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Clandestine recycling

My building doesn’t recycle. According to the NYC Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY’s) extensive and exhausting website, that means the building management could be receiving fines of up to $10,000 per day.* Somehow I doubt that they’re receiving a $10k fine per day – if they were, they would have set up the bins and put out the sign a long time ago. A while back I considered becoming a tenant liaison through the DSNY’s Apartment Building Recycling Initiative Program and then thought better of it, due to my limited Spanish skills and schedule – and the super-sketchiness of the landlord. (You have to get the building management’s permission to help them out.)

Instead, I’ve been tiptoeing around to other neighborhood recycling bins, guiltily tossing in my glass, plastic, metal, and paper. (Sorted and clean!) Before my sister noticed the nearby bins, I had lugged a few huge bagfuls of paper to work. I’m not 100% convinced that they recycle, but I was thinking I had a better chance than with my own building! I’ve managed to reduce my trash quite a bit by paying more attention to the paper; I’ve reduced it further by saving the food scraps in the fridge and taking them down to the farmer’s market once a week. The Lower East Side Ecology Center sets up a collection every Saturday at Union Square – they might even do it on Mon, Wed, Fri as well. I purchased their compost and potting soil for my tomatoes last summer, giving me – in my hyper-urban state – a tiny feeling of living off my land. Unfortunately, Elizabeth Royte from Garbage Land didn’t feel very good about the LESEC; she was concerned about how they process and remove icky chemicals from the rotting food – I’ll have to go down there and see for myself.

Royte’s book also included some interesting thoughts about recycling that I hadn’t really considered up until now. In short, many environmentalists don’t believe in household recycling at all, as it furthers the notion that environmental problems are the responsibility of the consumer, when in fact, the manufacture and packaging of products creates far more waste than any of us throw out. By aggressively promoting recycling, companies and governments don’t have to come up with less wasteful processes or products or meaningful legislation. She says it better than I do:

Individual recycling was not only unhelpful…it was also a shining example of how individual goodwill had been perverted by capitalist goals…By trying to shrink my garbage footprint, I was…abetting a bankrupt system by doing what the government, educators, and environmentalists (who increasingly partnered with corporations) told me to do. Recycling merely made it easier for individuals to keep consuming and to keep discarding. It also gave waste hauling companies who ran recycling programs an opportunity to look as though they cared. (And to make more money.) (Garbage Land, 282).**


*"Buildings with ten or more apartments that receive four or more Notices of Violation within a six-month period will be fined $500 for each bag that violates recycling regulations, up to a maximum of 20 bags within a 24-hour period. This translates to a maximum fine of $10,000 per day."

**To be clear, Royte is referring to her own habits as interpreted by one of these theorists and continues to recycle, as far as I know.

Posted on Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:41PM by Registered CommenterMegan Metcalf in | Comments5 Comments

Reader Comments (5)

Yes, that passage was a spin on an academic paper I’d read (thanks for acknowledging that). I do recycle everything I can through our curbside system, and beyond (textile drop-offs, e-waste returns, composting, etc). But even more importantly I try to reduce my consumption and reuse what’s already out there. I was skeptical about recycling while researching Garbage Land but came to understand it saves huge amounts of energy to make new goods from old materials (instead of extracting and hauling and transforming raw materials), and it prevents some air and water pollution. Recycling and reusing also chip away at the nation’s far, far larger UPSTREAM waste footprint – the garbage created in making all our stuff (food, packaging, durable goods, etc.). Here’s an excellent summary of this process: www.storyofstuff.com

January 28, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Royte

Wow, thanks for reading, Elizabeth! And for your feedback, ideas, and terrific book!

January 28, 2008 | Registered CommenterMegan Metcalf

Have you tried calling 311? Your building really should be recycling, and it sounds like the only thing that will make them pay attention is a fine.

My building was fined a few times over a year ago-- I saw the notices from an inspector posted in the lobby--and now they recycle like champs.

The LESEC does collect compost on Monday, Wednesday and Friday as well as Saturday at Union Square. They rock.

January 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJuli in NYC

Recycling is definitely not a cure-all, but it can be the first step to an eco-conscious lifestyle. People want something tangible to DO, not just the list of what NOT to do.

I think corporations should be fiscally responsible for collecting their packaging and recycling. They're the ones who make the problem and benefit from it.

January 31, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEmmie

I agree with you on both points, Emmie.

My dad has another idea: he thinks that the cost of disposal should be built into products, kind of like a bottle deposit. This way, a consumer has a dollar value on what the product costs her at the end of its life, as well as at the beginning. If she gets a substantial amount of money back later because the product is made of easily dissembled and recycled materials, then maybe it's actually cheaper than something not so recyclable. And if she (or someone) gets money back for the box and the rest of the packaging, it probably won't end up as litter. Finally, and most importantly, if the cost of the disposal makes the product too expensive for consumers to want to buy it, then the manufacturer has to come up with a way to make it and its disposal cheaper.

I think it's a good idea. As he says, the devil is in the details.

January 31, 2008 | Registered CommenterMegan Metcalf

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