New Yorkers are throwing away less, but recycling less too, according to new city data.
Samantha Maldonado, The City
The Department of Sanitation is disposing of less trash now compared to the past four years, but recycling citywide is down.
That’s a main takeaway from the Mayor’s Management Report, released Friday, which offers a snapshot about what New Yorkers toss — and what they’re preventing from going into the garbage. The recent report provides stats spanning July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023.
Mayor Eric Adams has made sanitation a focal point of his administration’s efforts to improve quality of life. On Tuesday he announced a requirement for all businesses to place trash in containers — rather than in black bags on the sidewalk — starting in March. It’s a bid to get rid of rats and prevent pedestrians from navigating piles of trash heaps.
“Our streets will look cleaner, they will smell cleaner, and across not just the borough of Manhattan, but across the entire five boroughs,” the mayor said at an Upper West Side press conference Tuesday.
Businesses produce about half the city’s waste, but DSNY does not pick it up and does not include those figures in the Mayor’s Management Report.
Based on figures for what DSNY does pick up — from homes, schools and other city-owned buildings — 5.6% less trash has been disposed of in the most recent fiscal year compared to the previous. That rate is down 2.6% compared to four years ago.
New Yorkers diverted 18.6% of material through recycling this year, which is down a percentage point compared to the previous year and more than 2% down compared to four years ago, pre-pandemic.
Composting Up, Recycling Down
One factor that could influence the decrease in trash is the increased rate of food scraps and yard waste — which make up about a third of the waste steam — diverted from the garbage. The total tons of organics diverted more than doubled between Fiscal Year 2020 and 2023.
That’s thanks to the proliferation of Smart Bins for organics throughout the boroughs, as well as expanded citywide curbside organics pickup. DSNY began the program in Queens last year and is expanding the service, starting with Brooklyn in October.
“Roughly one third of what New Yorkers throw away is compostable, so we expect curbside composting to continue to make significant dents in our diversion rates as we expand the program to all five boroughs,” said DSNY spokesperson Vincent Gragnani.
But not everything that New Yorker’s put into “compost bins” actually gets composted, right now. Food scraps in the Smart Bins and picked up curbside by DSNY get anaerobically digested and turned into biogas, which is used for energy. Only on Staten Island does food waste get composted, a process that transforms the scraps into nutrient-rich soil.
Diverting materials from landfills and incinerators is also a way of fighting climate change by reducing energy consumption. Organic materials decompose in landfills and create methane, a potent, planet-warming greenhouse gas.
Justin Wood, director of policy for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, called the success of the organics program “a bright spot” in the report, but raised concerns about falling recycling rates as a whole.
“That’s a really disappointing decline,” Wood said.
He noted a 38% drop in recycling summonses DSNY issued this past fiscal year compared to four years ago.
“That’s troubling both on the residential and commercial side,” he said. “We just haven’t seen the [necessary] level of enforcement.”
After organics, the biggest change in what’s being diverted is textiles.
Textile diversion has fallen almost 50% since Fiscal Year 2020 — and is down nearly 34% since last year. Textiles make up about 6% of the waste stream, and can be disposed of on a voluntary basis, like electronic waste (which makes up less than 1% of the waste stream).
The company Wearables Collections accepts clothing donations at eight GrowNYC Greenmarkets in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Adam Baruchowitz, the CEO, said materials his company collects can be reused secondhand, made into industrial rags or shredded into low-grade fiber products, such as insulation.
He wasn’t sure what accounted for such a drop in textile diversion rates, though he floated two theories.
“It’s been a bad economic year for people with interest rates going up and inflation lingering. You might have people holding onto things for longer,” he said.
Baruchowitz also raised the growing popularity of e-commerce sites for secondhand clothes, like Poshmark and thredUP, which people may opt for instead of taking old clothes to collection points around the city.
Massachusetts in November banned textiles being thrown away — a policy change that New York City could adopt, according to Anna Sacks, a member of the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board and a zero-waste expert.
“If we did a ban, that would eliminate a lot of the cost we’re spending sending our waste to landfill and incinerators, and boost the local manufacturing economy for textiles, and it would give us a truer sense of what we’re consuming,” she said. “Six percent is a huge chunk that’s all going to landfills and incinerators.”
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