True Green Cities / Why is Recycling So Hard?

A visit to St. Catherine's Monastery on Mt. Sinai in 1995 initiated by environmental concerns.

A visit to St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai in 1995 initiated my environmental concerns.

I know exactly when I became an environmentalist. My sister and I were traveling in Egypt in 1995. We took a journey to the monastery of St. Catherine’s on Mount Sinai, and as I walked back a bit to get a good overall photographic view of the monastery, I looked behind me over a ridge and was flabbergasted by what I saw – a mountain of garbage – and the most prevalent item was the aluminum Coke can. One of the most sacred sites in all of the world (the location of the “Burning Bush”) and it was an island in a sea of refuse. I remember calling my sister and friend over to look and we all stood there speechless. Several days later I was horrified again by the idling tourist buses parked nearly up against the pyramids. Horrified by the pollution, the waste of gas, the damage it must be doing to the sandstone of the pyramids and equally horrified by the visual pollution.

Recycling Isn’t As Easy it Seems

Town of West Boylston, MA aluminum recycling center. Photo courtesy Town of West Boylston website.

Town of West Boylston, MA aluminum recycling center. Photo courtesy Town of West Boylston website.

In presentations I give I used to show a photo of a recycling can and a building and ask, “We all recycle now. Why is it so easy to recycle cans but not buildings?” Well the reality is, it is not that easy to recycle cans or other items either. As many people and places that do recycle, there are probably as many that don’t. Case in point, my apartment building in Buffalo. When I moved in two years ago I asked the door man where the recycling bins were. He told me the building didn’t recycle! WHAT, how could that be? I called the property manager and she told me, “We’ve tried to start recycling twice but the residents just wouldn’t…?!” So, two years later and every week I take my cardboard and paper to a public recycling location at a school near me and then I take the rest of my recyclables to my sister’s. As a residence in the city of Buffalo, recycling is picked up every week. It is not easy, but one thing I insist upon doing. Although I have wondered if the gas I used to drive my recycling to recycling locations is just negating my efforts anyhow. In the City of Buffalo it appears that commercial buildings and multiple-unit residential buildings are required to make arrangements with private companies for their recycling, but who is monitoring it? In 2011, the “Green Cart Recycling Program” was unveiled which provided residences with larger recycling bins in an effort to increase the amount of items recycled.

I know small businesses who also want to do the right thing but the cost for paying for garbage pick-up, let alone recycling pick-up, precludes them from arranging for it. Some folks bring their garbage and recycling home. Yes, you pay for it at home too, but since it’s built into your annual taxes, it isn’t really noticed. It’s like the airplane luggage conundrum. We were all much happier and would still be happier if the luggage cost were just built into the airfare. Instead, on nearly every plane, we have the last people on struggling to put oversized luggage into the overhead bins or under the seats.

New York City Has Been Recycling Since 1989

Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility in Brooklyn, where FIT an much of NYC's recycling goes.  Photo credit Nikolas Koenig for OHNY.

Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility in Brooklyn, where FIT and much of NYC’s recycling goes. Photo credit Nikolas Koenig for OHNY.

I spent a little time searching recycling laws online. They were not easy to find for some cities, and for others like New York City, there were so many links and pages I got lost half-way through. In NYC, the Department of Sanitation picks up recycling along with garbage from residential buildings, schools, institutions and agencies. Private and commercial buildings are required to contract with private carters. It would be really interesting to conduct a study to determine how many actually do. (If such studies have been conducted, I wasn’t able to locate any online during my 30 minutes of research.) Several of my students were recently evaluating the sustainable practices of their firms and were told when they asked, “we don’t recycle because the building doesn’t recycle.” By law, the businesses are required to recycle but how can they individually manage it in a building which isn’t providing the service? But once again who is really monitoring? The staff in one student’s firm have taken it upon themselves to take turns taking the recycling to their homes and even collecting compostables and taking them to the Union Square Market where a vendor provides free composting. Fortunately my school, FIT, is well ahead of the curve with recycling and one of the writers in our alumni magazine, Jonathan Vatner, recently received a grant from our Sustainability Council to trace our garbage and recycling. It was quite an amazing and inspirational article, “Where Does FIT’s Trash Go?”

Other Big Cities Have Recycling Laws Too

All residential buildings, including new residential towers like this one in Long Island City receive recycling pick-up from the Department of Sanitation.

All NYC residential buildings, including new residential towers like this one in Long Island City receive recycling pick-up from the Department of Sanitation.

Having lived in Seattle and Washington DC also, cities with similar laws to NYC, I’ve just gotten so used to the city handling all residential recycling that I still find it shocking that multiple-unit dwellings in Buffalo are not apparently covered by the city sanitation laws. My offices in both Seattle and Washington recycled. Under DC law all commercial properties or establishments located in the District of Columbia must maintain an active commercial recycling program. A commercial recycling program includes separation of recyclables from other solid waste, ensuring an adequate number of containers for separated recyclables and hiring a licensed, registered recycling hauler to regularly pick up recyclables.

Do We Need a Recycling Czar?

May everyone find recycling easier to handle in the coming year.

May everyone find recycling easier to handle in the coming year.

I am no expert obviously on recycling. But since most of us aren’t, it is a big problem. I’ve anecdotally been asking friends and family and they all have similar stories. One family member’s residence doesn’t recycle but work does, so she takes her recycling to work with her and is constantly frustrated as I am every time I load of up my car and start driving around with it.

So, is this an appropriate topic for an end of the year blog? Well it’s something that is constantly on my mind. I’m sure we are doing much better than we were in 1989, but we could do so much better, like just about everything in the sustainability world. We’re just not doing it fast enough.

And that’s one of my wishes for the new year. May recycling pick-up soon become something we never have to think about, let alone strategize about, in our daily lives.

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