY says.
Many speakers expressed concern that the Queens rollout has not prioritized outreach and education, particularly for residents who speak languages other than English, who live in tight New York City Housing Authority buildings, or who may not be able to use social media due to a lack of internet. Posts see access. Some also called on DSNY to make the program mandatory.
Speakers also asked the city to amend the rollout schedule, which currently calls for the weekly service to pause in late December and resume in March. Pausing the program would make it less effective and reduce residents’ confidence in the system, they said.
During public hearings, several participants, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and city solid waste advisory boards, endorsed a bill that would mandate universal composting of residential buildings for most of the city by the end of 2023, as well as a bill that would reduce easily accessible organic products prescribes drop-off points. These invoices are part of the zero-waste invoice package launched in the spring.
A variety of organic matter diversion methods would help make the process more accessible to New Yorkers, Oliver Wright said on behalf of SWABs in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. “A combination of drop-off points, local processing plants, community gardens and micro-transporters would have a visibly transformative effect,” he said.
Tackling single-use plastics is another way to reduce waste going to landfill, speakers said. Several testified in support of Nurse’s bill, which would examine the city’s use of single-use plastics with the aim of reducing or eliminating their sale and distribution.
Others called for better enforcement of the state’s plastic bag ban and local recycling ordinances, saying limited awareness of the rules is detrimental to the city’s diversion goal. Along with better enforcement, New York City should spend more money and resources on frequent and consistent recycling education.
“People have been persuaded to do much more difficult, less convenient, and sometimes less productive things than recycle properly,” said Tom Outerbridge, general manager of Sims Municipal Recycling, the city’s processor. “I wouldn’t give up trying to get residents to do the right thing.”
Any city efforts to improve recycling and waste systems must also include the voices and expertise of sanitation workers and fair wages and benefits, added Miguel Martinez, a union administrator and machine operator at a Bronx transfer station. “We offer a lot of knowledge,” he said.