New York Views

Mark Cunningham
Trash Can Traumas
Winter 1991

“If people choose not to recycle they are going to pay a very stiff price,” Mayor Dinkins announced as the city issued the first ticket for noncompliance with the new recycling program. He’s not kidding. For those who violate the new rules requiring garbage to be separated into four separate categories (paper, glass and metal, returnables, and regular trash), fines start at $25 a container. A second offense costs $50, and a third $100. A fourth offense within a six-month period is worth $500 per container, at least in larger buildings. Mercifully, “persistent violators” cannot be charged more than $10,000 at a swat, no matter how many containers of wantonly unsorted waste they leave for the trashman.

Thus a new regulatory burden descends on New Yorkers. The city itself clearly recognizes the burden will be heavy and deeply resented. To make the system work it has created an all-new “green” police. The new force will carry guns, the better to deal with angry citizens put off by the garbage rules. Yet for all the bother—and worse—the city is about to impose upon its citizens, there is little evidence the city will gain anything from the new program besides the revenue from the fines.

Individual homeowners will certainly be annoyed by the program. Four kitchen trash cans will not be popular even in their relatively spacious (by New York standards) kitchens, nor will they warm to paying fines because a passerby dropped a bottle in the wrong can out front. Will less than neighhborly neighbors start dumping unsorted trash in each others’ cans to avoid those big fines?

Landlords face all those problems and more. They can get fined even if it is tenants who are not separating out their recyclables. This poses an obvious problem. In other cities landlords enforce “house rules” on the implicit threat of not renewing a tenant’s lease or, in extreme cases, evicting him. But in New York City it can take ages to evict a tenant even for nonpayment of rent. Evictions for other reasons, such as threats to public hygiene, are even rarer. The city’s position is therefore that landlords have a duty to make sure their tenants know the law and enable them to comply. So the city will ticket landlords for not, say, plastering halls with notices or putting the blue recycling containers in an obvious place.

If a landlord can prove that he has posted notices and the rest, the sanit cops are supposed to go after individual tenants. But which ones? To find out, they will search garbage for identifying material: magazines, bills, personal letters. Regarding the Orwellian overtones of such searches, the Sanitation Department points out that the U.S. Supreme Court says garbage is not personal property. Besides, sanit cops have to examine garbage anyway to see whether it has been properly sorted.

This is going to make New York apartment life more complicated. Those who acquire roommates through the share ads in the Village Voice will want to stay on good terms with them, lest a roommate toss that postcard from Mom in the same bag as the illicit cat-food cans that can precipitate $100 tickets. Of course, some tenants will solve their problems by discarding identifying bills and letters in a separate bag—which is probably easier anyway than making space in a New York apartment for four trash containers.

With its rich potential for evasion and sabotage, the recycling program should also add a new dimension to the perennial New York war between tenants and landlords. Want to get that rent-controlled tenant out of 6-13? Tip off the sanit cop to a bag with the right identifying papers, and soon she’ll find out that sticking around costs plenty. Tenants can play too. Does the tenants’ union need some extra leverage for its demands? Then get everyone to sign a petition saying how difficult the landlord makes recycling—or simpler, have someone tear down the recycling notices and throw the blue cans in the river—and the landlord will be out 10 grand a week until he cracks.

The Sanitation Department’s enforcement history for other laws does not bode well for New Yorkers who cannot stay home to watch their garbage all day. One existing law makes private-property owners, commercial and residential alike, responsible for keeping their sidewalks and curb sides free of litter, on pain of ticketing. Until recently, early-bird officers routinely ticketed merchants for overnight sidewalk litter that built up before they arrived to open their stores in the morning. Now the law has been amended so that ticketing can go on only during two to four specified hours each day. Even so, says Stan Roher, president of Brooklyn’s leading merchant group, the city’s standards are impossible to meet, because they make merchants and residential-property owners pay for messes they cannot possibly control, such as litter dispersed by gusty winds or sloppy passersby.

Merchants are convinced the sidewalk ticketing is run as a revenue-raising measure, not a cleanliness program. In September the minimum fine for violating the sidewalk-litter law went up to $100, on the very odd excuse that too many sanitation agents were being offered bribes to reduce the applicable fines.

Recycling fines could turn into the next big revenue source for a financially pressed city. How much effect this will have on actual recycling goals is another question, especially in neighborhoods where the city can’t keep children from getting shot, let alone from tossing applesauce jars into the wrong bin. Voluntary recycling did very well in affluent neighborhoods such as the Upper West Side and Park Slope, but hardly caught on at all in many poorer areas, a failure sanitation officials and recycling activists blame on that all-purpose villain, insufficient public education. Mandatory fines for improper sorting, if enforced seriously across the board, will quickly ravage the finances of poorer families that fall to achieve middleclass levels of tidiness. To avoid that outcome, the city can be expected to focus its efforts on middle-class citizens and neighborhoods, on the theory that they’re more susceptible to “education” and intimidation. Besides, that’s where the money is.

Private carters are the only group that is almost sure to profit from the recycling laws. Next year, the city phases in mandatory recycling for businesses, which do not get their trash picked up by the city but have to pay for private service. In practice, business customers will pay their carters to separate recyclables after collection. Meanwhile the Rent Stabilization Association is advising apartment landlords to consider switching to private carters: Paying them to pick up and sort trash may be cheaper than paying the fines that can accompany the city’s free service.

All these new burdens are the more annoying for being unnecessary. Taking a hint from the private carters, most cities do not even try curbside recycling in densely populated neighborhoods, opting to do their own “post-collection separation.” New York, with one of the most expensive public sanitation services in the country, is almost alone in preferring the low-tech, make-the-people-do-it method. Should not the city at least make post-collection separation an option, for which it could charge a fee?

Yet even under a better system, recycling would solve no fundamental problem. No matter how coercive the laws, upwards of 75 percent of the city’s garbage will have to be disposed of in other ways, a problem the city has been ducking for years. A 25 per cent reduction in the amount of trash piled onto Fresh Kills, the city’s only and the world’s largest landfill, will not help much, especially as Fresh Kills already fills almost as much sky as land.

Incineration would solve some problems. Thirty years ago when many New York apartments had their own rather primitive garbage incinerators, incineration was a major source of pollution here. But incineration has gone hi-tech and eco-sensitive, making it the wave of the future for much of the Northeast. Even in Hempstead, Long Island, where the fight against it was long and bitter, the new incinerator satisfies state environmental officials: The risk of cancer to residents, one in a million, is the same as that of being hit by a train. Taxpayers like it too, since it costs half as much per ton as Hempstead used to pay to have garbage hauled away. But Mayor Dinkins has blocked the planned Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator, bowing to pressure from local residents, even though the environmental impact studies show the incinerator would produce less pollution than the trucks hauling the trash there.

Instead the city is pushing a program that looks all green and cuddly—or will until the already overburdened middleclass citizens meet the enforcers. The city ought to take a hint from the very guns it has placed on the hips of its new sanitation cops. When a government contemplates such heavy-handed enforcement not against career criminals, but against otherwise law-abiding and productive citizens, that is a sure sign that it is overburdening its own people.

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