08/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recycling Pays in NYC

It's been endlessly debated, does recycling make economic sense? In New York City, back in 2002, Mayor Bloomberg proposed cuts to the city's recycling budget, raising questions both here and around the nation as to whether recycling was a cost-effective strategy for dealing with municipal solid waste. Even after the Mayor and the New York City Council agreed to restore glass and plastic recycling collections for all households in 2004, and to enter into a long-term contract for the sorting and reselling of collected recyclables, some economic questions lingered.

So the Natural Resources Defense Council commissioned a study to compare costs in New York City associated with curbside collection for recycling versus for waste to be exported to out-of-state landfills and incinerators. What they found was that while citywide costs per ton for curbside collection and disposal of recyclables was higher than for refuse going to landfills and incinerators, the difference was small, roughly 6 percent. The gap, the analysts concluded, was due primarily to the fact that recycling collection crews collect fewer tons per shift than refuse collection crews. In contrast, the overall cost of processing a ton of the city's recyclables is much less than the cost the city must pay companies to bury or burn a ton of the city's regular trash.

The report also calculated that recycling significantly lowers the city's global warming pollution, helping New York to meet its recently stated goal of reducing global warming emissions by 30 percent by 2030. The existing recycling program, the report estimated, reduced the city's global warming emissions by 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2005 alone -- the equivalent of taking 338,000 passenger cars off the road each year.

So what can we do to make recycling more cost competitive? Simple: Recycle more. According to the Department of Sanitation, 22 percent of the material collected as refuse is designated recyclables. This means that increased education and enforcement could result in additional recyclables set out for recycling instead of as refuse. This is good news for recycling because the majority of recycling trucks are not packed out at the end of the truck shift, meaning the trucks have the capacity to hold more recyclables than are being collected during the truck shift.

Now how do we get all of us recycling more? Might not hurt to take a look at a city with not just the country's best recycling rate but a great recycling education program. San Francisco, which is #1 for recycling among NRDC's Smarter Cities, diverts 70 percent of its waste from the landfill--the highest in the country. In 2006 it had the lowest disposal to landfills in more than 30 years, despite growth. Do they also have a good enforcement program? Check back, for we're going to look further into this ourselves.

The complete NRDC report is available online here.