Friday, December 18, 2009

Recycling Outreach in Brooklyn

I’m sure many of you, while dutifully putting your paper recyclables in the green bins, and metal, glass and plastic recyclables in the blue bins, have often wondered: When the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) picks these up, do they really go to a recycling center?

According to David Hurd, director of the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education (OROE) at the Council on the Environment of New York City (CENYC) — which is not a city agency — they do.

“So many New Yorkers want to believe that the Department of Sanitation is actually not recycling the recyclables that they pick up,” he said. “That’s absolutely false.”

In some cases, people are recycling less or not recycling at all. So, through OROE, “What we try to do is basically get people to understand the program,” he explained. “To debunk the classic myth.”

CENYC, which is almost 40 years old, created OROE in 2006. Five outreach coordinators tackle each borough by community district, using a Residential Waste Characterization Study conducted by DSNY to target the districts that have low recycling diversion rates first.

Brooklyn’s recycling outreach coordinator, Jae Watkins, says of her approach, “I try to find active community groups in the districts.” At their meetings she does a presentation with samples, “a collection of things that are both recyclable and not recyclable. I clear up the confusion about the program.”

Much confusion is generated from what DSNY does and does not collect. Plastic bottles are the only type of plastic that can be recycled; yogurt and takeout containers are not recyclable. Milk cartons seem like they should go out with paper and cardboard, but they actually get recycled with plastics and metals. Also, household items that are at least 50 percent metal — pots and pans, irons, toasters and wire hangers — can be recycled.

Watkins mostly speaks to building owners, giving them tips about ways to make recycling easier in their buildings, such as making sure their bins are in places that are well-lit and clean.

Of the neighborhoods Watkins has tackled so far, she said, “I started out in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area a couple of years ago and then I moved to Bed-Stuy, and then Bushwick, and now I’m working in the CB 2 area, Fort Greene.”

Once she’s established herself in a community district, Watkins says she remains a resource for recycling questions and requests. She gets calls every once in a while from building owners who are looking for more ways to educate their tenants, such as getting signs in languages other than English.

“A lot of people, they have all these questions but they don’t know who to ask,” Watkins said.

Though she has covered a lot of ground in her three years at CENYC, Watkins still has a ways to go. “It takes six months to really get in good in a community district, and there are 18,” she said.

“What I think makes us effective is that staff really does try to completely absorb the neighborhood,” Hurd said. “Not only do we use data from the Department of Sanitation study, but we also use demographic data from the Department of City Planning to identify larger target population groups.”

OROE also identifies the other opportunities that exist in neighborhoods, such as composting, appliance repair shops, or shoe repair shops, Hurd explained, to make objects last longer rather than be thrown out.

“We’re trying to get people to remember that whole concept, that garbage is a choice that we make,” he continued. “There are a lot of things that are perfectly good but we decide that they are no longer good for us. We try to talk about changing that mentality where we can.”

For more information about recycling, visit

Back to homepage

The Actifist: Connecting New Yorkers to Copenhagen

Documenting Chris Neidl's third day at the climate conference is a clip about the "actifist," an interactive installation designed by Adam Harvey that connects New York to Copenhagen. When New Yorkers slam their fists down onto a podium here in support of a science-based climate change treaty, an artificial fist slams down on the other end. Check it out in action: