The commercial sanitation industry’s recycling rate fell to 21% over the last year, a new report finds, undermining New York City’s efforts to achieve zero waste by 2030. Leading cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, recycle at rates three times higher than New York.
The report, “A Wasted Opportunity,” is authored by the Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition, based on a review of official reports, covering 2017, from the approximately 30 waste and recycling facilities primarily handling commercial waste in the five boroughs. The industry’s 21% recycling rate is down from last year’s rate of 22%.
These findings are drawn from best available data from DSNY and self-reporting by the commercial waste industry, which may overestimate the rate of commercial recycling in the city.
“Millions of New Yorkers know how to recycle at home, but wonder what really happens to the bottles and cans at the local pizza shop, or the dumpster full of paper and half-eaten lunches in their office building’s loading dock,” said Justin Wood, Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “In spite of new rules requiring businesses and their employees to recycle, more and more commercial waste is being trucked to landfills by the dozens of private haulers who collect from businesses every night. We believe that the millions of New Yorkers who are concerned about climate change and the environment will applaud the City’s plan to hold these waste companies to a much higher standard as part of the planned waste zone reforms for the industry.”
As the industry recycles less of what it takes in, it is sending dramatically more to landfills. Private carters trucked an additional 200,000 tons of waste to landfills and incinerators over the previous year’s levels.
Some waste carters who have burnished a green image in fact recycle little of the waste they collect. Action Carting, the city’s largest private waste hauler, recycled 23% percent less in 2017 than in the previous year.
“The results of this new analysis continue to disappoint. Decades after the obligation for commercial carters to recycle much of the waste they collect, most of the city’s private carters have implemented this policy half-heartedly at best. New York’s commercial carting industry will never come close to achieving the city’s ambitious waste and air quality improvement goals without the kind of dramatic change envisioned by commercial waste zoning,” said Eric A. Goldstein, New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The industry’s disregard for recycling undermines New York City’s environmental goals. Mayor de Blasio has committed to achieve “zero waste” by 2030, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Emissions from landfills are the third-largest source of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, after energy and transportation, making increased recycling rates a key tool in reducing our emissions.
The City is currently transitioning the industry to a new commercial waste zone system, which would require carters to bid for the right to collect waste in each zone of the city, and allow the Department of Sanitation to set recycling goals that carters must meet. Advocates are urging the City to limit one carter to each waste zone, in order to maximize the opportunity for investment in recycling infrastructure and accountability for carters.
Leading cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and San Jose, have used exclusive commercial waste zone policies to achieve recycling rates that are three times higher than New York. In LA, each hauler is responsible for measuring, tracking, and reducing the amount of waste generated. Similar policies allowed San Jose and Seattle to achieve recycling rates of 77% and 64%, respectively.
While some carters may try to shift the blame to New York’s small businesses for throwing away items that could be recycled, photographic evidence tells a different story. The report contains photographs of some private haulers openly commingling recyclable commodities and black-bag putrescible waste, which can cause contamination, or indicate that source-separated recyclables are simply being landfilled.
About Transform Don’t Trash NYC
Transform Don’t Trash NYC is a growing coalition dedicated to transforming New York City’s commercial trash industry to reduce waste and pollution, foster clean and healthy communities for all New Yorkers, and create good jobs. The coalition includes ALIGN, New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the Teamsters Union, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and dozens of other organizations and small businesses.