Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Recycling Myths

We have been following the recycling/bottle bill debate for over twenty five years. In this period there has been one continual assertion by the proponents of augmenting the municipal curbside recycling program: all we need is more education and New Yorkers will be able to dramatically increase the current modest levels of diversion that is achieved by the current curbside effort.

The assertion has gained additional currency since the city adopted its current SWMP last spring, and in the process established a new Office of Recycling whose mandate is to, well, educate New Yorkers to do more recycling. This is all captured is the current issue of City Limits in an article that is partially titled "Toward a Waste Free City."

One thing is for certain. Hot air will not go to waste as the usual suspects regurgitate the old education mantra. The article cites the comments of City Council Solid Waste Committee Chair Mike McMahon; "I think the city has not done the education necessary...DSNY is great at picking {recycling} up at the curb but they aren't good at promoting it."

Well, since when is a government agency good at promoting anything that requires its citizens to be obligated to do something? We are definitely going to find out if this can be done, since it is precisely the job of the new recycling office to promote the hell out of the activity.

Armed with the results of the Sanitation Department's waste composition survey David Hurd, the head of the RO, plans to go borough by borough and enlist community boards and local organizations as partners. This will "allow his office to identify specific obstacles to recycling in a particular neighborhood..." Of course, identifying the obstacles doesn't guarantee that the recycling bureaucrats will be able to come up with solutions, since the obstacles may be completely resistant to any government sponsored remedy.

In addition, the targeted materials only make up around 35% of the waste stream, so that even if the rate skyrocketed it would not leave the city with any spectacular garbage diversion achievement. Which is something that the intrepid Hurd recognizes when he tells City Limits, "We're going to have to go well beyond the current program." So Mr. Hurd, who hasn't even started and doesn't have a single achievement to point to, is already plotting the expansion of his efforts and, of course, the increase of the resources devoted to his experimental office.

All of this discussion is being done without any factoring in of the impact of the possible expansion of the state's mandatory deposit law, an expansion that would divert much of the cash crop that drives the current curbside program. In fact, in the entire City Limits article there is no discussion of the economics of recycling, since a proper cost-benefit analysis might raise uncomfortable questions for the devotees.

The 600 pound gorilla in all of this is what to do with food waste (around 50% of the trash haul according to the article-an estimate that is probably too high). We can just see the devotees, eyes aglow, looking to mandate the source separation of food waste at all of the 28,000 food establishments-not to mention the thousands of additional food stores all over the city's neighborhoods-unmindful and uncaring at the potential cost to area businesses.

Which leaves us shaking our heads at the utopianism of the advocates. Determined to force people to do the right thing they will propose further mandates on residents and businesses. When these don't work, more money will be requested and more mandates proposed. We wonder whether we will see any courageous elected officials with the fortitude to question the basic assumptions of the devotees. All of which reminds us, sadly, of the boy, the emperor, and the suit of new clothes that was never there.