Thursday, April 18, 2013

Truth in Recycling NYC

My offline spring cleaning led me on a search for truth in recycling. What happens if you recycle something you shouldn't? You might be surprised.

Asking a New Yorker “Do you recycle” is about as antiquated these days as requesting a seat in the non-smoking area of a restaurant. It’s the law, of course, and the NYC Department of Sanitation makes it fairly easy, providing curbside recycling collection to 3 million households.

In fact, we put out between 366,000 and 423,000 tons of mixed-paper recyclables and between 250,000 and 331,000 tons of bottle-and-can recyclables each year. But are you recycling correctly? And what if you're not? Can you do more harm than good if you recycle something you shouldn’t?

On the surface, the recycling guidelines seem fairly straightforward: Put mixed-paper items in the green containers and everything else — plastic, glass, metal and foil — in the blue “bottle-and-can” containers.

I consider myself a good recycler, but I worry unreasonably about envelopes with windows, paper with staples, milk cartons with plastic spouts, aerosol cans, batteries, plastic utensils, “disposable” lighters, assorted cables that belong to nothing I still have… What’s trash, what’s recyclable and what impact can one individual’s mistakes really have?

Plagued by these questions, I set out on a digital quest for truth in recycling. Turns out, I’m recycling incorrectly, I’m not the only one, and individual mistakes are having a clear impact.

Almost a quarter (23%) of New York’s residential trash consists of items that should have been recycled, including paper and cardboard (15.04%), metal (4.07%), glass containers (2.4%), plastic bottles and jugs (1.48%), and beverage cartons (0.4%), according to a “census of New York waste” (officially known as the New York 2004-05 Residential and Street Basket Waste Characterization Study, or WCS for short).

Not only are we putting recyclables in the trash, we are also mixing trash with
our recycling, most notably when it comes to plastics. Fully 20% of the items
we put in the blue bins are plastics that are not recycled in New York. It’s referred to in waste management circles as “contamination,” and it seems we contaminate our blue bins by thinking all plastics are recyclable or, somewhat closer to the truth, all plastics with a triangle featuring a 1 or a 2. The actual guideline is even narrower (keep reading).

Moreover, we are sometimes sorting recyclables incorrectly, another source of contamination. One area of confusion is the milk carton: It’s not mixed-paper, it’s bottles-and-cans. Because it has had liquid in it, it should be treated as a beverage container even though it’s cardboard. (On a positive note, we’re doing a good job overall at identifying and sorting our paper recycling.)

Why Are We So Confused?

My fears are confirmed: We’re trashing things that could be recycled and recycling things that should be trashed and incorrectly sorting our legitimate recyclables. Why are we so confused about recycling? And can our mistakes muck up the works, bring the recycling processing plants to a standstill?

It’s confusing because recycling regulations and capabilities vary from city to city. You can’t really go by the recycling symbols; you have to go by NYC regulations. And, no, our confusion won’t muck up the works: The recycling processors are all equipped to deal with contamination on their conveyor belts.

But they also have minimum contamination requirements (e.g., a load should be no more than 10% non-recyclable materials). To fully understand the impact, it helps to know what happens to your recycling after DES picks it up at your curb. Get the breakdown here, but suffice it to say, contamination costs taxpayer dollars that instead could be turned around to create and support still more recycling programs.

The good news: These are easy fixes. Small changes could beget big
improvements. The average NYC resident discards nearly 4.5 pounds of trash each day, or more than three-quarters of a ton per year. Imagine if you reduced your own daily output by just a few ounces by improving your recycling know-how.

My own mistakes: Windowed envelopes are recyclable, with mixed paper; milk cartons with plastic spouts and aerosol cans both are recyclable, and go in the blue bins. Since I began adding these items to my recycling, one kitchen trash bag lasts twice as long.

Unfortunately, I’ve also been a contributor to the 20% slice of incorrectly-recycled plastics. I’m among those who followed the “triangle-with-1-or-2” method. Turns out, take-out containers are never recyclable. The bottom line when it comes to plastics: Recycle only plastic beverage containers, bottles and jugs with a 1 or 2 triangle. Trash plastic tubs, trays, wraps, bags, etc., regardless of the recycling symbol.

I was relieved to find I had been separating and sorting some things correctly: Staples in paper aren’t a problem, as they get filtered out at the recycling plant; regular alkaline batteries go in the trash (sans mercury, they pose little risk), as do plastic utensils and lighters (although a number of online guides explain how to safely break down a lighter’s components for recycling). 

The WasteLe$$ Website: Clearing the Confusion

My encounter with everything I wanted to know about recycling but was afraid
to ask began at’s WasteLe$$ website. Created by the DSNY Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, it’s a remarkably comprehensive guide to recycling in the city, and all of the information for this article came from its myriad pages.

You can start your own search for truth in recycling at the WasteLe$$ home page, as I did, and I highly recommend drilling down into all the site provides. But be forewarned: With its wealth of information and resources, clicking through it all can be a bit like logging into Facebook — you go on to wish your brother happy birthday, and suddenly an hour’s gone by.

In a series of three separate posts, I’ll break out some of the more pertinent links on the WasteLe$$ site to get you straight to the answers you need. I’ll also share resources to help ensure your spring-cleaning efforts take advantage of all the recycling, safe disposal and reuse opportunities the city offers. Part 1 in the series guides you to the online facts on household recyclables, including how to separate and sort them for effective curbside recycling.

Taking the extra step of doing your own household recycling correctly increases the efforts of your building maintenance to do so, and that increases the effectiveness of recycling citywide. Really, when it comes to recycling, how can one person’s efforts not have a clear — and positive — impact?

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