Waste Not
Packaging and Paper Waste Costs NYC $600 Million Annually

New York City taxpayers spend $600 million every year to manage post-consumer packaging and printed paper, reveals a new data analysis by UPSTREAM, a national environmental policy organization. In Europe and now increasingly in Canada, these costs are borne by corporations selling consumer goods.

According to the Mayor’s Management Report, the Department of Sanitation of New York disposed of 3.26 million tons of garbage and collected roughly 540,000 tons of paper/cardboard (one stream) and commingled metal, glass containers, rigid plastics and beverage cartons (second stream) through curbside recycling in the 2013 Fiscal Year. The vast majority of recycled materials are printed paper and packaging, with the exception of small amounts of bulk metal, and some rigid plastic durables such as toys or buckets (negligible).

“When taxpayers pay, there’s no incentive to reduce or redesign packaging,” said Bill Sheehan, UPSTREAM’s executive director and lead author of the report. “When companies make recycling just another part of doing business, like R&D or marketing, we see big savings for cities and increased recycling and business opportunities across the board.”

The Department of Sanitation publishes “fully loaded” costs that reflect the costs of collection, costs of tipping refuse/processing fees for – and revenues from – recycling, as well as associated capital and miscellaneous operating costs related to each collection program. In FY 2013, the fully loaded costs were $392 per ton for refuse and $656 per ton for recycling. Going by these numbers, UPSTREAM estimates it costs NYC $350 million annually to collect and process curbside recyclables (most of which are printed paper and packaging) and $250 million to handle printed paper and packaging that lands up in the garbage instead of being recycled.
“If producers included the costs of recycling their packaging into the cost of their products, like they do in Europe and much of Canada, the City would save a lot of money,” said Matt Prindiville, Associate Director at UPSTREAM. “That’s money that could be repurposed for public goods like schools, police and fire departments and parks.”
The organization says that largely due to the EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) Packaging Directive of 1994, which makes consumer goods companies responsible for financing packaging collection and meeting recycling targets, much more material is recovered for recycling into new products in the European Union than in the United States:

  • Glass – US: 33%; EU: 70%
  • Metals – US: 55%; EU: 72%
  • Paper – US: 62%; EU: 85%
  • Plastics – US 13%; EU: 33%

A vocal advocate of EPR, UPSTREAM argues that the same companies that operate EPR systems in Europe resist similar obligations in the United States.

“Why are we letting them design and pay for a first-rate recycling system for the rest of the developed world, while inexplicably saying they can’t do it here in the United States?” Sheehan asks.

UPSTREAM also coordinates the recently launched 'Make It, Take It' campaign to pressure consumer goods companies to take responsibility for their packaging waste and educate and mobilize citizens to push for sustainable packaging policies. And last month, UPSTREAM, along with other public interest organizations, urged Walmart, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and Keurig Green Mountain to support proven policies such as EPR to boost recycling, instead of utilizing the 'Closed Loop Recycling' loan fund that aims to provide low-interest loans to municipalities to advance projects that increase collection and improve recycling infrastructure.

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