City Council Holds Hearings on Saving Recycling

The proposed suspension of the city's glass, metal and plastic recycling program has also prompted sharp and vocal opposition. But Mayor Bloomberg is refusing to restore it, despite the objections of the city council, and environmental advocates. The mayor says he'll save $56 million dollars. Councilmembers held a hearing yesterday to debate that point. WNYC's Amy Eddings reports.

The city's recycling law was passed in 1989, but yesterday's hearing before the city council's new Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee shows that deep divisions still remain between the council and the sanitation department over the wisdom of that law. Sanitation officials feel hamstrung by mandates; city councilmembers believe the department lacks the will to comply with the law. The committee's chair, Republican Michael McMahon, from Staten Island, asked sanitation deputy commissioner Leslie Allen how the city planned to suspend the metal, glass and plastic -- or MPG program -- without breaking the law.

McMahon: The city's currently under court order from the New York State Supreme Court to divert 4,250 tons a day of residential recyclables. Can DOS legally suspend the MPG program, and if so, how?
Allen: As you know, the 4,250 ton daily mandate has been in effect for years. The depatment has never met it. There's no question that collecting less than 4,250 tons does violate Local Law 19.
Sanitation officials have long argued that the only way to meet the daily tonnage mandate is for every New Yorker to recycle every tin can, glass bottle and plastic jug perfectly; environmental advocates disagree. Currently, forty percent of the city's recycled metal, glass and plastic recycling ends up in landfills anyway, at twice the cost of picking up garbage. The biggest problem is glass. Sanitation officials say glass makes up 58 percent of the glass, metal and plastic program. Glass has no market value, in part because of the way the city collects it. Green, brown, and clear glass is mixed together, and often crushed, making it unattractive to recyclers. But what about metal? Brooklyn Democratic councilmember David Yassky asked First Deputy Commissioner Peter Montalbano.

Yassky: Of the metal you collect, how much gets recycled and how much gets into landfills?
Montalbano: I'd say all of it, because that's the commodity that's worth money.
Yassky: So why do you propose to suspend metal recycling along with glass?
Allen: The big part of our costs is collection,and the fewer materials you collect, the more it costs to collect each material. If you eliminate glass and just collect metal, then your costs per tin can of collection is going to go up extraordinarily.

Sanitation officials say they don't know how much it would cost to just collect metal, or plastic, and that's why they want to suspend the program for 18 months, so they can study this. Yassky didn't buy it.

Yassky: I'm sorry, but I don't think it requires suspending the program entirely for 18 months to figure out what to do. I think you ought to be able to come back and say what makes sense without going for two years, with everything going into landfills.

Although sanitation officials say they'll bring back the metal, glass and plastic recycling program, some city councilmembers suggest the department is using the budget crisis to get rid of the program for good. Councilmembers also question the sanitation department's logic. They say rebates will bring recycling costs to $90 a ton….which, coincidentally, is the same amount sanitation officials project for its long-term barge-to-rail export plan. But sanitation officials say that's down the road; right now, it's still cheaper to put glass, plastic and metal in landfills.

The city council is offering one way around the stalemate. Some members would like to see a change in the state's bottle redemption law, so that the city will get unredeemed bottle deposits, instead of the bottling industry. That money would be used to pay for a revamped recycling program. That proposal would require Albany's approval. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings.