The Satya Interview with Cathryn Swan and Christina J. Salvi
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 milliona 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 dayI do commercial recycling consulting and
nearly every day I encounter people who think the
city has stopped recycling altogetheryears 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 nowif 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 sectorbusinesses like Build It
Green! and Per Scholasand 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 futurea 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 www.RecycleThisNYC.org.