7 Reasons Recycling Isn’t Working in New York City

In Seattle, recycling is collected for free, but residents pay a fee for each bag of regular garbage. People who support such systems, called “pay as you throw” or “save as you throw,” say that without fees, garbage collection is an “unmetered utility,” akin to receiving unlimited water or electricity for free.

But in New York, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, has called such a requirement a “nonstarter.” For now, fines for failing to recycle are charged to property owners — a weak measure when most New Yorkers rent their homes. In any case, the fine charged to landlords is $25 per violation, and recycling advocates say inspections are inadequate.

On a recent ride with a garbage workers’ union official, who tailed the privately owned trucks that pick up trash from businesses, I saw several crews take sorted garbage from outside businesses — tied stacks of cardboard, bags of cans and bottles — and dump it into the maws of their trucks with regular garbage.

Overworked crews are under pressure to complete long pickup routes, said Sean T. Campbell, the Teamsters local president who had been driving me around Brooklyn. The workers know, he said, that many of the lightly regulated transfer stations where they take recyclables often remix them with garbage anyway.

Private trash companies say such violations are isolated incidents.

A new law to reshape commercial collection is designed to stop such practices, but will not take full effect for several years. And it could take longer to undo the impression made on restaurant workers and office tenants who know about the remixing, said Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

“They become discouraged and stop bothering to separate their garbage in the first place,” Mr. Gerrard said.