Environmental Law Digest, Fall 1990
York City's Recycling Law:
Meets Idealism One Year Later
Corey B. Bearak*
Introduction: Local Government Making A Difference For Our
article examines the effectiveness of local legislation in improving
our environment. It will look at New York City's experience in
developing and implementing a comprehensive law to improve the
management of solid waste.
enacted or proposed in our nation's largest urban center already
covers a wide range of environmental issues. In addition to its
recycling law, innovative laws protect workers and the public from
hazardous chemicals and regulate the disposal of asbestos. Other
laws ban apartment house incinerators and regulate infectious
(medical) waste. Proposed laws would safeguard the city's
drinking and coastal waters, improve air quality, protect
against the dangers of in place asbestos containing
materials and decrease disposable solid waste
law that impacts trash disposal affects almost every local resident
and visitor, too. The size, diversity and complexity of New York
City make a look at its recycling law a useful guide for other
The New York City Recycling Law: A History
July 13, 1989, the New York City Recycling Law took effect. Local
Law 19 of 1989 represented the culmination of a multi year
effort to develop an integrated solid waste disposal system for New
York City. Until the law's enactment, New Yor City lacked a
realistic strategy to address its disposal of garbage.
York was not alone in facing a garbage crisis. In 1987, the piling up
of garbage in northern New Jersey and the unsuccessful barging of
Islip, Long Island waste as far as Mexico and Belize dramatized the
trash disposal crisis facing our nation. New York City faced the
depletion of its landfill space by 1997.
1987, New York City's strategy, approved three years before, included
plans to build massive resource recovery incinerators as well as a
goal to achieve 15 percent recycling in 1991. Despite the
recycling goal, the Koch administration focused almost solely on
developing waste to energy incinerators. It failed to commit to an
integrated solid waste disposal strategy.
reliance on resource recovery would not meet the need. In 1988, the
city disposed of approximately 28,000 tons of trash per day. The
City continues to dump most of its trash at its Fresh Kills, Staten
Island Landfill. Its Edgemere landfill, slated to be closed in 1991
(under a consent decree with the state), received about 1,400 tons
daily about five percent of the trash the city must dispose
in 1988. In the same year, the City burned about 1,500 tons per day
in its three existing incinerators. The City then dumps the
incinerator ash at Fresh Kills.
five resource recovery plants on line and operating at full capacity,
the City could only expect to burn 11,500 tons per day. In addition,
those plants would produce about 1,500 to 3,000 tons of potentially
toxic ash for disposal each day. In the absence of other
initiatives, more than half the waste would continue to disposed of
in the city's dwindling landfill.
recycling, according to an unpublished 1988 Sanitation Department
report, the City would have to pay at least $120 per ton to ship
garbage out of state. It placed virtually no emphasis on
alternative strategies such as waste reduction and recycling. The
Sanitation Department had a Deputy Commissioner for Resource
Recovery. No Recycling office at any level existed in
the Department in 1987.
might be expected, the City's progress on recycling was at
best modest. The Sanitation Department planned to introduce a
curbside newspaper recycling pilot program in each borough by the end
of the following fiscal year. The only existing program was a
pilot apartment house containerized program in the Borough of
Manhattan. No plans to expand that pilot existed.
inability of the City's executive branch to move its resource
recovery program made it imperative that recycling and waste
reduction measures succeed. This offered an opportunity for the City
Council to seize the initiative.
Council introduced its recycling bill, Int. No. 952, on December 8,
1987 after over a year of drafting and fine tuning. Its
sponsors cited the existence of recycling laws in Philadelphia
and New Jersey. The Koch administration's recycling efforts
remained less than one percent of the waste stream.
administration's reluctance to introduce recycling in New York,
perhaps, stemmed from the city's urban complexity, its size and a
sense that many New Yorkers viewed their trash collection as a "free"
of the city consists of high rise apartment and office buildings.
Its concentration of high density developments posed impediments to
efforts to develop recycling on any significant scale. The drafters
of Int. No. 952 recognized that New York City's diversity would
require flexibility in the implementation of recycling measures. Low
density neighborhoods could receive curbside collection; high density
areas might require containerized collection. Businesses which
receive private collection would need another set of rules.
York City's sheer size also posed logistical problems in implementing
any full scale program. Personnel had to be trained, equipment
purchased, residents educated, routes designed and markets for
recyclables had to be located. This required that recycling be
introduced incrementally on an area by area basis. To succeed, an
incremental approach would require firm timetables and achievable
their counterparts in many other localities, New York City residents
do not pay directly for garbage collection. New Yorkers would only
benefit indirectly by their participation in recycling. Where no
direct benefit accrues to the recycler, mandatory compliance proves
effective over voluntary participation. A 1979 U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency study found that 50 percent of mandatory programs
had participation rates equal to or exceeding 50 percent. The
National Solid Waste Management Association, in a study of 26
voluntary and 13 mandatory programs, found average voluntary
participation to be 34 percent and average mandatory participation to
be 55 percent. The recycling program proposed for New York City
would need to be mandatory to achieve any significant level of
Council cited models for programs, of varying scale, found throughout
the United States. San Francisco has recycled 25 percent of its
trash through a combination of curbside recycling and easily
accessible dropoff centers; it seeks to achieve 35 percent recycling
by 1995. Seattle recycles about 25 to 30 percent and aims for 40
percent by 1997. San Jose, California runs a curbside source
separation program covering 170,000 homes. Philadelphia's 1988 law
requires 50 percent recycling within four years
1983, Oregon enacted legislation requiring large cities to provide
convenient drop off centers and to offer curbside collection at
least once per month. Rhode Island's mandatory source separation
program targets 15 percent recycling by 1992, 20 percent by 2000 and
25 percent by 2005. New Jersey's 1987 law required municipalities to
achieve 25 percent recycling in 1989. Other states enacting
legislation included Connecticut and Florida.
of recycling abroad include Denmark, which recycles almost of all of
its bottles and glass and about 90 percent of its cardboard. Japan
recycles at about 50 percent. A City Council "working
paper" reported that 17 [West] German cities compost
source separated organic waste.
legislation evolved over six hearings, including much testimony from
public officials, the Sanitation Department, environmental and
business groups, recycling industries, private carters, property
owners and community organizations. Int. No. 952 A resulted
from the first series of hearings in the first four months of 1988.
It was further refined during hearings in September 1988 and the
following January and March when the Council's Environmental
Protection Committee approved the bill for consideration by the
one amendment on the floor, Int. No. 952 B passed the Council,
29 1, on March 28, 1989. It was signed into law on April 14.
It marked the first time the Council made a determination of
environmental significance, subject to the State Environmental
Quality Review Act, when it passage of a local law. The Council
adopted a determination of negative environmental significance. A
discussion of the law's major provisions follows.
The New York City Recycling Law/ Local Law 19
Law 19 of 1989 mandates that New York City reduce and/ or recycle 25
percent of all non hazardous solid waste, measured in tonnage,
by December 31, 1993 This includes recycled commercial waste,
city collected waste, city agency waste, yard waste, Christmas
trees, batteries, tires, Bottle Bill material, waste reduction
measures, and waste exported for recycling.
law also requires, within the same five years, the recycling and/ or
reduction of at least 25 percent of the waste collected by the city's
Department of Sanitation and accepted free at the city's landfill.
Further, Local Law 19 anticipates the need to achieve the state's
goal of 40 percent recycling and eight to ten percent waste reduction
by 1997. It requires the Commissioner of Sanitation to prepare and
submit "a detailed and comprehensive plan" within four
years of its effective date. The law specifically excludes from
counting towards its requirements any reduction or recycling of
resource recovery plant ash residue or sludge from air or water
mandatory, the recycling law provides great flexibility in its
implementation. It leaves to the Department of Sanitation the
discretion to determine at least six materials (including yardwaste)
which shall be designated for residential source separation and
recycling. To the extent the Department meets the law's
recycling requirements, the six materials can be phased in over 4.5
years. Currently, residential households recycle one or more of
the following: newspapers, metal cans and glass bottles, plastic
containers, magazines and corrugated cardboard. City agencies and
institutions, such as voluntary hospitals and private colleges, will
recycle these six materials, bulk items, yard waste and office
of all households must be source separating within one year;
two thirds within three years; all within 4.5 years. Also,
the law imposes specific requirements on owners or persons in charge
of buildings with nine or more units. They must 1) provide an area
and containers for recyclables; 2) notify tenants of the law's
requirements; and 3) remove any trash contaminating the containers of
recyclable materials. The law also mandates, within 18 months of
its enactment date, the adoption and implementation of residential
recycling regulations for those buildings which do not meet
reasonable expectations for recycling. The regulations must provide
for the use of transparent bags for the disposal of non recyclable
materials and permits random inspections (upon the request of the
building owner or person and charge and the commissioner's
determination of compliance with the recycling law by such owner or
person in charge) to facilitate compliance by building tenants.
nine months of its effective date, Local Law 19 requires the
Sanitation Department to adopt and implement regulations that
designate recyclable materials constituting one half of all
waste collected by private (commercial) carters. The law requires
source separation of recyclables unless the carter provides
city agencies must recycle designated materials with six months.
The law also requires the city to remove any discrimination against
products with recycled content and to encourage the purchase of
products made from recycled materials. It authorizes a ten
percent price preference for the purchase of recycled paper and a
five percent price preference for all other products. The City's
Department of General Services must promulgate regulations by January
1, 1991 to establish minimum levels of secondary content for
non paper products.
recycling law requires, within 18 months, source separating and
composting of yard waste collected from October 15 through November
30; within 36 months this program expands to March 1 through July 31
and September 1 through November 30. During these periods, city
landfills (except for use as cover) and incinerators cannot accept
yardwaste for disposal. City agencies must give preference to the
use of compost materials derived from the city's solid waste in land
maintenance. Within 18 months, the Department must provide for the
collection of Christmas trees during the first three weeks of January
each year. It also must provide for the recycling or composting of
any trees collected or received for disposal.
the absence of state or federal programs to collect or impose
deposits on batteries and tires within 18 months, a city wide
program shall be established and implemented. In such an event, the
commissioner of sanitation is empowered to establish deposit charges
for batteries and tires.
law also requires the establishment of at least ten recycling
centers, including one buy back center in each of the city's five
boroughs, within 18 months. Existing and private centers can be used
to meet this requirement. To the extent these recycling centers meet
the current need for processing, fewer centers can be
to abide by the recycling law and any regulations promulgated
pursuant to it will result in a civil penalty of $25 for the first
violation, $50 for the second violation and $100 for the third and
each subsequent violation. A person committing a fourth and any
subsequent violation within a six month period shall be classified as
a persistent violator. Such person shall be liable for a $500 fine
for each violation. No more than 20 violations can be issued on a
per bag or container basis during any 24 hour period.. This
latter provision was a concession to building owners who expressed
concern at City Council hearings and in private lobbying.
and community involvement remain important components of any viable
waste reduction strategy. The law recognizes these needs. Section
16 315 requires education programs. Its implementation has
included print ads, bulk mailings, speakers at meetings and news
releases. Section 16 317 creates citizens' solid waste advisory
boards in each borough to review the Department's annual recycling
plan. Section 16 319 creates a citywide recycling advisory
board to meet at least four times each year to review and make
recommendations on the Sanitation Department's recycling plan.
success of the city's recycling effort ultimately lies, not in its
ability to collect recyclables, but in marketing its recyclables.
Section 16 322's procurement provisions offer a basis for
establishing the city as buyer of materials processed from its
recyclables. To the extent the city guarantees a demand for products
reprocessed from recyclables, it enhances it ability to encourage
processers to take its recyclables. The law leaves to the Department
of Sanitation the responsibility for developing a marketing strategy.
The Departments of Finance and Generals Services and the Office of
Economic Development have important support roles in market
development. Finance is charged with looking at tax incentives. OED
is charged with helping to develop markets. General Services is
charged with improving the city's procurement of recyclables.
Local Law 19's Administration: Implementing Recycling
Department of Sanitation, in its preliminary recycling plan issued,
in October 1990, pursuant to Local Law 19, noted several positive
developments: 1) curbside source separation in 27 of 59 community
districts, covering more than one third of city households; other
residential programs reach an additional 14 districts; 2) a detailed
analysis of the city's solid waste stream; 3) an intermediate
processing center (IPC) in East Harlem processed an average of 100
tons per day and reducing processing residue from 20 to five percent
at the end of the prior fiscal year (ended June 30, 1990); 4) the
letting of two contracts for IPCs, and the development of a 300 tons
per day IPC, the conversion of the former Hamilton Avenue (Brooklyn)
incinerator to a 50 tons per day IPC; 5) the approval of contracts
for four privately operated buy back centers; three facilities
will be operational soon; 6) a successful pilot leaf composting
study at the Edgemere, Queens landfill and the construction of the
city's first full scale leaf and yardwaste composting facility,
to begin operations this fall, at the Fresh Kills landfill; and 7)
the completion of preliminary end use market surveys for 15
Commissioner Steven M. Polan, in this plan, indicated a number of
major concerns: 1) the program has exceeded its initial $65 per ton
estimate for collection and processing; full implementation is now
estimated to cost from $198 to $273 per ton; 2) a focus on meeting
first year recycling tonnage requirements limited attention to
post collection processing and marketing and future program
design; 3) insufficient diversion of targeted recyclables in
neighborhoods receiving curbside collection; 4) a possibility that
targeted recyclables alone will not provide a sufficient yield to
achieve third year recycling requirements; 5) an insufficient
infrastructure for separating and sorting recyclables (processing
capacity); 6) "[u]nanticipated institutional barriers"
(diverse building types, management, trash disposal practices, labor
issues, space restraints and employee education needs) to tapping
substantial tonnage of recyclables; insufficient data to make
judgments concerning requirements for private carter recycling; 7)
limited opportunities to quickly develop markets for recyclables; and
8) current inability of city to promote legislation to limit wasteful
of the city's problems in implementing recycling relate to the
failure of the Sanitation Department and the city's prior
administration to anticipate Local Law 19's enactment. In response
to Commissioner Polan's concerns that the law mandates more than the
Department can reasonably implement, City Councilman Sheldon S.
Leffler, the bill's principal author, stated: "The real problem
has been insufficient planning and insufficient attention."
the spring of 1988, enactment of a recycling law was just a matter of
negotiation. The administration sought to promote its weak,
non mandatory proposal, Int. No. 1040. A large majority of the
Council supported Int. No. 952, which eventually was enacted as Int.
No. 952 B. The Council's leadership left negotiations to its
Committee on Environmental Protection. The need to give a fair
hearing, if not any reasonable accommodation, to the varied parties
interested in a recycling law also contributed to the its delay.
Department ought to have used that lag time to develop and fine tune
possible programs for collecting, processing and marketing
recyclables. The agency's own white paper, issued in January 1988,
its prior studies, proposals by environmental organizations, programs
in place in other jurisdictions and an Environmental Protection
Committee working paper all provided sufficient bases for adequate
planning in advance of Local Law 19's enactment.
Local Law 19 mandates remain to be implemented or could use further
refinement. As this article is being written, only draft rules cover
private carter waste. The private carter regulations, as
currently drafted, fail to provide for full recycling of construction
covering institutions and municipal agencies include no requirement
for Sanitation Department assistance in the development and
implementation of recycling plans for individual institutions. The
Department "expects" to offer training. "This
remains a glaring weakness," according to Councilman
Department has also indicated plans to seek leave from the law's
requirements to implement recycling of tires and batteries. A
recent State law only covers motor vehicle batteries.
City's Department of General Services(DGS), pursuant to Local Law 19,
reported on its recycling efforts. The agency reported that 43
percent of the dollar value of contracts for paper products were for
products with recycled content. It also awarded a contract for
re refined oils, purchased containers with 40 percent recycled
content for the recycling program and added contract language to
encourage vendors to bid products with recycled content.
appears on schedule to meet Local Law 19's minimum requirements. It
must revise product specifications to remove discriminatory
references against products with recycled content. It must also set
values for minimum recycled content for products to qualify for a
agency could and should be doing more now. It must aggressively seek
vendors of products with recycled contents. Rather than encourage
the use of recycled products by municipal agencies, it ought to seek
either a mayoral executive order or Council legislation to require
the use of such products.
at waste reduction and reuse also lag. City proposals to authorize
its enforcement of the Bottle Bill have failed to meet approval in
Albany. The State's Department of Environmental Protection lacks the
personnel and resources to provide the enforcement needed in New York
further reduce solid waste, pending City Council legislation would
address the use of polystyrene ("Styrofoam") containers and
non recyclable/ non compostable packaging.
No. 323 A would ban the use of polystyrene foam packaging which
do not meet established recycling goals. Currently in negotiation,
the bill's recycling requirements may be phased in. Sanitation
Commissioner Steven M. Polan recently suggested a ten percent
recycling rate for polystyrene foam increased by five percent
annually until 60 percent recycling is achieved. The bill's
sponsor, Councilman Sheldon S. Leffler, believes the prospect for
enactment remains good. A companion measure, Councilman
Leffler's Int. No. 228, would ban non compostable and
non recyclable packaging of any kind.
Assessing Local Law 19: The Promise of Recycling
key measures of the success of recycling in New York City are the
diversion of tonnage dumped in the City's two landfills and the
ability to effectively market collected recyclables as raw materials.
program exceeded first year tonnage goals but Commissioner Polan
expresses concern that the Department can achieve future tonnage
goals. Improved education and outreach, better planning for curbside
collection routes and improved efforts to expand recycling in
institutions and by agencies remain for implementation.
the extent that the cost of collecting and re processing certain
recyclables exceeds the cost of manufacturing and traditional
disposal, marketing must be done to expand demand.
marketing component has lagged but the agency is moving ahead with
plans for a Solid Waste Management Policy Office. The office, headed
by a Deputy Commissioner, will be charged with developing a
comprehensive marketing strategy. Interagency coordination and
private sector partnerships will be the key components of this
real test of the success of this recycling law will be determined
within the coming years, as new programs, based on the law, are
implemented. As discussed above, ample models for success exist.
Also, as indicated above, ample opportunity exists to build on the
current programs. New York City must allocate the resources
necessary to achieve Local Law 19's goals.
York City has yet to fully implement recycling. If it fails, it
likely faces exorbitant charges for exporting its garbage. The
resource recovery program, which poses environmental concerns,
remains several years away at best. A well run recycling
program remains environmentally safe and more cost effective
when compared to the marginal costs of alternative disposal
technologies. "The more New Yorkers reduce and recycle their
trash, the more cost effective recycling becomes when compared
to the marginal cost of shipping garbage out of state and
incineration, which requires the disposal of ash and adherence to
strict environmental standards."
significantly, the city's recycling program represents the ultimate
test for "green" policies of environmental advocacy. If
proven successful, it will demonstrate whether "green"
policies can address, on a grand scale, the large problem of
disposing trash in an industrial society.
Bearak, Hofstra B.A. '77, J.D. '81, serves as Counsel/Chief of Staff
to New York City Councilman Sheldon S. Leffler. The author thanks
Mr. Leffler for access to his files and providing Mr. Bearak the
opportunity to work on environmental legislation, Arthur Nitzburg and
Anne LoCascia, Mr. Leffler's legislative assistant for environmental
affairs, for their advice and comments, and Louis Confino for
technical assistance in getting this article to print.
"The New York City Recycling Law," Local Law 19 of 1989.
The "Spill Bill", Local Law 26 of 1987 and "The
Community Right to Know Law," Local Law of 1988. Local Law 76
of 1985 as amended by Local Law 80 of 1986.
Local Laws 39 of 1989 and 75 of 1989 (medical waste).
Int. No. 538, the proposed New York City Clean Water Law.
Int. No. 227 A, to mandate the use of alternative fuel
Int. No. 453, in relation to the control of in place asbestos.
Int. Nos. 323, to ban non recyclable polystyrene foam packaging,
and 228, to ban non recyclable and non compostable
Local Law 19 became effective 90 days after it was signed into law
by then Mayor Edward I. Koch on April 14, 1990. It was introduced
into the City Council in December, 1987.
The February and September 1987 Mayor's Management Report is
authority for landfill space depleted in 1987).
Board of Estimate Resolution 61, December 20, 1984 set a goal of
recycling 2,600 tons per day. The board, now extinct, shared budget
powers with the City Council, approved major contracts and had final
power to approve land use, zoning and siting issues. Resolution 61
was passed as part of a compromise to secure the board's approval
for a Koch administration plan to build eight garbage to energy
incinerators, at least one in each of the five boroughs. To date,
only one, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard plant, has been sited.
Mayor's Management Report, September 15, 1988.
Mayor's Management Report, September 15, 1988.
"Recycling Proposal Costs"
New York City's fiscal year runs on a July 1 through June 30 basis.
Fiscal Year 1987, for example, would run July 1, 1986 through June
It requires 25 percent recycling after two years; 35 percent
recycling in three year; and 50 percent recycling in four years.
Approved April 20, 1987, it required 15 percent recycling after one
year and 25 percent after two years.
Local Law 19 of 1989 require the Department of Sanitation to
promulgate regulations governing residential recycling, institutional
and city agency recycling and private carter collected trash.
cited in SEQRA Negative Declaration: Notice of Determination of
Non significance: The New York City Recycling Law as printed in
City Council minutes for March 28, 1989.
Ibid., citing Coming Full Circle: Successful Recycling Today, by
Nevin Cohen, Michael Herz and J. Ruston (Environmental Defense Fund,
Ibid. See also "White Paper: New York City Recycling
Strategy", New York City Department of Sanitation, January 1988.
Ibid., citing Garbage Management in Japan: Leading the Way, by Allen
Hershkowitz and E. Salerni (NY: INFORM, 1987). Mr. Hershkovitz
testified at several Council hearings on the recycling bill.
"Solving The Crisis: Programs to Achieve Int. No. 952 A
Recycling Levels", issued by City Council Environmental
Protection Committee Chair Sheldon S. Leffler (October 20, 1988).
The committee approved the bill, 7 0, on March 13, 1989.
New York State Returnable Container Act (need to cite NYS law sec.).
New York Administrative Code sec. 16 304.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 316b.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 304.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 305a.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 305c.
See Department of Sanitation recycling regulations for City agencies
NYC Ad. Code sec. 305d.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 305 f(1), (2) and (3).
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 305g.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 306.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 307.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 322a.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 322b.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 322c.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 322c.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 308.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 309.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 310.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 311.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 323a.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 318.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 320.
NYC Ad. Code sec. 16 313 and sec. 16 316a(3).
Preliminary Recycling Plan Fiscal Year 1991, Department of
Sanitation, Office of Operations Planning, October 9, 1990,
introductory letter by Commissioner Steven M. Polan.
Interview with Allan Gold, New York Times, October 12, 1990, p. B6.
See Sanitation Department white paper, Environmental Protection
Committee working paper.
Analysis prepared for Councilman Leffler (by CB).
Then Deputy Sanitation Commissioner for Legal Affairs Marlene Gold
in a May 17, 1990 letter to Councilman Leffler
Councilman Leffler, in comments on the City Agency/Institutional
Recycling Regulations,letter to Marlene Gold, April 20, 1990.
Preliminary Recycling Plan.
Chapter 152 of the Laws of 1990.
Recycled Goods Procurement Program, NYC Department of General
Services, October 1990.
Letter, dated October 12, 1990 from Commissioner Polan to
Environmental Protection Committee Chair Enoch Williams.
Conversation with Councilman Leffler.
Recycling becomes economical when the cost of collection and
re processing equals the fair market value of the material plus
the marginal disposal cost. Thus, high marginal disposal costs
justify either a government subsidy and/ or price preferences. It
also justifies a higher collection cost for recycling than regular
October 22, 1990 conversation with Commissioner Polan.
Statement by Councilman Leffler, November 1, 1990, at kick off
of recycling program in Community District 13 (eastern Queens).