How Not to Recycle in NYC | The Wrong Bin

By Abbey States

I first heard about The Wrong Bin, a short documentary about recycling in New York City, through a rather serendipitous set of circumstances.  Filmmaker Krishnan Vasudevan was a guest on one of my favorite food podcasts, The Sporkful, which then led me to the film’s website and a wealth of information about the unexpectedly fascinating world of NYC recycling.  Cut to a few months later, and we were fortunate to host a viewing of the film at EPA and ask Krishnan some burning questions about his years of research into the city’s waste streams.

Through interviews with NYC Department of Sanitation and NRDC officials as well as solid waste professionals and area landlords, The Wrong Bin uncovers some of the many reasons why New York lags behind other US cities when it comes to waste management despite its pioneering role on other sustainability issues like land use and smart growth.  New York City’s recycling program is actually the largest and most ambitious in the country, so why do New Yorkers recycle less than half of everything that we could?

Upgrades to the city’s infrastructure are already underway (including textile recycling and a new local processing facility to help recycling become a cheaper option), but significant change can start with individual behavior.  Recycling is a legal mandate in New York City, yet the onus and the fines fall on overburdened building superintendents for most multi-family dwellings.  The Wrong Bin shows how simple changes to what we’re tossing can positively impact both the environment and economy in the city.

The first step is to know your local regs.  Within NYC, you should separate tied cardboard/paper from clear-bagged bottles and cans or use the colored bins where you can find them.  However, I live in New Jersey, where we have a single-stream system that prohibits bags of any kind.  Think that is confusing?  San Francisco has a mandatory three bin system!  Make it simpler for yourself and your neighbors by posting a sign as a reminder in the waste area of your building.

Another easy change is to keep it clean.  Caked-on food, grease, and significant moisture can make materials unrecyclable, so be sure to dump your bottles out before tossing them in the bin.  Broken glass is also dangerous for handlers and difficult to sort out from other materials during processing.

Check out The Wrong Bin’s website and EPA’s Wastewise program for more information on how you can make a sustainable difference in your community.

About the Author: Abbey States has been a Physical Scientist with the Superfund Program Support Branch since 2010 and is a member of the federal interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities.  She studied chemistry at Tufts University and has a graduate degree from the University of Auckland.  Prior to joining EPA, Abbey worked as a field sampler on Superfund sites, laboratory analyst, and chimney stack tester.