Cover Story: Where Does All the Garbage Go? An Update on New York's Recycling Program

There was a time not long ago when New Yorkers could throw just about anything away and not give it a second thought. But in the late 1980s, the federal government enacted strong environmental legislation, including the closure of many landfills because they didn't comply with federal standards. These occurrences, combined with New York City's ban on incinerators in residential buildings, set the stage for Mayor Koch to sign Local Law 19 of 1989. This ushered in the Age of Recycling for residential buildings, changing forever how we dispose of our trash.

Recycling Goals

In addition to concern about the environment, the Koch Administration had another immediate problem: the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, the City's major receptacle of garbage, was reaching maximum capacity. The goal of Local Law 19 was to divert 25 percent of the City's waste away from landfills and into recycling facilities where it could be sorted, processed, and sold for reuse.

Stanley E. Michels, City Council Member and Chairman of the Committee on Environmental Protection, says that the City is "slowly but surely" approaching the 25 percent diversion rate. But, he adds, "It's taking more time than anybody thought."

According to Robert Lange, director of the Department of Sanitation, Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse, and Recycling, the City today has reached a 20 percent diversion rate. But as the deadline for the closing of Fresh Kills approaches, the city has stepped up its efforts to reach full recycling capacity, through a combination of increased public education, more frequent recycling pick-up and increased enforcement.

Even when the city has reached its goal of recycling a quarter of the waste stream, the problem of what to do with the other 75 percent still remains. "How do you divert the more than 13,000 tons of garbage that go to Fresh Kills on a daily basis?" Michels asks.

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