City Council Speaker Quinn Explains New Recycling Laws

A sweeping overhaul of New York City's 21-year-old recycling program was passed into law earlier this week. Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed 11 bills that are intended to expand what is recycled in the city, hold city agencies responsible for their own recycling habits, find out how much waste businesses are generating and how well they're recycling.

The city's recycling program is already confusing for many residents. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spoke with WNYC's Amy Eddings to help clarify the upcoming changes and when they go into effect.

Let's talk about the bill that is, possibly, the one that recycling advocates here in New York are most excited about. That's adding different kinds of plastics to the city's residential curbside recycling program. Currently, the only plastics the city will take -- a lot of people don't know this -- are the kinds that are in plastic bottles and jugs. Not yogurt containers, not plastic salad-bar containers.

Right, not your Chinese food take-out containers. Actually, the vast majority of the plastic you would have in your house, rigid plastic, so to speak, the city has not been taking, up until we changed this law.

And so now, what will people be able to recycle?

Basically, all rigid plastic is recyclable. Now, by saying rigid you're basically taking out plastic bags, which we have a different program for, but now all rigid plastic, everything you thought should have been recyclable, is recyclable. You don't have to find your eyeglasses, search on the bottom, is this a number 2, a number 7, whatever the heck, everything is recyclable.

And when will this go into effect?

The mayor signed it yesterday and the law goes into effect, I believe it's in the next 90 days, and part of what we're also going to be doing is an education campaign to try to make sure New Yorkers know about this new program. Another part of what we've done is doing city agency recycling, including the Department of Education. And I mention that because that's a great opportunity for children to learn and see recycling and we know that's one of the best ways that adults will be reminded to recycle is by their children.

I want to return to that issue in a moment but I want to stick with this new plastics law. There's a caveat to it. "Provided that the Sanitation Commissioner will not be required to expand this designation," meaning, add this stuff if the cost of doing so is not reasonable. That sounds to me like a pretty big escape hatch.

No, that's kind of a pro-forma in the bill, and we've really no concern about that at all, because the tipping fees when you go and take a truck full of plastic and tip it into the recycling facility, versus when you have a truck full of garbage and you tip it into the garbage dump -- the tipping fees for plastic are significantly less than the tipping fees for garbage, because there is a market for plastic to recycle it. So, in the long-run, we believe once me make this transition over, the city is going to save money, because the tipping fee is significantly less. So that's kind of a standard language in a piece of legislation like this and we had National Resource Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, League of Conservation Voters, all of those groups helped draft these laws with us.

To get to the city agency issue, you also asked for city agencies to adopt recycling plans -- that's a new bill too, prepare annual recycling reports -- this speaks to what you were bringing up earlier about the school system. What do you mean by recycling plans?

City agencies, some of them, are all in one building, some of them are spread out in field offices in all five boroughs. So, every agency is going to have a slightly different model they need to employ to make sure their agency is really recycling, because we want to lead by example.

I guess the question that most listeners would have is: What, do you mean city agencies aren't already following the city's own rules?

Commercial recycling is not something we have broadly in the city and that's another part of what we've done. So it's not that city agencies aren't following the rules, it's that we, as a city, really haven't focused as aggressively on workplace recycling as we have on residential recycling. And one bill we also had signed into law yesterday was the requirement of a plan to develop a robust citywide commercial recycling program, and we're just making sure city agencies start moving us in that direction.   

Right, the city must complete a commercial waste and recycling study by 2012. What do you want to find out?

I want to find out, basically, what is the quickest, most aggressive, cost-efficient way we can implement a standard of broad-based recycling in the workplace, in the five boroughs... It's New York City, and there are lots of different workplaces, so undertaking broad commercial recycling is challenging, right? And we don't want to guess at the best way to do it, we want to do it right, and that's going to take a little information up front.