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Food pickup, apartments pose huge recycling challenges

New York City has more than 300 waste enforcement officers, some of whom carry guns, to issue tickets to enforce the city
New York City has more than 300 waste enforcement officers, some of whom carry guns, to issue tickets to enforce the city's recycling regulations.
— image credit:

The Big Apple may follow Metro Vancouver both in setting an ambitious target of recycling 70 per cent of all waste and also seeking to incinerate garbage that can't be diverted.

But New York City recycling czar Robert Lange cautioned Metro planners they will face big challenges, particularly in their ambitious plans to enforce widespread food scrap pickup for composting and to get tenants in multifamily condos and apartment buildings to improve their abysmal recycling rates.

"An apartment dweller has a lot of anonymity," Lange said Thursday in Burnaby.

"I do not want to discourage you. I do want you to be fully cognizant of the challenges that face you ahead."

The director of New York's bureau of waste reduction, reuse and recycling was the keynote speaker addressing 400 delegates at Metro's Zero Waste Challenge Conference.

New York tried for five years to launch food waste pickup but failed to make it work, Lange said, citing an inability to get residents on board, particularly in apartment buildings, as well as the high costs of collection and difficulty marketing the end product.

"The hard part in multifamily is where do you store food waste in between collections?" he asked. "You start having odours. You start having vermin problems."

Gathering all food scraps in green bins along with yard waste is central to Metro's waste reduction strategy, which counts on the initiative getting the region halfway to the new 70 per cent recycling target from the current diversion rate of 55 per cent.

Organics make up 40 per cent of all garbage in the waste stream here, so the strategy to divert food waste to make compost or biofuel looks good on paper.Robert Lange

But Lange said apartments often have inadequate space to store recyclables let alone compostable food scraps.

Metro intends to ban all organics pickup by 2015 and to have the ban in place for single-family homes by the end of 2012.

Tougher enforcement is part of the plan.

New York, meanwhile, has made few gains despite having a small army of gun-toting waste-enforcement officers to ticket residents who defy the rules and put recyclables in with their garbage or vice-versa.

Last year, they slapped 56,300 repeat offenders with fines totalling $10.1 million and gave out $25 fines to another 38,000 first-time violators.

Lange said it can take months of continuous daily ticketing to get many violators to comply.

Even so, he said, it's tough to deal with multifamily buildings.

Tenants in many buildings drop recyclables down chutes and there's no way of knowing who sent what down into the common bin.

"It's almost impossible to give tenants a ticket for recycling," Lange said. "And quite frankly they know it."

While he said there is no silver bullet to get better compliance, making recycling convenient is critical and probably the single most important thing Metro can do.

Despite an apparent "plateau" in citizens willingness to be inconvenienced to recycle, he said he believes Metro's 70 per cent target is achievable and New York is likely to adopt the same goal.

New York has just a 17 per cent residential recycling rate – due to its many apartment towers – close to Metro's 16 per cent rate for multifamily residents.

Metro Vancouver's single-family homes do better with a 46 per cent rate, but it takes superior recycling numbers from the construction and demolition industry here to pull the region's overall rate up to 55 per cent.

In an interview with Black Press, Lange also addressed the contentious issue of waste-to-energy plants, which dominated Metro hearings on the proposed new solid waste plan last spring.

New York planned to put a garbage incinerator in each of the five boroughs, starting with Brooklyn, but that strategy was dropped in the mid-1990s in the face of fierce political opposition.

But Lange predicts the issue is coming back sooner or later, adding New York continues to study waste-to-energy options.

He doesn't expect it will be any less controversial than in Metro Vancouver, where the proposed solid waste plan awaiting approval by the province would allow increased garbage incineration despite vocal protests from opponents, particularly in the Fraser Valley.

"Your debate, like our debate in New York City, is not based on science, it's based on emotion," Lange said. "And that's not usually a good basis for making public policy."

Lange has also looked at more modern waste-to-energy technologies, which are touted by proponents as much less polluting than traditional mass-burn incinerators like Metro's existing burner in Burnaby.

But he said such technologies are unproven at handling anything more than 500 tonnes of garbage per day – a tiny fraction of the 11,000 tonnes per day New Yorkers toss out.

New York ships its garbage to distant out-of-state landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

He said the city has also looked at composting garbage – not just organics but with plastics, wood and everything else mixed in.

The resulting compost isn't usable in agriculture, but Lange said there are other potential markets.

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