Description & History

In 1881, the New York City Department of Street Cleaning was created in response to the public uproar over litter-lined streets and disorganized garbage collection. Originally called the Department of Street Cleaning, the agency took over waste responsibilities from the New York City Police Department. In 1933, the name was changed to the Department of Sanitation.

Throughout the 1880’s, 75% of NYC’s waste was dumped into the Atlantic Ocean. In 1895, Commissioner George Waring instituted a waste management plan that eliminated ocean dumping and mandated recycling. Household waste was separated into three categories: food waste, which was steamed and compressed to eventually produce grease (for soap products) and fertilizer; rubbish, from which paper and other marketable materials were salvaged; and ash, which along with the nonsalable rubbish was landfilled. The Police Department, under the direction of its Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, enforced the recycling law.

World War I brought an end to recycling in 1918 due to labor and materials shortages and the reinstatement of ocean dumping. Over the next 20 years, the Sanitation Department would build and operate 22 incinerators and 89 landfills.

Since the 1960’s, no new waste disposal facilities have been constructed in NYC. Active incinerators numbered eleven in 1964, seven in 1972, three in 1990, and zero in 1994. Six landfills, filled to capacity, were closed between 1965 and 1991, leaving the City with only one remaining landfill: Fresh Kills in Staten Island for the next decade. The Fresh Kills Landfill was finally closed in 2001; the Department of Parks and Recreation plans to turn the 2,200-acre area into a public park over the next 30 years.

Recycling began anew in New York City as a voluntary program in 1986. In July 1989, with the passage of Local Law 19, recycling became mandatory Collection of required materials was phased in, district by district.

By 1997, all 59 districts in the five boroughs were recycling the same materials. Recycling requirements could now be promoted in comprehensive citywide advertising campaigns including TV, radio, newspaper, transit, and outdoor media. 1997 was also the year when the Visy Paper (NY) Mill opened on Staten Island.Operated by Pratt Industries USA under long term contract with the Ctiy, the mill today receives close to half of the city’s recycled paper for processing, most of it by barge The mill, one of the world's most technically advanced paper recycling mills, produces corrugated cardboard liner and boxes.

Due to the budget crisis following the September 11, 2001 tragedy, New York City's recycling program experienced cutbacks: between July 2002 and April 2004, collection of certain materials (glass containers, plastic bottles and jugs) was temporarily suspended, although collection of paper, cardboard and metal continued as before.

The years 2002 and 2003 saw innovating and creative procurement and contracting in the area of recycling processing for the City, leading to the establishment of a new system for accepting, processing and marketing commingled glass, plastic and metal recyclable materials. As of April 1, 2004, weekly recycling collection of all materials was restored.

By 2005, recycling diversion rates returned to near prior levels. The resumption of the full recycling program carried on between 2004 and 2008 under interim, shorter term contracts while negotiation of a long-term arrangement took place with the City’s selected processor, Sims Municipal Recycling of New York, LLC. In 2008, the contract was signed, and along with it came plans, now in the works, to construct a new, state-of-the-art, materials recycling facility in New York City, at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. The finalized contract set favorable, efficient, and ecologically sound parameters for the partnership between the City and Sims for recycling processing, and also included provisions to route some of the City’s recycled paper to the Brooklyn plant for separate processing as well.

With long-term contracts in place to protect the City and its processors from the ups and downs of markets, the NYC recycling program is now poised to continue to provide comprehensive service to all New Yorkers for the recycling of valuable materials that would otherwise go to waste.

About the organization

Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling

Marni Aaron
Executive Director
Eve Martinez
Program Manager - Apartment Building Recycling Initiative
Debbie Sheintoch
Program Manager - NYC Compost Project
Marisa Adler
Program Manager - School Food Waste Compost Program
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