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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NYC Garbage Distribution and Disposal

Link to map.

Data Sources

I used this GeoJSON of NYC Community Districts and Joint Interest Areas from nyc.gov. I did not include “Joint Interest Areas, a/k/a JIAs, are public parks, waterways, major governmental installations and similar land uses which are not located within bounding community districts. Examples are Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park, LaGuardia and JFK Airports” and these areas did not have DSNY collection data.

I also included NYC borough geographic data, to include outlines of these areas, and state geographic data for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and South Carolina, so it would be more apparent which states had markers when the map was zoomed out.

Collection and Disposal Network data are from the NYC Department of Sanitation, released through NYC Open Data, last updated in February 2016. When I found this map from the Newton Creek Alliance, I figured transfer stations and disposal centers were different language for different centers, but I’m actually not sure. For the purposes of my map, I aggregated Tonnage Collection data from the district-month level to the district-level for 2015. I used Mimi’s code for adding these data to the community-district geojson.

I attempted to verify as many landfill/disposal locations as possible based on this list which was the most up-to-date of two lists I found, the other being from 2002. Based on the broad distribution discovered by the MIT trash tracker project, I suspect it is an incomplete list. After googling to find company websites and for all the addresses, I found one case of duplicates, and a few cases where I think the location listed on google or the website was the company’s office rather than the landfill itself. I included these for now anyway, since I think they are still demonstrative of the distance NYC trash is transported.

Mapping political representation

Link to map.

The democratic primary seems to have sparked a debate about who, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, is the more feminist candidate. Given the focus on the presidential election, I thought it apt to point out the dearth of women in political positions across the board. The percent of women in the national as well as state legislators hovers around 19-20% on average, which is a pretty abysmal proportion for a demographic that constitutes roughly half of the population.

These percentages represent the percent of women in state legislators (single or lower houses as well as state senates) as of December 2015 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Maps: Troubleshooting

For this week’s assignment I added a layer of US State data to a Stamen base map and after a lot of compromising, simply added markers for landmarks I associate with voting and politics near my parent’s house. Even as I simplified my map goal, I kept running into issues. At 3am, maki markers don’t work. At the least this theme of personal reference points carries over from last week’s assignment? I’m consistent! And I think learning to make things look better.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 9.10.08 AM
No errors but the code isn’t doing what I asked

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