MANHATTAN — New York’s recycling rate has dropped significantly over the past five years, even as the Bloomberg administration tried to define the city as a leader in green.
As part of its environmental blueprint, plaNYC, the Bloomberg administration has set a goal of doubling the amount of waste diverted from landfills by 2017.
But numbers show that the proportion of waste being recycled has been steadily sliding, falling from a high of 19 percent in 2002, to just 15 percent in 2011 — far behind other green-minded cities like Seattle, with a recycling rate of nearly 54 percent; Portland, Oregon, with a rate of nearly 60 percent; and San Francisco, which achieved a record-setting 77 percent diversion rate in 2009.
Even if the city achieves its goal, it will still lag behind the national average rate of 34.1 percent — not to mention countries like Slovenia and France, which divert 37 percent and 68 percent of their waste away from landfills, respectively, according to European Union figures.
“Recycling has been one of the missing priorities of the Bloomberg administration's otherwise impressive track record on sustainability,” said Eric Goldstein, a lawyer and the resident “garbage man” at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.
The group has been a vocal critic of the mayor’s recycling policies, including a 2002 decision to suspend glass, metal and plastic recycling to cut costs amid a budget crisis.
The decision caused the recycling rate to plummet to just 11 percent in 2003 after years of steady gains — and it hasn’t recovered since.
In addition to costing the city $300 million to haul 3 .2 million tons of solid waste to landfills each year, the rise comes as tempers are flaring over what to do with the city’s ever-growing load of waste, which is only expected to expand as the population swells.
On the Upper East Side, residents remain angry about the construction of a new waterfront station for shipping waste out of the city by barge, prompting multiple lawsuits.
Elsewhere, environmental activists are sounding alarms over a proposal to build a new waste “conversion” plant that many fear will be nothing more than a glorified incinerator.
Both sides, however, agreed they would be in a far better position were there simply less garbage for the city to have to deal with.
“The city has never really gotten completely serious about recycling,” said Tony Ard, president of the Gracie Point Community Council, which has been fighting the facility on the Upper East Side.
New York City Environmental Justice Alliance executive director Eddie Bautista, who has been lobbying against the potential construction of a waste-to-energy plant, agreed.
"It's not been good," he said of the administration's record on recycling.
"And to their credit, they’’ll be the first to admit it," he said.
Activists agreed that part of the blame rests solely on the mayor — the same man who has touted an aggressive environmental agenda, including mandating expensive phase-outs of certain types of dirty heating oil and more innovative solutions, like painting roofs white to reflect heat.
They said cutting back the recycling program sent a clear message that recycling, which has traditionally been the cornerstone of cities' environmental agendas, was not a priority in New York. And since then, some feel, little effort has been made to change the tune.
“New Yorkers haven’t received a clear and convincing message about exactly how to recycle, exactly what to recycle, and why it’s important, both economically and environmentally," said Goldstein.
"It just sent a confusing message to the public,” he said.
But the tide may be changing.
During his State of the City Speech in January, the mayor vowed to double the amount of residential waste diverted from landfills by 2017 — an ambitious effort that would help bring New York in line with other cities across the country.
“By taking steps like increasing recycling in schools and streets and expanding our plastics recycling program, we'll reduce our waste disposal costs by $50 million annually and help protect the environment,” Bloomberg said in his speech.
Part of the effort, Sanitation Department officials said, will include installing hundreds of new recycling bins in public spaces across the city, as well as expanding the types of plastics that can be recycled to include items like yogurt and food storage containers, which are currently exempt.
Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the mayor, also rejected the assertion that the mayor has dragged his feet on recycling, arguing that the administration has been working quietly behind the scenes since the mayor issued his Solid Waste Management Plan in 2004, developing pilot programs to test innovative ideas and leading studies on programs, which are now kicking into gear.
"Our Administration has been an international leader on sustainability issues like long-term waste management, and we’re working to aggressively expand recycling and other sustainable ways to deal with the 11,000 tons of garbage that New Yorkers generate every day,” Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said.
“The best you could say is we hope it's a transition period," Goldstein said of the push, noting that recent comments from City Hall suggest that the administration is planning "to turn things around."
“Our hope is that the mayor will use these next two years to rejuvenate recycling in New York City, which will benefit taxpayers as well as the planet," he said.