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May 2006
Recycle This!
The Satya Interview with Cathryn Swan and Christina J. Salvi


Cathryn Swan (above) and
Christina J. Salvi (below)

In 2002, when NYC suspended the recycling of plastics and glass, concerned residents responded with Recycle This! This grassroots activist group has been organizing creative events and actions to promote dialogue about trash and recycling, but also about reusing, reducing and rethinking our consumption patterns. Recycle This! kicked off in 2002 with their Recycle In, when they surrounded City Hall with “A Billion Bottles for Bloomberg.” The event featured art from collected bottles and cans and a teach-in in opposition to the cutbacks in recycling. While recycling of plastics and glass has resumed, Recycle This! continues to be active in creating a more sustainable NYC. They host the Freecycle NYC listserve, organize FreeMeets, electronic recycling events and much more.

Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Recycle This! organizers Cathryn Swan and Christina J. Salvi about rethinking recycling in NYC.

When Mayor Bloomberg announced the suspension of plastic and glass recycling, what were your initial reactions?
Cathryn Swan: I was astounded. Recycling seemed a relatively ‘small’ effort within NYC to reduce our garbage and a given we could count on. For months, I collected plastic and wine bottles and couldn’t quite accept the idea of throwing them out as trash. Mayor Bloomberg’s reasoning that cutting recycling was an economic decision was flawed and I wanted to challenge it immediately, as did others.

Christina J. Salvi: I felt it was not enough to justify it as an economic necessity and that if the recycling program wasn’t working, the city should communicate with people about how to fix it. I thought the city was taking the wrong approach by making it seem as if recycling was not economically feasible, environmentally responsible or morally reasonable. And all this without a push for New Yorkers to reduce their waste was just too much. 

It was intended to cut costs and assess the effectiveness of NYC’s recycling. What in reality was the impact of these suspensions?

CJS: To begin with, the cost of recycling was artificially inflated when presented to Mayor Bloomberg, who cut back the program seemingly unaware that jobs cut (i.e. “savings”) from recycling routes would have to be replaced by additional garbage trucks. Cutting glass and plastic recycling from the curbside program was supposed to save some $40 million—a mere one percent of the budget deficit. In reality, because cutting back on recycling increased the amount of “garbage,” the city incurred a cost increase with garbage collection. We barely saved any money, but undid a decade of education efforts to get New Yorkers to recycle in the first place. People were so confused that recycling dropped overall and the loss of recycled paper by some 12 percent meant an additional loss of revenue for the city. The confusion created by the cuts has persisted to this day—I do commercial recycling consulting and nearly every day I encounter people who think the city has stopped recycling altogether—years after recycling has returned completely.
I will say that one positive impact was the city recognizing that a long-term recycling contract was needed to protect the city from the volatile market. Now that we’re entering a 20-year contract for our curbside recyclables, I hope to see a stronger effort from the city to educate New Yorkers about the importance of waste prevention and recycling.

What do you think all New Yorkers should know about their waste?
CS: First, New Yorkers should try to grasp an understanding of what 13,000 tons of residential waste leaving our city every day to go through other towns and cities to landfills in mostly poor communities means and might look like. Also, a major thing is that the majority of Manhattan’s residential waste goes to Newark, NJ, where it is incinerated. That is a little known fact. While we ban incineration in NYC, we send a large amount of trash to be incinerated in a poor community in New Jersey!

I would also like to emphasize the idea that garbage is not something dirty. It’s a product/byproduct of our consumption habits. By thinking it’s something dirty, we can distance ourselves from it. A lot of the garbage we throw out, we don’t have much choice about because it’s part of packaging, etc., and yet some we do have a choice about. If we’re conscious about our day-to-day practices, we’ll figure out ways to make change. If we all brought our own cups to get our tea and coffee in the coffee shop, imagine what a difference that would make! Also, coffee shops that don’t have ‘to stay’ china or glasses should be asked to make this commitment. There’s more, but the problem is that it’s not part of our daily thinking right now—if we can make it so, things can change, in incremental amounts, which hopefully will snowball in time to making big changes.

CJS: First, that everything New Yorkers throw away at home and at work gets trucked through poor communities and dumped in other poor communities. It’s imperative that we reduce the amount of waste we produce and recognize that putting out your recycling bin each week is not the end of what you can do to be a good environmental citizen. There’s waste involved in the production and shipping of the things we consume, and there’s also no guarantee that our waste will actually be recycled. For example, glass is often used as landfill cover and recyclable plastic is often dumped because there’s just so much of it clogging the market. People need to choose sustainably-produced, minimally packaged and recyclable materials from the beginning.

What is the goal of Recycle This!?
CS: Recycle This! has many goals but our primary one is to come up with creative ways to put a spotlight on the ideas of reducing, reusing, recycling and also to freecycle. When we first started Recycle This!, our goal was to bring back recycling of plastics and glass which had been suspended. As we went along, we became less about “rah! rah! recycling” and more about ‘how do we create a sustainable NYC? What kind of city do we want to live in?’ We try to fill what we think is a void in this area and look for activities and events that serve as ‘light bulb’ moments and spark dialogue and ideas.

What are some things NYC could do to make recycling greater and greener?

CS: Having on-street, public space (in subways, parks, etc.) recycling; adopting zero waste measures; having reuse centers in each borough; Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR); an expanded recycling program; electronics recycling; a composting program; creating markets for recycled materials; and having a ‘reduction of trash’ mentality, are a few implementable ideas.

CJS: As a city and a citizenry, we need to demand that producers take responsibility for the products they sell in NYC, from expanding the bottle bill to enacting the proposed extended producer responsibility legislation. But again, it’s important to not see recycling as the be-all and end-all. To make NYC truly green we need to support the reuse sector—businesses like Build It Green! and Per Scholas—and reduce the amount of waste we have to dispose of.

What are some of your upcoming projects?
CS: Recycle This! is involved in operating the temporary Freecycle NYC Reuse Center right now (ends mid-May) and we hope some permanent centers will be put into place in the future—a great way to reduce and reuse some of the materials that currently end up in our landfills. We run the Freecycle New York City program and listserve. We are in the midst of updating our website to have more relevant information about where NYC’s trash goes and to help groups organizing around this issue outside of NYC. We will also include information on how to recycle at your business, as a lot of people write to us about this. We’d like to work with public schools to do a more effective job of recycling, reducing and reusing and educating children about this at a young age! We will continue showing Brooklyn-based writer and director Heather Rogers’ great film Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage which we’ve taken on a five borough tour and will work with Heather to promote her recently released book of the same name. We continue to raise the issue of electronics recycling and organize electronics recycling events to keep these toxic materials out of the landfill. We’d like to put together a ‘guide’ to a lot of these issues.

To learn more or get involved visit

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