Coursework, notes, and progress while attending NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP)

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.

I was able to expand my general understanding of these questions, and get a few answers.

  • Recycling is a $500 billion dollar global industry.
  • The DSNY’s budget was $2.5 billion in 2015.
  • DSNY employs 7,197 uniformed sanitation workers and 2,048 civilian workers.
    • A city workforce report from 2013 puts the number of DSNY enforcement officers at 130 while See Through NY, a watchdog organization that tracks how state dollars are spent, puts the number at 252. I’m not sure if See Through’s numbers are and overestimation or just more recent.
  • According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, theft represents a loss of $8-10 million (~0.4% of the budget). Private carters experience similar losses.
  • The DSNY’s 2016 financial plan shows revenue & expected revenue from recycling cardboard
    • Revenue from recylable bulk & paper sale was $3,242,000 in 2015.
    • Revenue from recylable newspaper was $1,473,000 in 2015.
    • DSNY anticipates growth for some reason.
  • DSNY does enforce rules for private carters too.
  • The Environmental Control Board issued 402,251 violations in 2015 and upheld 88% of them. Recent years show a trend of increasing violations.
  • A number of articles I read and documentaries I found led me to understand that canners are generally not harassed or fined, though what they are doing is technically against the law. For the most part, enforcement agents go after people collecting large amounts of cardboard or scrap metal. People may be fined a few thousand dollars and have their vehicles impounded.
  • One unexpected finding is the extent to which industry and lobbyists have blocked or delayed recycling legislation. This project has shifted my viewpoint and I am now a proponent of Extended Producer Responsibility.

Map & data

Link to map.

I adjusted a map I originally created to look at total volume of refuse and recylables collected from community districts, the DSNY disposal network, and the final disposal destination.

The map now displays the diversion rate based on this same data, available from NYC Open Data and aggregated for 2015, although I’m sure it’s not adjusted for various factors official numbers may take into account. The diversion rate is defined as the percentage of the waste stream that is disposed of by recycling, calculated by dividing total Paper or Metal/Glass/Plastic in the waste stream by the total Capture Rate (Paper, Metal/Glass/Plastic, and refuse).

The numbers for volume collected have been adjusted based on 2010 census data for community district population, available from the NYC Department of City Planning. Other changes include color coding based on the kind of waste handled at different disposal centers, and additional information about these companies is now displayed.

Target audience

The visualization I’ve produced are targeted at NYC residents and private companies that are affected by theft. I think residents would benefit to understand the history of waste disposal and recycling policy, and perhaps think more holistically about our habits of consumption and disposal in this densely populated urban landscape that we share. I hope to also make residents think about the responsibility they share with the producers of their products, which might affect their opinion on recycling policy. I hope to give a more tangible understanding of canners, their ubiquity, and what their presence says about economic inequities in the city.

Theory of change: data visualization for advocacy

  • The aim of this project is to interrupt and question a dominant narrative around consumer and tax-payer responsibility for waste management.
  • A second aim is to educate, so that norms and ultimately policy around waste, progress.


I was able to connect with Nicholas Johnson, former ITP student (class of 2013) and founder of the Open Trash Lab. I showed him my map and he was interested in these pockets of high recycling in high-income neighborhoods. This is consistent with other data he’s seen, and we considered what might be driving this variation. Are these areas with fewer canners? What does collection look like in these areas? He has also connected me with two DSNY employees, so I hope they can direct me towards some of the answers I had trouble finding.


There are a number of ways I see potential to continue this project.

  • Collect or find additional data on on redemption centers. Different sources have put the number at 20-35 to over a hundred.
  • I still am not sure what the difference between a disposal center and transfer station is.
  • Other waste streams that would be interesting to explore are: textiles, e-waste, hazardous waste, and organics.
  • Question implications for the current zero-waste initiative.
  • Understand the role of trash pickers over time and internationally.
  • There could be potential to map recycling streams: I know these recyclables are sold to emerging markets that carry out the actual recycling (China, India).
  • It seems like private haulers are experiencing a lot of the data issues we discussed in class, related to data collection and management. This is becoming more of an issue as agencies try to carry out waste characterization studies. I wonder if they would be open to someone helping understand their data.
  • Visualize a comparison with other big cities.

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