Recycology in NYC: No to Yogurt Containers, Yes to Glass Jars, No to Plastic Bags…

New York City only recycles plastic bottles and jugs, though that is slated to change by 2013. Flickr/kfisto

Like many places across the country, New York City is making a big push to “go green.” But we seriously lag behind the rest of the green team in at least one realm: recycling. Overall, New York City ranks 16th out of 27 surveyed cities in the United States and Canada when it comes to dealing with waste, according to a recent study by Siemens. That’s not usually where we like to be on any list.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes that will soon change (in January he announced plans to expand the city’s recycling program by 2013), MetroFocus recently conducted a thoroughly unscientific, informal poll indicating that the problem isn’t just with our facilities — it’s also an issue of educating the public. Recycling here is seriously confusing and despite the city’s posting of the rules (there’s even an Office of Recycling Outreach and Education), New Yorkers seem to have absolutely no idea what the city does and doesn’t recycle.

So while it’s all well and good that a new recycling plant is under construction in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and that by next summer we’ll supposedly be able to recycle “rigid” plastics like yogurt cups and medicine bottles, it seems kind of problematic that we’re all so confused about the current regulations. Just watch the video below for a hint of what we’re dealing with…


Wait, you can’t recycle that? New Yorkers are shocked to here what is — and what’s not — recyclable. MetroFocus/Daniel Ross.


One of the issues that continually came up when we talked to people about recycling was that in addition to not knowing the rules (more on that below), they don’t actually know how recycling works. So, here’s a primer on the absolute basics of recycling:

The New York City Department of Sanitation picks up curbside recycling but the actual process of recycling is done by private companies with city contracts. Materials get taken to these companies’ facilities, which are located across the city and in New Jersey, and are either sorted by hand, or using an optical sorting machine, which uses light sensors to sort recyclables from non-recyclables.

After that, paper recyclables are mixed with hot water and turned into pulp. Undesirable substances like plastic are sorted out and discarded during pulping. Next, the material is dried and wound over large metal cylinders. Then it’s cut and sold.

Similarly, plastics, glass and metals are separately sorted and then melted down into usable material. SIMS Metal Management is the company the city uses to recycle its plastic, glass and metal, and SIMS is responsible for selling the recycled materials.

In both cases, undesirable materials are sorted out of what is to be recycled; however sometimes batches are tainted, resulting in the entire mix having to be sent to the landfill.

“It’s an energy intensive process,” said Christina Salvi, assistant director at the nonprofit GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, which has ties to City Hall (GrowNYC runs the city’s Greenmarkets, in addition to other programs). “It makes recycling more expensive when people mix the wrong materials in.”

Okay. So why can’t we recycle yogurt containers?

The reason that all plastics cannot be recycled is because they are actually all made of different materials, Salvi said.

“They don’t melt at the same temperature,” she explained.

But perhaps a bigger issue than improper recycling is the fact that many New Yorkers don’t recycle enough. City residents only recycle about 17 percent of our total waste — half of what we could be recycling.

“Half of the city doesn’t know why recycling is important in the first place,” said Salvi.

So, what should we be recycling?

  • Paper in one bag: Newspapers, magazines, catalogs, white and colored paper (staples are okay), mail and envelopes (plastic windows are okay), paper bags, wrapping paper, soft-cover books, telephone books, cardboard egg cartons and trays, smooth cardboard (food and shoe boxes, file folders), corrugated cardboard (flattened and tied) and pizza boxes (remove all food, and don’t bother if the box is very greasy).
  • Glass, plastic, metal in another bag: Plastic bottles and jugs, glass bottles and jars, metal cans, aluminum foil wrap and trays, wire hangers, pots, tools, curtain rods and other household metals, cabinets and metal appliances.

Some helpful tips:

  • Milk cartons, juice boxes, soy milk containers and similar boxes for liquid go with glass, plastic and metal (plastic nozzles are okay).
  • Paper plates, napkins, cups and tissues are not accepted.
  • Always empty and rinse containers before putting them in the recycling.
  • No glass aside from jars and bottles is accepted.
  • Plastic bags and Styrofoam cannot be recycled through the New York City Department of Sanitation.

And a few “fun” recycling facts…

  • The city recycles between 250,000 and 331,000 tons of bottles and cans per year.

Visit the city’s Department of Sanitation website or GrowNYC’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education for more information.

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