The best features in recycling
Coring the Big Apple
The New York skyline is a breathtaking image that most would recognise instantaneously. Enormous buildings climb into the atmosphere, whilst below, eight million people scurry along in their daily activities. These buildings may be magnificent, but when used for housing purposes, their design can render recycling extremely problematic.
Over 150,000 residential buildings in New York are three units or more, with some so large they have their own postcode. Recycling statistics for these buildings vary greatly depending on the affluence of their location. In wealthy, highly populated areas, recycling rates are amongst the highest citywide at around 30 per cent, whereas in poorer parts numbers are often in the single digits. Samantha MacBride, Deputy Director of the Recycling Unit for the Department of Sanitation, does not believe that these low recycling rates reflect lack of knowledge or apathy toward recycling. Rather, she states, it is because of the “infrastructure that [residents are] dealing with”.
According to studies conducted by the Department of Sanitation, inadequate facilities and low staffing levels in deprived residences make recycling much more difficult than in wealthier buildings. In some areas, one superintendent (a live-in caretaker) may be responsible for waste disposal and recycling across several buildings. MacBride believes that the job of the ‘super’ is further complicated because often “the infrastructure of the building is set up for just one stream of material, mainly trash”.
Recycling is mandatory in New York and fines are given to those who repeatedly fail to participate correctly. In multi-occupancy buildings, however, population density renders it impossible to identify who failed to recycle or who contaminated the bins. Instead, it is the building owner who is issued a fine if his tenants continually fail to recycle. MacBride says that, consequently, superintendents may be under heavy pressure from the owner to ensure recycling takes place: “We’re trying to reach out to the superintendents’ unions right now, and some of their organisations because we really feel that there’s a need to bring them in for direct training and give them ongoing support.”
In late 2006, MacBride came up with the New York Apartment Building Recycling Initiative. The scheme encourages residents from high-rise buildings to volunteer as recycling educators and facilitators. When a resident registers interest in the scheme, the Department of Sanitation seeks the cooperation of the building owner. Provided this is given, a Recycling Outreach Team is then sent to assess the recycling conditions of the building.
Volunteers are invited to training sessions for three hours every two months to discuss objectives in light of the assessment. They are also trained to inform fellow residents about recycling and to maintain the waste-disposal areas in their building. The building is issued with a ‘report card’, which evaluates its recycling efficiency and suggests ways to improve it.
The scheme offers support for superintendent and resident alike, and means that the responsibility of recycling does not fall solely to one individual. MacBride says that “the partnership of the tenant and the superintendent is really potent”, and admits that the Department of Sanitation has been “surprised” and “encouraged” by residents’ response to the scheme. Over 400 volunteers have enrolled since its implementation, and although this is a small figure compared to New York’s population, MacBride says that tenants are “trickling in at the rate of one or two a week”.
The initiative seeks to educate New York’s inhabitants about recycling whilst also adapting facilities in order to make it convenient and simple. MacBride insists that small changes such as hanging signs and adding receptacles can encourage people to recycle, and places importance on action as well as education: “I think there’s an over-emphasis on educating the next generation as if they’re going to grow up and instantly solve the problems that we can’t... I can remember going around as a kid picking up litter and shutting off lights but that really doesn’t take you far if you don’t have the basic structures and operations in place for the system to work. In fact it can be very counter-productive if a child grows up and sees a system that’s not functioning.”
MacBride acknowledges, however, that while it is necessary to solve infrastructure issues, these can be very difficult to address: “I hate to sound defeatist but it’s not really solvable because it’s much more a question of the larger society... there’s a lot of research in many areas of environmental problems that suggests that simply strengthening equality and access to basic rights is an integral part of overall societal sustainability.”
And the issues around infrastructure are even more difficult to tackle now, given financial constraints on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, plans for the New York Apartment Building Recycling Initiative remain modest because of monetary difficulties; MacBride says: “My hope for 2011 is that we stay the course and we begin to have an economic recovery, because when that happens we can start to think about expanding this programme or more aggressively marketing it and other kinds of initiatives for the future, but right now we can’t really think about those.”
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