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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Baidu Security Holes

A recent article and report on privacy security issues with the Baidu browser raised questions around government influence that encourages the release of unsafe software into the hands of consumers, and the related issues of encryption, and data collected by search engines more broadly. In the U.S., the debate around encryption has put producers, who are generally pro-encryption, and government law enforcement agencies, who are fighting encryption, against one another. This is the most visible part of the debate around consumer security, but we also know companies comply with government orders (such as national security letters) and it seems well within the realm of possibility that ordinary citizens do not know the extent to this compliance. Finally, the report highlights how little I and most people know about the way our activity on the internet is tracked and mediated, by search engines but also by many sites we visit, for monetary gain.

The intent behind the security holes in Baidu is unclear: “China requires local companies like Baidu to retain and share user data without much of any kind of due process, transparency, or public accountability. Did Baidu build their browser to hoover up all of this personal information at the request of the Chinese authorities? Did they do it for commercial reasons? Did they do it because of over zealous engineering choices? …Whether poor design, or surveillance by design, it is the same effect: users are at risk.”

A certain level of privacy is considered a human right. Governments around the world, but more visibly since legislation passed as a result of the September 11th terrorist attacks, have challenged technological measures and legal procedures intended to protect personal privacy under the name of increased security. Whether or not weakened encryption is an effective tool for law enforcement and counter-terrorism is an open question, although there’s evidence that terrorists hide their communications in other ways. I’m inclined to think that governments should be on the side of their law-abiding citizens who could be at risk of disclosing personal information to more malicious third parties and criminals using deliberately inferior software.


Information problems: Connectivity in Somalia

This week’s focus was on information problems in conflicts: How do actors establish ground truth and assess biases in sampling and among sources when there are competing narratives? Conflicts in Somalia and Hawaii served as case studies, although our solution is specific to Somalia. Slides after slide 12 demonstrate some of our thinking before further refining.

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Designing a data collection form

For this week’s assignment I designed a form to collect data on people’s sense of personal control, their political leanings, and their faith in institutions. The idea occurred to me as I reflected on Ethan Zuckerman’s talk at ITP where he introduced us to an institutionalist vs. anti-institutionalist schema and discussed how to bring about change in a socio-political climate dominated by this dichotomy. He has also written a related blog post.

I started to wonder how or whether people’s beliefs about how much control they have over their lives related to their belief that they could enact broader change, and whether they desired or expected to do so. One of Zuckerman’s points is that in the U.S., our collective trust in institutions has been declining for decades, and I wondered if people’s place on these spectrums is related to their perceived ability to affect them.

Creating reliable survey items is a complicated process, so I thought I should use questions that came from vetted and tested sources to the extent possible. I used several locus of control questions to understand the extent to which respondents believe individuals can control events that affect them versus being externally controlled, as well as some of the Gallup panel questions on trust in institutions, and a question on political ideology from Survey Monkey’s question bank.

The next step would be testing!

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