LAST YEAR, A SURGE in the market price for recycled materials prompted a spate of recycling-has-finally-arrived articles. At one point, New York was selling its old newspapers for $150 per ton, which was almost enough to offset the extra costs of the paper recycling program. But newsprint prices have since plummeted back to familiar levels; New York is once again paying recyclers to take its newspapers, and city officials are resigned to losing money on recycling. As a result of a lawsuit by City Council members and the Natural Resources Defense Council, the city has been under court order to collect increasing amounts of recyclable material to meet goals set in law. City officials have promised to comply by expanding the recycling program and promoting a separate program in the public schools, but they've been stalling because they don't want to increase the budget deficit.
I tried to estimate the value of New Yorkers' garbage-sorting by financing an experiment by a neutral observer (a Columbia University student with no strong feelings about recycling). He kept a record of the work he did during one week complying with New York's recycling laws. It took him eight minutes during the week to sort, rinse and deliver four pounds of cans and bottles to the basement of his building. If the city paid for that work at a typical janitorial wage ($12 per hour), it would pay $792 in home labor costs for each ton of cans and bottles collected. And what about the extra space occupied by that recycling receptacle in the kitchen? It must take up at least a square foot, which in New York costs at least $4 a week to rent. If the city had to pay for this space, the cost per ton of recyclables would be about $2,000. That figure plus the home labor costs, added to what the city already spends on its collection program, totals more than $3,000 for a ton of scrap metal, glass and plastic. For that price, you could find a one-ton collection of those materials at a used-car lot -- a Toyota Tercel, for instance -- and drive home in it.
EVERY TIME A SANITATION DEPARTMENT CREW PICKS UP A load of bottles and cans from the curb, New York City loses money. The recycling program consumes resources. It requires extra administrators and a continual public relations campaign explaining what to do with dozens of different products -- recycle milk jugs but not milk cartons, index cards but not construction paper. (Most New Yorkers still don't know the rules.) It requires enforcement agents to inspect garbage and issue tickets. Most of all, it requires extra collection crews and trucks. Collecting a ton of recyclable items is three times more expensive than collecting a ton of garbage because the crews pick up less material at each stop. For every ton of glass, plastic and metal that the truck delivers to a private recycler, the city currently spends $200 more than it would spend to bury the material in a landfill.
AS THEY PUT ON PLASTIC GLOVES FOR THEIR first litter hunt, the third graders knew what to expect. They knew their garbage. It was part of their science curriculum at Bridges Elementary, a public school on West 17th Street in Manhattan. They had learned the Three R's -- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- and discussed how to stop their parents from using paper plates. For Earth Day they had read a Scholastic science publication, "Inside the World of Trash." For homework, they had kept garbage diaries and drawn color-coded charts of their families' trash. So they were primed for the field experiment on this May afternoon.