Recycling Outreach Office Aims Small for Big Improvements

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Do you recycle?

CYNTHIA MARTINEZ: No. I live in city housing, and I just put everything in the – I live in city housing, so I put everything in the chuter. REPORTER: the chute, in the hall.


REPORTER: You know the city has a recycling program?

MARTINEZ: yes, I know.

REPORTER: I met Cynthia Martinez in the lunchroom of a senior citizens center in the Melrose section of the Bronx. We were there to hear a presentation about how to recycle in New York City. Turns out we all could use some instruction. Five years ago, before Mayor Bloomberg temporarily suspended plastic and glass recycling, the city’s recycling rate was 20 percent. It still hasn’t bounced back to that level, even though the program has been fully restored for the last three years. The current rate is 17 percent.


LANGE: Is there not enough collection service? Is there not enough public education? Are there not enough targeted recyclable materials?

REPORTER: Bob Lange’s answer is no, no, and no. He heads the Sanitation Department’s Bureau of Recycling. He was addressing a forum of recycling businesses, government officials and advocates.

LANGE: We are now more than a decade and a half away from the date upon which recycling became mandatory in New York City. There is insufficient justification to believe that New Yorkers do not recycle at the desired rates because they just don’t know what to do.

REPORTER: A 1999 market research survey by the Sanitation Department found more than 90 percent of those surveyed knew the major items the city recycles, like newspapers, tin cans, and glass and plastic bottles. However, that same survey found 40 to 60 percent did not know what WASN’T recycled. So, the nuances of the city’s recycling program still baffle many New Yorkers, including me.

REPORTER: Now this….VERY confusing.Because this is a take out’s a black base…. RIESER: and it has a number one….[dip and hold underneath following graf]

REPORTER: I’m playing a game of “sort the trash” with Michael Rieser at an outdoor environmental event in Park Slope, Brooklyn. My goal is to correctly sort a table full of trash into its proper bins…a green bin for recyclable paper, a blue bin for recyclable metal, plastic and glass, and a black trash bag for everything else. Rieser tells me I can’t recycle the plastic takeout container.

REPORTER: So even though it tells me that it’s made out of a plastic a lot of the bottles we are recycling are made of, I don’t wanna recycle this.

RIESER: Right. And the reason is that it’s heated up to a higher temperature than the bottles are made. It’s not blow molded, it’s press molded, so therefore it cannot be recycled.

REPORTER: No kidding.

DAVID HURD: I can’t tell you how many times we heard, I didn’t know I could recycle that. Or, conversely, I didn’t know I couldn’t recycle that.

REPORTER: David Hurd is the director of the three-month-old Office of Recycling Outreach and Education. The city council pushed for the program, as part of the city’s 20-year Solid Waste Management plan, in an effort to help boost recycling rates. Hurd’s staff has been playing the “sort the trash” game with New Yorkers at events around the city.

HURD: I certainly don’t mean this in any kind of a pejorative way, but I don’t think most New Yorkers are accustomed to having an office in the mayor’s office approach them on a proactive solution to what many perceive as a problem.

REPORTER: The Sanitation Department’s recycling bureau has also hosted community events, but its public education has primarily been conducted through flyers in the mail, and newspaper ads. Hurd’s program, which operates under the auspices of the mayor’s Council on the Environment, is trying a more targeted approach.

HURD: While we also hope to reach every New York household, we have to do that in a piecemeal fashion. And we will conduct our outreach program on a community district by community district basis to take into account the neighborhood dynamics that really make up New York, and to cater our messages to the unique dynamics of that particular neighborhood.

REPORTER: Hurd’s staff finds out the recycling habits of each community district, using information from the Sanitation Department’s recent waste composition survey; then, it comes up with outreach strategies based on census demographic data. Community District One in the Bronx, for example, has the worst recycling rate in the city, at six percent. To boost those rates, the Recycling Outreach office is contacting groups that serve single moms, young people, and seniors, because forty percent of CD 1’s households are headed by single mothers, 40 percent of the population is under 18, and 20 percent is over 65. Which is why outreach coordinator John Johnson was playing the recycling game with the staff and clients of that senior center in Melrose.

JOHNSON: This is a styrofoam egg crate.

AUDIENCE: in the blue, in the blue. In the green.

JOHNSON: Okay, I got some green…..

STAFF MEMBER: Okay, who says…who says green? Raise your hand.

REPORTER: Again, more confusion about what NOT to recycle. Styrofoam goes in the trash. But, with a six percent recycling rate, residents of CD 1 aren’t recycling, period. The waste composition study found recycling rates are lower in crowded, low-income neighborhoods like Melrose and Mott Haven in CD 1, versus wealthy, less dense communities like Brooklyn’s Park Slope, where recycling is near 30 percent. So it is because poor people are less committed to recycling than rich ones, or that homeowners are more committed than renters? Hurd says the message is not that cut-and-dried.

HURD: One of the things they pointed out, generally low income families have less recyclables in their waste stream to recycle. So they will, de facto, mathematically, get a lower diversion rate. And in fact higher income communities, in fact, generate nearly twice as much waste as low income families.

REPORTER: That 1999 Sanitation Department market research survey found no evidence to suggest poor people were less committed to recycling than rich people. Hurd believes New Yorkers from all walks of life, in all corners of the city, face “barriers” to recycling. One reason Community District One may have such a low recycling rate is because it’s host to 14 public housing buildings. NYCHA housing doesn’t have accessible basements, so residents must schlepp their recyclable metal, glass, plastic and paper to a bin set up outside. Remember Cynthia Martinez? She found it easier to just put everything down the garbage chute located on her floor.

MARTINEZ: I see them on the street, but I’m on two crutches, and it’s very hard for me to be, you know, up and down, here and there.

REPORTER: What floor are you on?

MARTINEZ: on the first floor. Melrose housing.

REPORTER: So do you think you’ll change your mind and start separating it out more?

MARTINEZ: Yes, I will, I will….

REPORTER: Nothing like a little guilt, right?

MARTINEZ: Right. (laughs.)

REPORTER: It’ll take a lot more than guilt to get the city’s recycling rate up to the ambitious goals set by the Solid Waste Management Plan.

JOHN JOHNSON: Donde? (He holds up cardboard cereal box.)

AUDIENCE: Blue! Green, Green!

David Hurd faces a daunting task…with five people, and a budget of $1.1 million, he must motivate 8 million people to recycle as much as they can, right now. Perfection is unlikely, but think about this -- if every New Yorker DID recycle perfectly, the city would send 35 percent less garbage to landfills.

It’s a goal worth striving for. So…do you recycle?

JOHNSON: Everyone, donde?! (He holds up soft drink can)


JOHNSON: That was easy. All right, that was easy.


New York City's recycling rules and regulations