|A worker walks past a pile of recyclable waste at the new SIMS Metal Management center in Brooklyn, New York. (AFP)|
It is the U.S. city that generates the most garbage: a dizzying 2.5 kilos per person per day compared to two kilos in the rest of the country, according to the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Sanitation is the most important uniformed force on the street,” writes Robin Nagle, anthropologist at New York University in her book “Picking Up.”
“If sanitation workers aren’t there, the city becomes unlivable, fast.”
But New York, in so many other respects a municipal policy trailblazer for the United States, lags woefully behind its West Coast and European rivals on the issue of recycling.
Ron Gonen, New York recycling czar, says the amount of waste rises each year and that the city spends $330 million on trucking off its refuse to places like Ohio or North Carolina.
But in the last two years the city of 8.4 million, where businesses organize their own separate waste collection, has made serious if belated efforts to improve recycling.
Of the 11,200 tons of daily rubbish collected by the city, it is committed to increasing the rate of recycling from 15 to 30 percent by 2017, organic waste not included.
Private companies discard another 29,000 tons a day.
The city has partnered with private investors to build a brand-new, state-of-the-art recycling plant in Brooklyn.
The city has extended a pilot program to collect organic waste from 300 schools this year, up from 90 in the last.
From July 2015 restaurants, delis and grocers will also have to separate out organic waste and recycling.
“In the last two years there was phenomenal dedication. There is a lot of potential,” Gonen told AFP.
Eric Goldstein, an expert from the Natural Resources Defense Council also working with the city, agrees.
“We are in an early stage of transformation,” he told AFP.
“We had a slow start, we are still not one of the leading cities, as Seattle or San Francisco. But we are catching up quickly by good steps forward.”
He blamed the delay on being too focused on the short-term and shying away from long-term investments.
“The biggest challenge is that the progress of the Bloomberg administration continues with the new mayor,” Goldstein told AFP, referring to the just-finished reign of billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg.
In December, an ultra-modern recycling plant for metals, glass and plastics opened in Brooklyn, operated by Sims Municipal Recycling, a world leader in the sector.
It took 10 years and $110 million from private and state investors to build the 44,515-square-meter Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility along the East River.
“This is the largest sorting system of this type, to my knowledge, in the world, certainly in the United States,” said Tom Outerbridge, general manager of the Sims plant.
The machinery is mostly Dutch and German. There is an educational center for students but at the moment it functions only eight hours a day with the plan to go 24-7 by spring.
Of the approximately 800 tons of plastic, glass and metal that the city collects each day, the plant currently treats about 272.
The rest goes to another plant in neighboring New Jersey. The two plants combined can recycle 1,180 tons a day according to Outerbridge, who has 25 years experience in the sector.
Recycling is not just good for the environment. It also generates revenue: an aluminum cube produced by Sunset Park weighing around 680 kilos can be resold for $1,000.