??Design and Implementation of a Field Study of Durable Products and Recyclables Discards

in New York City and New Jersey


Marjorie J. Clarke, Ph.D.

Instructor, Rutgers University Geography Dept.





New York City's residential recycling rate, after 10 years of pilot studies and full-scale collections citywide, is 20% despite the existence of Local Law 19 of 1989, requiring a 25% diversion rate by 1994.Materials Recovery Facilities that handle NYC's waste stream estimate that one-third of recyclables collected is contaminated (i.e., garbage), so the actual diversion rate is more like 14%.The City is targeting roughly 50% of the waste stream as recyclables, hence there may be recyclables representing more than 30% of the waste stream that are disposed of as garbage. Enforcement of the local law mandating recycling has been primarily to fine landlords and homeowners for (1) not recycling at all, and (2) not displaying proper signage in apartment buildings.Due to an agreement between the City and the real estate interests in the City Administration, made at the time Local Law 19 was enacted, enforcement officials were prevented from opening garbage bags and cans to look for recyclables.


At the same time, durable products (e.g., electronics, appliances, furniture), some of which are usable with little repair) are left at curbside as trash.Though some of these durables are scavenged before collection, many are not.


To address the need for information on the disposal of recyclables and durables as trash, a three-week field survey of garbage left at curbside in New York City was conducted to quantify


1.               the extent to which recyclable glass was left in garbage bags and cans

2.               numbers, types and general condition of durable products left at curbside for collection as garbage.


This paper will present data collected during this study, and using GIS, conclusions will be drawn regarding variation based on location and demographics of neighborhood.





Municipal recycling and waste prevention programs have been maturing across the country for the last decade.Recycling programs have expanded in some areas to include more than just the basic newspapers, cans and bottles.There are unique characteristics of New York City that differentiate its recycling program from many others in the country.For one, roughly half of the housing stock consists of multi-family dwellings, as compared with most municipalities, where the preponderance of housing is single-family detached.This fact, and the great diversity of housing design meant that educational brochures werenecessarily vague about the location of recycling stations in apartment buildings, which posed challenges in educating the public regarding the recycling program.The ethnic diversity of the population is also considerably greater than for most municipalities, requiring recycling education to be conducted in several languages (and in a city with many competing needs for City budget dollars, the resources for this necessarily came out of other recycling education efforts).New York City's solid waste contains much less yard waste (3%) vs. close to 20% in other municipalities, so collection of yard waste for composting does not occur and this adversely affects the recycling rate.


Even though there are unique challenges involved with implementing recycling in New York City, there are some characteristics of the program that could serve to bolster diversion rates.In 1996 the City decided to expand the list of materials that are collected for curbside recycling.As of 1999 the citywide program collects newspapers, telephone books, magazines and catalogs, corrugated and grey cardboard, mixed paper (junk mail), plastic bottles and jugs, wax paper cartons, glass containers, metal containers and bulk metal items (e.g., toasters, frying pans and cutlery).This expanded list targets a considerably higher percentage of the total waste stream for recycling than is the case in other municipalities increasing the ultimate potential for diversion.Enactment of a Local Law to require that all recycling pickups occur on aweekly basis citywide by April, 2000 puts New York City ahead of some municipalities that pick up recyclables once every other week.The fact that a significant proportion of the City's population takes mass transit subways and/or buses on a daily basis increases the potential for a transit-based recycling education program to reach more people more often for reduced cost.


Diversion rates have risen from just a few percent to 27% nationally [1] during the 1990s, but in New York City, the curbside recycling rate is about 19%.There has been great impetus for the City to increase its recycling rate since the beginning of its recycling program.Local Law 19 of 1989 mandated a 25% diversion rate be achieved by 1994, increasing by 5% per year up to that point.New York State's Solid Waste Management Act of 1988 set a statewide recycling goal of 40 to 42% for 1997.By 1990 five borough-wide Citizens' Solid Waste Advisory Boards (SWABs) and one Citywide Recycling Advisory Board (CRAB) had been established, all of which have argued for policies, programs, budgets, plans, and research to improve the City's recycling rate. During the 1990s a coalition of environmental groups including the CRAB and the Natural Resources Defense Council, City Councilmembers and citizens brought suit to force the City to achieve the legally mandated 25% recycling rate.


There has been an even larger impetus reducing the City's ability to recycle. Recycling in New York City has suffered from Mayors that consider it to be a low funding priority.The Administration fought and lost the legal action to enforce Local Law 19 seven times in state courts, the only remedies involving new deadlines for compliance.Attempts to influence the City Council to weaken Local Law 19, failed.At the same time, the City has been chronically under economic stress, and there are many competing interests for City budget dollars.In 1991 the City nearly cancelled the recycling program altogether due to budget constraints.Each year since then the Administration would cut funding from the recycling and prevention programs, and the City Council would have to allocate funding from other sources to cover the shortfall.Later in the 1980s and early in the 1990s, the Administration gave recycling and prevention lowest priority for new programs as it favored the construction of as many as five waste-to-energy facilities, one per borough.The City's recycling efforts were also hampered by the decision to continue sending out an additional layer of recycling packer trucks on inflexible routes rather than extending the routes and optimizing the system by substituting recycling runs for garbage runs as the recycling diversion increased.†† This made the recycling program cost as much as $300 per ton in the mid-1990s.


Another development that put recycling on the back burner in terms of solid waste policy focus was the decision by the current Administration in 1996 to close the Fresh Kills Landfill, which had received 85% of the residential and institutional waste stream at that time.The post-decision planning for alternative means of waste management, has focused the effort and funding almost exclusively on exporting all solid waste that is not collected for recycling, not on how prevention, recycling, and composting might be maximized.


Perhaps one of the most important factors limiting the ability of the City to achieve higher recycling rates, particularly in the large multi-family residential sector, was an agreement forged between the Administration and the real estate interests in the City at the start of the recycling program.This agreement, in effect, abrogated the enforcement provisions of Local Law 19 such that apartment building owners would not be held accountable for the lack of recycling by tenants.Since then the recycling enforcement in apartment buildings only involved questions of signage, or lack of recycling at all.But the main enforcement problem in apartment buildings is now the disposal of targeted recyclables in black garbage bags that enforcement personnel refuse to examine.Assuming that 50-60% of the waste stream consists of recyclables, and only 20% of the waste stream is recycled, it is clear that 30-40% of the waste stream, recyclables, are wrongly disposed in the trash.


Waste prevention has likewise had a difficult time in receiving recognition as the highest waste priority. Although the New York State Solid Waste Management Act of 1988's goal for waste prevention was 8 to 10%, the State backed away from the waste prevention goal as well as the recycling goal.Waste prevention receives roughly $1 to 2 million annually in the City's budget for a few small programs aimed mainly at commercial waste prevention.By comparison $300 million is spent for collections, $150 million for export (and increasing at a rapid rate annually as the Fresh Kills closure date at the end of 2001 nears), and $50 million for recycling in round figures.


The U.S. waste stream, when viewed for waste prevention opportunities, consists of roughly 1/3 packaging, 15% durable products (products made to last at least 3 years), 30% non-durables, plus compostable food and yard waste.[2]Earlier in the decade the City issued an RFP to collect durables disposed by residents, but did not follow through with the program due to lack of response.But one of the waste prevention programs, co-sponsored by the Administration, the Manhattan Borough President's office, and Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit New York City-based transit organization, "Recycle a Bicycle", has been successful in training junior high school students to repair bicycles in a few pilot programs.In the 1999 and 2000 budget cycles the Manhattan Citizens' SWAB recommended the expansion of this program into other consumer durables, such as electronics, furniture and appliances, placing trained students in apprenticeships, which would help reverse the inner-city high unemployment rate as well as the declining repair industry.




Project Design


The brief descriptions of New York City's recycling and waste prevention programs point out at least two areas of research questions:1) where are recyclables most often deposited in the trash, and why, and 2) where and which types of durable products are left at curbside for disposal.In order to start answering these questions, a research project was designed to gather data on the streets of New York City.Three large introductory geology and geography classes at Hunter College in New York City (320 enrolled) and at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (200 in one class and 300 in another), were introduced to the problems of waste management and the promise of waste prevention and recycling.For extra credit they were encouraged to gather data on the streets of their locality to answer the research questions, forming a new geographical database of information.A matrix was designed (Fig. 1) for use by student volunteers from the classes. For each location (unique addresses), the following information was to be gathered:





Address (the Rutgers students were asked for Town and Ward # as well)

Whether the area was residential, commercial or mixed (for Rutgers: R1=, Apartment building or dorm; R2=small residential, C= commercial).

The number of garbage bags and garbage cans left at curbside

Number, description, and condition of durables

Number of bags/cans with recyclable glass.


The students were instructed to collect the data early in the morning on garbage collection (not recycling) routes.Accuracy and legibility of data was stressed.



Data Collection


Prior to data collection, the students were given a brief lecture and two pages of instructions (Fig. 2) along with copies of the Matrix, and given a rationale for the project as well as background on recycling and waste prevention in New York City, as well as instructions on when and how to gather the record the data.Since the data gathering took place over a few weeks in each case, there was ample opportunity to answer questions from the students about the data collection procedures. Over 1500 New York City observations were made; some locations were covered more than one time.It is estimated that three times this number of observations were made in New Jersey.


Although the original intention was for the first phase of the project to be conducted solely in Manhattan, it was soon expanded to all five boroughs at the request of students.The same was true for the New Jersey project.Most of the data was gathered in New Brunswick, but a significant amount was gathered in Piscataway, Highland Park, East Brunswick, North Brunswick and several other cities and towns in New Jersey. The collection by Hunter students in New York City occurred in late April and early May 1999, and by Rutgers students in late November and early December, 1999 in New Brunswick and environs.



Fig. 1†† Matrix for Data Collection:New York City Recycling Enforcement / Durables Disposal Project



Extra Credit Project for Geology 101, Spring 1999

(print all information legibly and carefully!)











Location #





with cross street




# Bags

# Cans

#, description, and

condition of durables

# bags/cans

with glass


































































































































































Fig. 2††††††† Extra Credit Project for Geology 101, Spring 1999 -- instructions for data gatherers


NYC has been collecting resources such as newspapers, magazines, bottles, and cans for recycling since 1988.  Recycling conserves natural resources such as metals, some of which are becoming in short supply, plastic, which is manufactured from oil, glass, which comes from sand, and paper products, which come from trees.  Mining not only depletes natural resources, but also generates environmental impacts such as air and water pollution.  Clear-cutting our forests produce a large number of impacts on the local biosphere, and on increasing erosion of topsoil and sedimentation of streams.  Creating paper, plastic, and most products involves environmental impacts of air and water pollution.


The City Council passed a mandatory recycling law, requiring that NYC reach a recycling rate of 25% by 1994, but the Mayor has never put in sufficient funding either for recycling education or enforcement, so we only recycle about 19%.  Other cities recycle as much as 50%.  The more we recycle the less we have to extract minerals and fossil fuels, and log forests, so we want to maximize our recycling rate.


We also want to reduce the amount of materials that we use.  This is called waste prevention.  How can we reduce the amount of materials used?  Yesterday I saw a GNC store cashier put not one, not two, but three shopping bags around someoneís order (it wasnít that heavy!).  Meanwhile, I was carrying reusable cloth bags for my purchases.


My local grocery store estimates they give out 20,000 plastic shopping bags per week!  Multiply that by hundreds of stores in NYC.  And thatís just the needless bags we use, throw away, and waste.  They donít decompose in the landfill and are hard to recycle.  Packaging wastes are almost 1/3 of the wastes that we create, there are many opportunities to reduce packaging waste.


How else can we reduce waste?  We can repair or refurbish durable products rather than throwing them out.  What are durable products?  Commerce Dept. definition:  Product DESIGNED to last more than 3 years.


Sometimes there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with the item; the owner just doesnít want it anymore.  Sometimes, it needs a small repair, but the owner doesnít want to bother.


Hereís where our project comes in. 


There is no information about how many and what kinds of durable products are being thrown out and destroyed in the back of Sanitation packer trucks.



Lessons were learned from the Hunter data collection experience, and were implemented in the New Jersey phase.The expansion of data collection area from Manhattan to include the other boroughs proved to be somewhat problematic, since the matrix did not request borough information for each location.Some of the New York data had to be discarded as certain addresses are repeated in more than one borough.This problem was rectified for the New Jersey phase, as specific information was requested regarding each location's town plus either zip code (for non-New Brunswick locations) or Sanitation Ward number (for New Brunswick data).


Another improvement was made regarding the collection of information on the type of location from which each set of data was collected.In the New York phase information on the general building characteristics of the immediate area were requested (i.e., residential, commercial, and mixed).For the New Jersey phase, more specific information on each location was requested (i.e., the size of each building that generated the waste if in the residential sector, and a commercial designation if the data location was commercial).


Even more information is being sought regarding the population residing at each address, so that comparisons of data at different addresses can be more meaningful. Since not every location is the same as the next (i.e., a large apartment building may be right next to a small brownstone rowhouse), the records of the number of garbage bags and cans at each location might prove helpful in assessing the relative magnitude of the durables pile.


The entry of the recyclables discards data onto the data collection sheets shows that students appeared to have interpreted the directions in more than one way.†† Garbage is discarded both in black bags and in garbage cans, and so there were two columns for total garbage bags and garbage cans seen at each location.It was intended that the last column would show both the number of garbage bags and garbage cans that contained recyclable glass separated by a slash (e.g., Bags / Cans), but some students wrote only one figure in this column.For the New Jersey phase, a slash mark was pre-entered into each square of the data collection matrix to ensure that two figures would be entered.




Statistical and Analytical Design


The simplest presentation of the data will involve maps depicting locations of data collection vs. locations of durables discard, and of misallocation of recyclables in the garbage.Other maps will show disaggregated categories of durables (e.g., appliances, electronics, furniture).


The categories of data chosen for collection (the column headings in the matrix) lend themselves to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis.GIS studies can pinpoint hotspots of activity or inactivity, in this case poor or good recycling behavior, and hot spots of generation of durable products that are not discarded in more environmentally friendly ways (e.g., resold, donated, lent out, refurbished, etc.).††


Other GIS analyses are planned, for example:



Durables Discards

Income vs. durables discards

Race vs. durables discards

Age vs. durables discards

Building type vs. durables discards

Educational level vs. durables discards

Cross-tabulations, e.g., high income and high educational level vs. furniture discards


The same list of GIS analyses is planned to see if there is any unusual spatial distribution of inappropriate recyclables discards as well.



Current Project Status


The New Jersey data are currently in the process of being transcribed from the paper originals to Excel spreadsheets in preparation for analysis.At the same time, local databases for demographic data are being secured for purposes of GIS analysis.





While it is premature to speculate about the prevalence or spatial distribution of instances where durables or recyclable materials are discarded in the trash, some lessons were learned in the instruction of the data collection volunteers and in the design of the data collection matrix.It is also very important to be as specific as possible to characterize the building generating the discards.Smaller buildings would be expected to generate smaller quantities of discards of all kinds, and it is incorrect to give the same weight to the data from all locations.




[1]†††††††††††† "Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States:1996 Update", USEPA Municipal and Solid Waste Division, EPA/530-R-97-015, June 1997.


[2] ††††††††††† "Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States:1996 Update", USEPA Municipal and Solid Waste Division, EPA/530-R-97-015, June 1997.





Municipal Solid Waste, Waste Prevention, New York City, Recycling Efficiency, Durable Products Discards.