Challenges ahead for New York City recycling czar

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NEW YORK — Ron Gonen joined New York City's Department of Sanitation in May 2012 as the department's deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, a newly created position. He was given the task of doubling the city's recycling rate (currently about 15 percent) by 2017. Gonen, the co-founder and former CEO of RecycleBank, made headlines last month when it was revealed that New York City would propose a ban on polystyrene food containers.

Gonen recently answered some questions from Waste & Recycling News editor John Campanelli.

Q: You've been on the job for about nine months now. How are things going?

A: Things are going really well. The mayor and the deputy mayor and the commissioner have been steadfast in their commitment to deploy a plan to dramatically increase the diversion rate, and so it's been interesting. It's been a lot of fun. It's very challenging to change the way things are done in a city as complex as New York City.

Q: How do like the moniker "recycling czar"?

A: [Laughing] Is this all on the record? The position I was hired into was deputy commissioner of sanitation with a focus on responsibility for recycling and sustainability. But the moniker that was given to me … I would say it's amusing and slightly embarrassing.

Q: So you have been creating a whole new recycling plan for the city?

A: Yes. When I was originally brought in to help the city reach the mayor's goal of 30 percent diversion, one of the first things we pointed out was that if you just focus on paper, metal, glass and plastic, it would be almost impossible to reach a 30 percent diversion rate. You would need a capture rate of over 95 percent, because paper, metal, glass and plastic constitute about 34 percent or 35 percent of our waste stream.

And so we were able to show very early on that it's absolutely critical as part of a modern waste management program to also focus on organics, which make up over 30 percent of our waste stream; as well as textiles, which make up a surprisingly large part of our waste stream at 7 percent; and e-waste, which is a growing part of our waste stream.

Recycling programs need to move beyond just paper, metal, glass and plastic and look at the entire waste stream comprehensively and figure out a solution for all materials.

Q: So this is going to be a comprehensive plan?

A: You'll start to hear more about additional programs that get launched, but the mayor in his State of the City address said that the new frontier for New York City in regards to recycling is organic waste, and he mentioned two new programs that are being launched, which are providing source-separated organic collection in New York City public schools as well as launching a pilot curbside organics collection program.

Q: When will the pilot program begin and when do you see it going citywide?

A: It is being launched in April. A neighborhood in Staten Island is the first to receive it. And we are planning to pilot it in all of the boroughs. … In March we're launching a pilot program with high-rise organics collection, and the first building to participate is called the Helena. That is in midtown Manhattan. So we're doing both a curbside organics collection program as well as a high-rise organics collection program. … Our plan is over the next two years to continue to expand the program. About two years from now the commissioner will look at the results of the program and decide whether or not it should go citywide.

We have over a million tons of residential organics in New York City, so it's a massive opportunity for us to divert a significant portion of our waste stream.

Q: What about the polystyrene ban?

A: It's not that we're looking at Styrofoam in a vacuum, what we're actually doing is looking at is our entire waste stream comprehensively. Anything that we see in our waste stream that's either not recyclable or it's recyclable but it doesn't have a market, we're looking to work with that manufacturer or that industry to make sure that they provide a product or packaging that is recyclable or they create a market for their product or packaging. If they can't or they're not interested in doing so, we're going to look for other ways to resolve that situation.

It's not fair to the taxpayers of New York or to our environment to have things sold into our market that we then have to pay to dispose of.

Styrofoam was the first thing we looked at, but we are looking comprehensively at our entire waste stream in making sure that whatever comes in can either be reused or recycled and not sent to a landfill.

Q: What's the reaction been to the polystyrene ban proposal?

A: I think when you decide to do something like this. You decide to do it because it's the right thing to do. And sometimes that's not always appreciated at that moment in time. But years later people will look back and go, "Oh my god I can't believe people used to actually use that stuff." So I think that if you know that you are doing the right thing, you need to be very focused on that and move forward with great confidence to do what you believe is the right thing to do.

Now when it came to this particular initiative on Styrofoam, the public reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive, overwhelmingly supportive.

Q: So you guys are on the right side of history here.

A: Only history can tell. … I think the smoking ban is a perfect example of that. If you look back 10 years ago at what was written about that then, restaurants were talking about potentially going out of business and New York City would not be a great city in terms of nightlife.

And now, 10 years later, nobody could possibly imagine anyone smoking indoors in New York. People would find it completely disgusting and inappropriate.

Have you talked about single-use plastic bags as well?

It's something that's been discussed in the city for a long time. But there hasn't been a decision or path that we've chosen in regard to plastic bags.

You mentioned textiles are 7 percent of New York City's waste stream. What are you doing to tackle that?

We just launched a program called Refashion NYC where any multi-family building in New York City can call our department and we will drop off a special textiles container for the building. The residents can put all their textiles into that container and when it's full they just have to call us and we will come and collect the textiles for recycling. We have over 220 buildings that have signed up so far this year and we have collected over 800,000 pounds of textiles.

Q: What about e-waste?

We just had an e-waste bid go out for the same type of collection where every building in New York City, upon request, would get an e-waste container free of charge and our partner would come by and collect that container when it's full. We should be announcing in the next few months who our partner is going to be and hopefully, by the summer, New York City will be offering both curbside textile collection as well as curbside e-waste collection for multi-family and high-rise buildings.

Q: What are some unique recycling problems that New York faces that other cities never have to encounter?

The biggest issue that we face is that we have four distinct types of building stock. We have high-rise buildings and many of them are some of the tallest buildings in the world. We have our multi-family buildings. We then have our row homes and brownstones that maybe have three or four tenants in them. And then we have a large amount of single-family homes.

Staten Island, Queens, Bronx, Brooklyn, when you add them up together, have hundreds of thousands of single-family homes. If you just took them together, it would probably one of the biggest cities in North America.

If you look at Chicago or Los Angeles or Phoenix or Houston, other very large cities, they have a relatively uniform type of building stock.

The other challenge we have is that we have an aging housing stock. Relative to New York City, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles are relatively new cities. Chicago had a fire at the turn of the century and was able to rebuild.

We also deal with a housing stock that was not built for modern waste management collection. A lot of buildings used to burn their garbage and that's what they were built for.

Q: What are some other parts of the recycling plan?

One of the other major initiatives we have is actually to put a recycling container on almost every single New York City street corner. New York City is a walking city, unlike most other major American cities. Most people here walk to work, walk to get their groceries, walk to see their friends or they take the subway. And right now we have very little recycling infrastructure on New York City street corners.

Over the next two or three years we want to blanket New York City with the proper recycling infrastructure because that can accomplish three really important things: There's the tonnage on the street that you get, number 1. Number 2, it's a great communication vehicle. It's very difficult to communicate with people these days. People are very busy. Not everyone opens up their mail. … Number 3 is that you create a habit so that when people are out and about on the street, and they are seeing recycling containers not refuse containers. Then they go to work, they go to school, they go home and they have that habit they picked up on the street.

Q: A recycling container on every street corner?

Not on every corner in New York City but every corner with a lot of walking traffic and street traffic. Not in some outer borough where no one walks. But when you talk about Manhattan we're looking at almost every corner, and almost every corner in highly populated areas in Brooklyn.

Q: And how many containers is that?

We're working to analyze that right now. Our commitment is to put out an additional thousand containers over the next year and then continue to increase from there as necessary.

What's your personal philosophy toward your job? What's your mission statement?

To provide New Yorkers with a world-class recycling program and divert as much material as possible from landfill which will both help New Yorkers save money and protect our environment.