A History of NYC Recycling & Labor

Link to timeline.


I want to figure out what the forces are driving both the independent collectors of recyclables and those pushing for greater enforcement of rules around theft, because I think it will shed light on larger questions around recycling streams in dense urban areas and waste management policy.


  • The Department of Sanitation (DSNY)
  • Private carters/haulers
  • Private recycling companies
  • Private waste disposal companies across the 7-8 states NYC sends refuse
  • New York Business Integrity Commission
  • Canners (people that collect bottles and cans to get the bottle deposit)
  • Freelance cardboard and scrap metal recyclers (generally have vehicles)
  • NYC Residents (producers, consumers, & environmentalists)
  • NYC businesses (rely on private carters for collection)
  • The police (not actually responsible for enforcement)
  • The mafia* (have historically played a large role in garbage collection)

Motivating questions

In my root cause analysis I identified three broad causes: the market for recyclables, the economy particularly as it affects low-income workers and the hard-to-employ, and the governance/culture of New York City. I thought the market for recyclables seemed like the cause that might offer the most opportunity for action. But, I did not really know the characteristics of the populations setting out to recycle independently beyond their apparent economic hardship or how reliant the DSNY might be on revenue it gained from recycling. I also didn’t know what how either of these groups interacted recyclers, and what their relationships might looked like. I set out trying to answer the following, related questions.

  • What are the city’s revenue losses due to theft, and how is this measured (DSNY enforcement officers, staff time or money spent on policing theft, rate of infractions, volume/weight of stolen recyclables)? How significant a loss is this?
  • What is the real difference between these recycling streams? Who are individual collectors selling to and are they recycling materials properly?
  • Does DSNY enforcement police private collection as well as public and residential collection?
  • What are the contracts the city has with recyclers? Does the city receive fixed revenue or does it fluctuate with the market?
  • How large is the market for recylables? Where does recycling happen? How do the prices on the secondary market affect the behavior of people collecting recyclables?
  • Who is a freelance recycler? What has their role been, historically? How do they fit into the larger narrative about our culture around waste? As I continued my research I became more and more invested in tracing this thread.

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