Recycling: New Yorks white flag to waste?

Suffocating under volumes of plastic, metal and Times magazines that mound onto the citys’ curb, New Yorks’ battle against waste is a losing civil war that’s turned to Recycling as the main defence. But is the mantra ‘reduce, reuse recycle’, chimed by the city since the 1890s, really an echo of ecological citizenship in the disposable society, pushed by states failure to battle the issue of waste at its’ source?

What is New York doing with all of this waste?

To unpick the stomach of New Yorks’ residential waste, the citys’ trash cans largely digest ‘organics’ throwing away 29.4 tonnes of food per day, followed by paper recyclables, metals/glass/plastics (MPG) and textiles.

New Yorks residential trash profile (source:

The past 5 years have seen predominantly a growth in abandoned food scraps and MGPs, while the rise of the paperless office and Chinas ban on paper imports has seen trends of paper use go the opposite way. Nothing new, the rise in plastic, is a continued legacy from 1970s, where the worlds’ new golden invention of a complex chain of polymers, was applauded as the new infinity material in the form of cutlery, cups, plates etc.

New York has all its ‘eggs in one bin’

Every day, 1.1 million sanitary workers collect, sort and process the citys’ recyclables, filling the sectors pockets $236 billion in annual revenue. But the systematic and material inefficiencies of recycling tarnishes its’ crown as the magic fix to the piling curbs of coffee cups and doughnut wrappers.

Squeezing in cardboard and paper recycling (source: unsplashed)

Despite throwing 70% of potentially recyclable materials, only 18% of this waste sees the conveyor belt of a recycling plant, which itself is an incredibly energy intensive process. Though better than digging up virgin materials from US soil, the energy savings from recycling glass is only 10-15%, while its’ disposal represents over 2% of the US Greenhouse gases, a greater share than US air travel.

Recycling the blame: un-masking policy

Why is such an inefficient system, continued as what Sarah MacBride calls New Yorks’ main “expression of environmentalism”? The answer sits in the uneven geographies of power that continue to shape how the system, and citizens perceive waste.

Efficiencies in the recycling the sector itself are limited by the overriding lobbying powers of cooperate oligopolies, in protest to the slightest threat to profit margins. Left unchallenged, it is much easier for the state to deflect issues of waste as unimportant as we sit comfortably into a Western society where values sit pre-determined by material culture (MacBride, 2013) – comparative to what ecologists would call baseline syndrome.

Piling ‘necessity’ (source: Unsplash)

Much like Moore describes waste as a parallax object (Moore, 2012), this is true of the recycling itself; an act which both aims to solve waste, yet also encourages its’ production by excusing its creation. A Recent interview, NYC mayor De Blasio quotes:

 “It is what the public chooses to buy every day that impacts this whole entire logistical train”

De Blasio,

This points to the critical fault in current recycling systems which overemphasises the agency of the you, the consumer, to fix the problem. Though people play a central role in navigating the flows of materials in the urban space, New Yorks’ waste has become Issue of environmental justice. The ‘guilty act’ of grabbing your lunchtime salad in another single use tupperware ignores the lack of choice many New Yorkers have in the current plastic fantastic landscape – to only later be taxed for the service of its disposal (Moore, 2012).

waste protest (source: Unsplash)
Is it time to go full circle on waste?

The Citys’ recycling system is an ecological performative mask of ‘doing good’, instead cloaking a business as usual approach which allows companies to continue churning out deli takeout pots and coffee cups, as hey, ‘its recyclable’. This weaker form of ecological modernisation (Janicke, 2007) relies on a perhaps over-enthusiastic techno optimism. Instead New York needs to do a 180, on its current waste disposal systems towards a 360, circular economic solution…

(…continued in part 2).

(words: 610)


Janicke, M., 2007. Ecological modernisation: new perspectives. Environmental Policy Research Center,.

MacBride, S., 2013. Recycling Reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Moore, S., 2012. Garbage matters. Progress in Human Geography, 36(6), pp.780-799.

2 thoughts on “Recycling: New Yorks white flag to waste?

  1. Such an interesting blog post – the issues regarding waste and recycling are so improtant to consider especially in an urban context as it is more concentrated. The pressure on consumers to determine waste through purchase choices is very difficult and I think that your evaluation of the Mayors quote really shows that.


  2. Really great post with very informative statistics. I was particularly interested that only 18% of recycled materials ends up on a conveyor belt. I think you engage very well with UPE literature, but also in linking to the wider questions of managing waste- whether consumers are at fault for their lifestyles or if the blame lies with the “inefficiencies” in the processing system. This is a great link to understanding whether top down or bottom up approaches are the way forward. I look forward to reading the next post!


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