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New York City adds rigid plastics to recycling program

By: Andrew J. Hawkins
CRAIN'S NEW YORK BUSINESS

April 24, 2013

NEW YORK — After years of dismally low recycling rates in the city, the Bloomberg administration announced Wednesday that for the first time New Yorkers can recycle takeout containers, empty yogurt cups, CD cases and other hard plastic.

“Starting today, if it’s rigid plastic, any kind of rigid plastic, recycle it,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference announcing the new rules in City Hall Park.

The proposal is the latest in a series of measures embraced by city officials aimed at improving the city’s residential recycling rate, which has dropped to 15 percent from an already-low 20 percent in 2001. In January, Bloomberg announced plans to expand recycling services in his State of the City speech, and recently said he would seek to ban certain plastic-foam containers. The City Council recently passed legislation that requires large apartment buildings to set aside space for recycling bins and materials.

Until now, the city has accepted only blow molded plastic containers because its contractors lacked the ability to separate PET and high density polyethylene from other materials, and the market for mixed plastics was weak.

Now, thanks to new optical technology that allows the city’s primary recycling contractor, Sims Municipal Recycling, to identify and separate rigid plastics by type, the city hopes to spare approximately 50,000 tons of waste each year from ending up in landfills — as Bloomberg put it, enough plastic to fill a football field to a height of seven stories. Taxpayers can expect to save about $600,000 a year in export costs, not to mention untold amounts of guilt, by not having to dump the plastic in landfills.

New Yorkers are advised to rinse their plastics before recycling them.

Combined with a new Sims facility to open this summer in Sunset Park, the recycling of rigid plastics should put the city on track to meet the mayor’s started goal of increasing the recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017, said Eric Goldstein of the National Resources Defense Council.

“It’s been a continuing source of frustration and confusion that some plastics were accepted and others were not,” Goldstein said. “To be successful, one thing a recycling program needs to be is convenient.”

Residents citywide have struggled for decades to figure out what they can and cannot recycle. It did not help that during his first term, Bloomberg suspended the plastics portion of the city’s recycling program to save on collection costs. Recycling rates fell, and did not bounce back to their previous point when the mayor restored the program. Critics said the suspension did not save money anyway, making it a total loss.

The city’s high number of apartment buildings also depressed recycling rates, as tenants continued to dump all of their comingled waste down the garbage chutes that were designed long before municipal recycling existed. Individual violators could not be identified.

Another reason rates have been low is that glass bottles have given way to plastic ones, and newspaper sales have fallen, so recyclables weigh a lot less than they used to. Recycling rates are calculated by weight. Still, other cities faced those challenges, yet improved their recycling rates by expanding the list of materials diverted from landfills. New York’s program, until this week, has accepted essentially the same bottles, jugs, metal and mixed paper that it did two decades ago.

The mayor said he shared his constituents’ struggles with recycling.

“There used to be these crazy codes on the bottom of rigid pieces of plastic,” Bloomberg said. “With my eyes, I could never see, and even when I could see or feel them, I never knew which was good and which was bad.”

To bring people up to speed about which plastics are now recyclable, the city plans to embark on a multi-platform marketing campaign, plastering the sides of sanitation trucks with posters advertising the changes and distributing to landlords new stickers to affix to their recycling bins.

The market for mixed, rigid plastics was weak for years in part because of the absence of a reliable supply, something that advocates said would be solved if the city would only start collecting all hard plastics. But the city did not, in part because mixed plastic wasn’t worth much—a classic Catch-22.

“Initially the markets were not as strong for plastics as they were for aluminum, paper and cardboard,” Goldstein said. “But over the past decade or so, the recycling industry has solidified and markets have matured. We’re solving this chicken-and-egg problem.”