Getting Rid of It

written by Alexis Barnes, with reporting contributed by Craft II: Broadcast Spring 2014.

Pigs used to roam New York City dining on the plentiful piles of trash littered throughout the streets. Even though the New York City Department of Street Cleaning was created in 1881, garbage was commonly dumped into the city’s streets and rivers before the 20th century.

timeline by Sarah Barrett

In the 19th century, the city became a hotbed for communicable diseases like typhus, cholera, and yellow fever due to poor sanitation. A cholera outbreak in the 1830s claimed 3,515 lives.

City officials did, in fact, attempt to make plans for dealing with the issue, but corrupt Tweed and Tammany politicians stole the money set aside for sanitation. Because of widespread corruption, citizens coined the nickname, “corporation pudding” for the sludge lining the street, according to New York City Department of Sanitation’s anthropologist-in-residence, Robin Nagle.

In 1894, reformers hired revered sanitation engineer, Colonel George Waring, known for designing the Memphis sewage system. From borough to borough, sanitation was revolutionized.

Today, corporation pudding is nonexistent with street sweeping trucks cleaning 6,000 miles of NYC streets daily, the equivalent of driving from NY to Los Angeles and back again.

Although NYC has progressed in waste management, it still recycles less than other major US cities and ships exorbitant amounts of waste to surrounding states at a high cost.

The city’s waste disposal system relies almost completely on taking garbage out of the city. With New Yorkers creating more than 14 million tons of waste every year, producing 3 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, that is a lot of trash burdening already overloaded landfills in other states.

Half of those 14 million tons is recycled and reused, but that figure lags nationally. In April 2013, New York City’s recycling rate stood at 15 percent, less than half of the national average of 34 percent.

LA, San Diego and Portland claim recycling rates at about 65 to 75 percent.

During the Bloomberg mayoral administration, major effort was placed on reducing waste output and increasing recyclables.

The mayor developed a landmark Solid Waste Management Plan in 2006 in an effort to diversify the system. This plan focused on recycling, the negotiation of private contracts with recycling processing companies, and reexamining commercial waste. An important factor of the plan examined the often disproportionate burden NYC waste management has on certain neighborhoods, pledging to diversify and become more environmentally conscious.

Mayor Bloomberg also launched “recycle everything” advertisements and organic food waste recycling programs in an effort to double the city’s recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017.

“New York can definitely get above 30 percent,” deputy commissioner of sanitation recycling and sustainability for New York City Ron Gonen told Scientific American magazine. “We can set an example for the rest of North America.”

Recycling in New York City started as a voluntary program in 1986. After Local Law 19 made it mandatory, every borough was phased into the program. Although the Big Apple lags in recycling rates, recent initiatives are working towards improvement.

From January to March 2014, city sanitation collected 243 million pounds of recyclables.

In 2013, the city built North America’s largest plant with the ability to recycle all types of products from metals to plastic. It sits on the East River and has an estimated cost of almost $200 million.

Sunset Park MRF accepts barges, trains, and trucks, importing and exporting tons of recyclable materials daily.

One of the biggest burdens being addressed in the city are the 5.2 billion plastic shopping bags used annually in most markets, costing the city $10 million a year to transport to landfills. These bags clog drains and contribute to flooding.

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City Council introduced legislation in March proposing to charge customers 10 cents for plastic or paper bags. Similar bans are already in use in cities like Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. Council aims at reducing single-use bags by 90 percent.

Statewide, the New York State Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling Act requires certain retail stores in NYC and State to accept plastic carryout bags for recycling.

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VIDEO: Recycling

All of the latest information on New York City waste management is available on the comprehensive website,

The site even has a “how do I get rid of…” search function that allows visitors to type in a waste product and see whether the piece of trash is garbage or recyclable.

New York has gone from dumping household waste directly into the street to proposing innovative legislation to become environmentally conscious.

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