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NYC's Commercial Recycling Rate Is Still Garbage

That plastic fork can be recycled too.
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Please recycle these plastic items.

A new report finds that NYC's commercial recycling rate is only 22 percent, a truly disappointing number considering the city enacted rules intending to increase businesses' recycling rates in 2016. That rate falls far behind the national commercial recycling rate of 35 percent, and even farther behind cities like San Jose and Seattle, who boast respective rates of 77 percent and 62 percent.

The report comes courtesy of Transform Don't Trash NYC, a campaign dedicated to mitigating commercial waste in the city. The organization points out that though in 2015, Mayor de Blasio pledged to reduce commercial waste disposal by 90 percent by 2030, new sanitation rules introduced in February 2016 and enacted last August have failed to result in any meaningful change when it comes to businesses recycling waste. In 2015, for instance, Transform Don't Trash NYC found the city's commercial recycling rate was at 24 percent.

Last August, the city mandated that businesses separate paper, metal, glass and plastic, but it appears most buildings aren't following suit. The private sanitation companies who pick up businesses' waste are also required to separate the recyclables from garbage in their trucks, but many still brazenly ignore that rule.

"The results of this new analysis are disappointing. Decades after the obligation for commercial carters to recycle much of the waste they collect, most of the city’s private carters have implemented this policy half-heartedly at best," Eric A. Goldstein, New York City Environment Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement, adding, "New York’s commercial carting industry will never come close to achieving the city’s ambitious waste and air quality improvement goals without dramatic change."

Transform Don't Trash NYC says the city's commercial buildings and businesses generate about 3.5 billion tons of waste annually, all of which is disposed of by private sanitation companies. The city's Department of Sanitation collects another 3.5 billion tons of waste on top of that.

In 2015, a sanitation truck driver told Gothamist the private sanitation system was "a Wild West," and noted there was little incentive for truck drivers to separate the trash from recyclables. "The customer separates the recyclables, but then you're told to put everything in one truck, and what are you going to do? You're just an employee. So whatever the customer did didn't serve any purpose because everything is going to be mixed," he said. "And when you get to the transfer station, the truck dumps everything over here, and they just scoop it up with a loader and it goes to a landfill or an incinerator, and that's even worse."

The city is still working on improving the commercial recycling system. Though the business recycling rules went into effect last August, starting this August 1st the law will be officially enforced, which may provide commercial buildings with extra incentive to adhere to them. The Department of Sanitation is also working on a zoning system that will require private trash haulers to meet certain waste reduction targets over select periods of time; that system will go into effect in 2022.

In response to our inquiry about the Transform Don't Trash report, the Department of Sanitation provided Gothamist with the following statement:

The City’s goal is to make recycling compatible at home, work, and play. Commercial recycling rules used to be different from residential rules but now they are consistent. The new commercial recycling rules are not enforceable until August 1, 2017. DSNY will begin compliance inspections at that time to ensure that businesses are separating recyclables and carters are properly collecting them. In the last year, DSNY has conducted extensive outreach with more than 9,700 site visits to businesses and 75 training sessions for more than 1,700 business representatives to help them be aware and comply with the laws.

As a reminder, recyclable items include: metal cans, aluminum foil wrap and trays, metal caps and lids, wire hangers, tools, pots, large metal items and appliances, glass bottles glass jars, plastic bottles, jugs and jars, rigid plastic caps and lids, rigid plastic food and non-food containers, plastic crates, rigid plastic packaging, drink boxes, milk and juice cartons, white and colored paper, newspapers, wrapping paper, paper bags, receipts, pizza boxes, paper cups, smooth cardboard, egg cartons and trays, food and shoe boxes, and file folders. To name a few. Styrofoam and plastic bags have to be tossed (though supermarkets will take the bags for recycling) and electronic waste disposal is a whole other ballgame.

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