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Sitting High On Top of the Trash Recycling Heap

It may come as no surprise to those who wash out their ketchup bottles and shop with paper rather than plastic, but Community Board 6 diverted a higher percentage of its trash away from landfills than any other district in the city last year. CB 6, which encompasses Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Columbia Street District, Gowanus, Park Slope and Red Hook, sent about 32 percent of its refuse to be recycled or reused, which saved 66 percent of recyclable items from imminent burial. The runner-up in Brooklyn was CB 2 – the area from the East River south to Atlantic Avenue and east to Classon Avenue – which diverted about 26 percent of its refuse, rescuing about 55 percent of recyclables. The average diversion rate for the borough was 17.3 percent. Robert Lange, Director of the Department of Sanitation’s (DOS) Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, presented the numbers to the Community Board 6 Public Safety/ Environmental Protection Committee meeting Monday night at Wesley House, at 501 Sixth Street in Park Slope. Lange’s presentation was coupled with a discussion of the district’s ongoing efforts to push the numbers even higher. The latest idea for doing so, suggested by committee chair Devin Cohen, is to encourage New York City Transit to place recycle bins in the subway system. “It seems that the waste that should be produced in the transit system should be much more recyclable than what’s produced in households,” Cohen said, citing the prevalence of newspapers and bottles in rider-generated trash. “It just seems to me that it’s ripe for a system of recycling.” NYC Transit recycles industrial materials from track work, and employs a carting company that recovers recyclable items from refuse, but its Assistant Chief Operations Officer, Michael Zacchea, said placing recycling bins on platforms is too complicated, expensive, and even dangerous, citing “the risk, for example, of someone setting fire to a bin of dry newspapers.” NYC Transit rescues 75,000 tons per year of motor oil, machinery, copper, aluminum, and other materials for recycling. “The subway refuse is really the smaller part of that,” said Zacchea. Annual rider-generated trash totals14,000 pounds and Zacchea said separating it for recycling prior to its collection is more trouble than it’s worth. According to a pilot program in the early 1990s, reconfiguring trash cans for recycling in subway stations would cost $6 million to start and $4 million annually. Re-sorting recyclables that riders dispose of in the wrong containers – some of which become contaminated by other trash and lose their ability to be recycled – creates additional costs that NYC Transit is not willing to pay. “There’s an economic attachment to whoever does the wrong thing… It’s an extra cost for Transit,” Zacchea said. Transporting separated trash out of the system’s 468 stations on its eight refuse trains would also be a complex process. “To get it out in one, two, or three distinct {loads} is tremendously expensive,” he said. But the economic argument – coming from the agency that sold the Atlantic Yards at $114.5 million less than their appraised value and spent millions on holiday discount fares last year – was unconvincing to some. Cohen said expense does not justify foregoing separation on the platforms, and that the social and economic costs of not recycling are too great. “We just can’t afford as an economy to have to find more places to send our un-recycled waste,” he said. “It was disheartening to hear the explanation that it is too expensive.” Better education of riders would prevent the need to re-sort later, and eliminate the extra cost it carries, Cohen added. But the effectiveness of trying to educate the public about trash disposal is a point of contention. The DOS uses a variety of educational means, including newspaper and television advertisements, mailings, and posters. Lange said that a TV ad campaign that aired this fall to encourage recycling, which cost $1 million, most likely succeeded in educating the public, although there is no statistical way to prove it. But the public’s mixed rate of success in complying with disposal and sorting policies above ground creates skepticism that riders would comply with new regulations below. The DOS routinely finds bags full of private trash from residences and businesses in corner street baskets intended solely for trash generated on the street but frequently have no room for it due to illegal dumpers. Approximately thirty percent of street basket contents are considered illegal. Sloppy disposal habits on subway platforms also generated cynicism that an underground separation system would work. “We haven’t been able to educate people to not throw {trash on the tracks},” noted committee member Peggy Manning. Garbage on subway tracks, tossed by careless riders as if the tracks were trash cans, is often cited as the reason for track fires – that is, if it is not first eaten by rats that thrive off of it. “We should be at that basic point – even getting them to throw it in the {can}” before asking riders to separate their trash, Manning said. The discussion comes as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 20-year Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) – which would shift long-haul disposal from truck to barge and retrofit and reopen marine transfer stations in Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, College Point, Queens, and the Upper East Side – sits idle, awaiting a vote by City Council, which could come as early as February. The SWMP sets a 25 percent diversion goal for 2007 and 35 percent for 2015, and would send Brooklyn’s metal, glass, and plastic to a Hugo Neu recycling facility in Sunset Park, which is expected to be up and running in 2008 or 2009, rather than to the company’s Long Island City and Jersey City facilities. The facility will also accept some of Brooklyn’s paper, all of which now goes to the Visy paper mill on Staten Island. The changes are inspired by environmental concerns similar to those so prevalent in CB 6, as well as economic considerations. The cost is rising, both in dollars and in pollution from the tractor trailers that carry the city’s trash to its final resting place in a variety of states, as well as from the trash itself. A City Council bill requiring manufacturers to take electronic equipment - or E-Waste – back for proper disposal, reuse or recycling, to prevent it from ending up in household trash, where it is known to release lead and other toxins into the ground, is also pending. There is also proposed legislation on the State level to deal with E-waste, which makes up less than 1 percent of the waste stream, but is responsible for 70 percent of the heavy metals contained in landfills. For more information visit: www.nyc.gov/html/dsny/html/home/home.shtml

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