New York Times - 12 Aug 02

Prof. Robert B. Laughlin
Department of Physics
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
(Copied 29 Oct 09)

New Yorkers Getting Used To Recycling A Little Less

Published: Monday, August 12, 2002

Aaron Levy, a rabbinical student, hauls in his glass and plastic each week for a classmate to take home to New Jersey. Adrian DeLucca puts his in an unmarked can outside his Fort Greene brownstone to give easier access to those who collect and redeem as part of an informal economy. And Andy Young has given up his favored brown bottles of microbrew for cold cans of Budweiser and Coors Light, just to get that special recycling feeling.

Across the boroughs, New Yorkers are slowly adapting to a new law that made metal and paper the only items worth a second shot at life. Some people are still finding ways to fulfill a deep need, nurtured over years of sorting and bundling, to help their discarded empties meet a more exalted fate. Others, perhaps numbed by the kaleidoscope of color-coded bins and the schedule of collection days, are simply giving up altogether.

"I don't know if it's because people have thrown in the towel, or if it's confusion or both, I guess, but the majority of people are not into recycling any more," said Sean Mannion, the superintendent of a 70-unit co-op in Riverdale, in the Bronx. "People who used to be careful are now saying the heck with it and just mixing garbage, paper and cans in what used to be the recycling containers. It just seems to be out of control."

The new rules, drawn up in a controversial compromise in the city's budget agreement, seem simple enough. New Yorkers are now to recycle paper and metal as they have for more than a decade, but are to discard plastic for one year and glass for two. During that time, a task force is to find ways to make recycling those materials economically feasible.

"From a management perspective and trying to reduce the cost, I think we're doing good," said John J. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner. "We're getting the metal in and we're going to get revenue. I think the downside is if you look at it strictly from an environmental perspective," because less is being recycled. "I get the e-mails that come in: 'I'm very upset about recycling,' " Mr. Doherty said, adding that he does not hear from those he suspects may be a silent majority, "people who are like, 'Thank God I don't have to do that anymore.' "

"When you get a change like this you always get your ups and downs," he added.

Some of those downs have begun to surface. In larger buildings, the volume of metal is so small compared with the general trash that residents appear to have lost the will to separate. Then, too, said Michael E. McMahon, a Staten Island councilman who is chairman of the City Council's Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee, litter has increased on the sidewalks because of bottle and can collectors' breaking into the trash.

Compounding this problem, said William Colton, an assemblyman who represents Gravesend and Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, the Sanitation Department has not been picking up improperly sorted trash, leaving it on the street for a longer period of time.

In Mr. Colton's district, complaints about rats, even during the day, have escalated. "We're getting the impression that similar things are happening in other neighborhoods, and it's happening because the Sanitation Department does very well what they were intended to do, which is pick up garbage and dump it someplace," Mr. Colton said. "But their focus is not on recycling. It's not on educating people."

Mr. Doherty conceded that in the beginning, mixed trash might have sat out longer, but he said that that was abating as more people learned what to do. In his own neighborhood in Staten Island, he said, at first he saw "all kinds of junk" in the recycling cans, and "now I see mostly metal."

The Sanitation Department updated its phone line on June 27, (212) 219-8090, with recorded information about the recycling changes; a spokeswoman said it had received well over 2,000 calls. By now, Mr. Doherty said, everyone should have gotten a mailing about the new rules, and the department plans to start issuing warnings where they find violations this month.

Actual summonses can begin after a 60-day grace period from July 1, when the law took effect, but Mr. Doherty said he would play that by ear.

But the changes are also threatening the complex relationships among neighborhood residents and those who collect and return the nickel deposit containers. Guy Polhemus, who founded We Can, a nonprofit redemption center on Manhattan's West Side that works with the poor and the homeless, said that the fragile social hierarchy among the collectors was being ripped apart like so many blue plastic bags, transforming redeemers (those who cull carefully and symbiotically) into scavengers (those who strew trash as they hunt).

"Basically these are decent people," Mr. Colton said. "They are earning a few extra dollars and they're doing a service to the city because the city doesn't have to deal with it. Now some of these people are being forced to scrounge in the bags, and when that bag is ripped open, the garbage is being spread around and is attracting rodents."

Indeed, a maintenance worker at the Walt Whitman Houses near the Brooklyn Navy Yard said that her job had become much more difficult because of the many bags ripped open by people looking for the containers. "It makes a lot of mess," she said, declining to give her name. "When they go through the bags, they don't clean up and they don't tie it. Then I have to do double work."

Marcos Antunez, a self-described mole person, one of the many who live in underground tunnels, said that it had become harder for many collectors of nickel-deposit containers, but that after years of combing the Upper West Side, he still knew where to go. "Restaurants, they still put everything out," he said, adding that because the Bloomberg administration had not been cracking down on public partying as much as its predecessor, plenty of bottles were still out there to be found. "People hang out, you know, drinking beer, and so there is still a source."

But it is more difficult, even though in some neighborhoods, residents have been leaving out the redeemables for easier access.

"The quality of the product that you can find is such that you have to travel further to get what you are looking for," said a bottle redeemer who gave his name only as K. S.

For those who would recycle, the pyschodrama continues to play out in bottles and jars. Laura Haight, a recycling advocate at the New York Public Interest Research Group in Albany who nearly took up residence at City Hall during the budget negotiations, said in an e-mail message that she personally maintains a "carry-in/carry-out" policy when she comes to the city.

"It feels wrong to just dump beer bottles and stuff in your trash can," said Andy Young, a magazine researcher who found an upside in buying beer in cans instead of bottles. "I was so excited by taking out my recycling," he said, "because you can squish the cans into something so tiny that you don't have to go out so frequently. It was just a delight."

Even the man in charge of the whole recycling operation admits to the occasional pang of guilt many New Yorkers say they feel about flinging away those seltzer bottles.

"I can understand that," Mr. Doherty said. "I feel it myself sometimes."

But then there are the legions for whom it is just not that big a deal. Christopher Bisgaard, a corporate lawyer, said that he found it very easy to comply with the new rules in his 24-unit building. As long as there is a plan in place for disposing of the materials, he said, he does not see the need to recycle them.

Or Paul L., who lives in Queens and sells books on the sidewalks of Manhattan. "I had no idea that there had been any changes," he said. Upon hearing that he would no longer have to separate out glass and plastic, he exclaimed with gusto, "Phew! I feel much better."