TDT report: NYC commercial recycling rates remain flat
- New analysis from the Transform Don't Trash (TDT) campaign estimates that New York's commercial diversion rate was 22% in 2016. This calculation is based on annual reports submitted to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that exclude construction and demolition material.
- Among the more than 20 facilities reporting, TDT found that only three showed any glass being diverted. This follows past trends of cardboard, metal and plastic being more common materials in the commercial stream. Organic waste made up a small portion, less than 1%, of the overall material reported.
- TDT compared this activity to higher diversion rates in other cities as another sign that reforms are needed in New York's commercial waste industry. TDT is calling specifically for a franchise collection system. New commercial recycling rules that align requirements with residential rules are set to take full effect on Aug. 1 and may help divert more material in the near term.
Until the first round of quarterly recycling reports due to the city's Department of Sanitation are available, the annual DEC data remains the best source of information about commercial recycling activity in New York. Pinning down a hard commercial diversion rate has become a point of contention in ongoing reform discussions for a variety of reasons. Because the data are self-reported, the accuracy has been questioned. Information about any material collected in the five boroughs and taken elsewhere also isn't reflected. TDT says it takes these factors into account though, as well as the fact that DSNY still uses multiple private transfer stations, when doing the annual analysis.
Aside from pinning down an exact diversion rate, TDT said other important points include the fact that commingled recycling seems to continue, despite the new DSNY rules including restrictions on the practice. While the rule's effects may not become clear until 2017 data is available, the seeming continuation of this practice after numerous city education meetings is seen as problematic.
“What’s troubling to us is that it’s so easy. Every time we go out late at night and follow a commercial garbage truck, we see the rules for the carters being violated," Justin Wood, director of strategic waste at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, told Waste Dive.
Questions about collection practices, or processing technology that could better handle material such as glass, often comes back to financial factors according to the city's private haulers. Many companies have said it's hard to justify investing in new equipment with the specter of a franchise system looming. Companies such as Sims Municipal Recycling — which has a long-term contract to process the city's residential recyclables — and ones in cities cited as models by TDT may have more financial stability to make those investments.
Kendall Christiansen, executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, said because most of his members don't own landfills, they don't have any incentive to waste materials. He also mentioned changes in the waste stream that have led to a reduction of office paper and competing interests such as people collecting containers for redemption.
"Our members and others are adjusting their collection systems, as well as their processing facilities to ensure that properly separated recyclables are managed and find their way to markets. As we are the front-line service providers, we also expect to play a critical role in problem-solving as the enforcement period begins," Christiansen said in an email, in reference to the August 1 enforcement date for DSNY's rule. "Industry experts also know the folly of attempting to compare waste generation and recycling rates among cities; every city organizes its system differently (in nearly every other city apartment buildings are regarded as commercial), and every state has different standards for what gets reported, rendering comparisons meaningless."
Researchers have indeed cautioned against diversion rate comparisons before, but Wood said he stood by the research. He pointed to reports that show both San Francisco and Seattle having diversion rates around 60% as examples.
“That’s still way way better than New York," said Wood.
- Transform Don't Trash New York City’s Commercial Recycling Rate Far Below Leading US Cities
- Department of Environmental Conservation Annual Solid Waste Reports
Follow Cole Rosengren on Twitter