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Recycling School

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As a native Californian, Scott Miller says recycling and all things environmentally friendly are just in his blood. So, it made his “green” blood boil whenever he would see plastic laundry detergent jugs tossed into the trash bins in the laundry room at his Lower East Side co-op.

“The recycling area was just around the corner, but without signage and without an opportunity to make it easy to recycle in that area, it was all just going into a landfill,” says Miller, who lives at the 1,728-unit Seward Park cooperative.

It was one of the things that led Miller to volunteer last summer to take part in the Apartment Building Recycling Initiative, a two-hour program offered monthly by the city’s Department of Sanitation (DSNY). There he learned about all the quick and often free fixes that can be made to increase the amount of recycling and ensure the proper things are going into recycling bins. After the seminar, Miller’s co-op installed signs provided by the DSNY that said “trash only” over trash bins and signs for recycling over special green recycling bins.

So how did it feel when he walked into that laundry room and saw a recycling bin brimming with plastic bottles and jugs? “It was so awesome,” says Miller. “When you have a big building like this one, you make one tiny little tweak and then you multiply that by thousands of people, it’s tremendous. It’s a really good feeling. And it was so easy.”

Green in the Bank

But it’s more than good feelings. Improved recycling can mean money in the bank, and not just from fewer fines for improper recycling, says Eve Martinez, program manager for the initiative.

“A lot of times, people in the building are recycling, but they’re putting the wrong things in there, so the super or the staff has to spend a lot of time slogging through it and pulling out all the contaminants so they can put it out at the curb and not get a ticket,” says Martinez. “In those buildings, the residents don’t know that the building staff is using so much time cleaning the garbage out of their recycling. That’s money. It’s an efficiency thing.”

Board treasurer Enid Israelson said several volunteers from her Brooklyn co-op, Terrace Gardens, attended a recent seminar and brought back helpful information. “Recycling affects us because it’s an extra burden for our porters when it’s not done correctly,” she says. “It’s a financial burden when the city fines us, and it’s a vermin problem when people leave food garbage on recycling.”

Those who want to attend the programs can find out more information at nyc.gov/wasteless/abri. The meetings are held monthly at the Lower Manhattan office, but if your co-op or condo can get 10 or more staff members or residents to attend, DSNY may be able to hold a session at your building. Those who attend the seminars are often staff, residents, managers, or board members. About 6 to 12 people attend each session.

As part of the program, Martinez or other DSNY staff members also make a visit to a participating building to see the condo or co-op’s recycling in action. There they can often make very specific suggestions on how to make it work better. “You often see something that the person who has lived there for two years doesn’t see,” she says.

At the seminar, attendees learn what is supposed to be recycled and – almost as important – what is not. “People often over-recycle plastics,” says Martinez. “The only plastics that should be recycled are bottles and jugs.” That means no yogurt containers, plastic bags, or clamshell-type packages.

Another important lesson taught at the seminars is how to communicate with residents. “It’s very difficult to find the people who are not participating,” says Martinez. “They run out to their chutes and throw everything down. We spend a lot of time helping people learn how to motivate those who are not cooperating.”

The seminar also teaches participants how to create a well-functioning recycling room, making sure that everything is well labeled and easy to understand. “If you set up a good recycling center, a lot of people will cooperate more,” Martinez says. “They want something that makes sense and is easy to see and do.”

It was a very small change in the recycling room that led to an improvement at Terrace Gardens. The 375-unit building had recycling bins with stickers indicating what type of recycling went into each container, but after the seminar, Murray Lantner realized there were stickers only on one side. If the bin was put away with the sticker facing in, residents got confused about what went where. “I’ve searched through the bins” after attending the seminar and implementing changes, Lantner says. “They do look a little better.”

Another small but important change was to put DSNY-supplied labels on trash chutes that said, “trash only.” Lantner says he also learned to put paper recycling containers near the mail area to streamline junk mail recycling.

He says prospective program attendees should keep reasonable expectations about what they can accomplish. “I had some grand ideas to completely re-do the recycling room to make it pretty, but there is a reality,” he says. “It’s a co-op. There’s a fixed amount of money. We did something that educates people and makes it more visible, and it was pretty much a no-cost thing.”

Israelson, the board member, says the board was grateful that volunteers like Lantner went to the seminar. “I think they brought back some enthusiasm, and it reinvigorated us to keep at it and get another memo out about recycling to all the people who live here,” she says.

Karin Haerter, who manages a Brooklyn co-op as an independent contractor, attended a seminar about a year and a half ago. “I’ve been involved with real estate and property management a long time,” she says. “I thought I already knew what I needed to know. Even if your staff thinks they are experienced with recycling, they will learn something.”

But Haerter says she gained a valuable education. One of the biggest surprises to her was that the ubiquitous little triangular-arrow recycling symbol does not necessarily mean the item can be recycled in New York City. “I always thought that if it had the little triangle it should be able to go into recycling, and it’s totally not the case,” she says.

At the Brooklyn co-op, a 44-unit building, Haerter says she is going to spend the next six months collecting data on how much recycling is actually collected. She then plans to embark on a recycling campaign to raise awareness and will track whether recycling goes up.

Miller, the volunteer from Seward Park, also has environmental expertise. He is working toward a master’s degree in sustainability management at Columbia University. Still, he says others who want to attend the seminars don’t need any green training. “The good thing is that you don’t have to have any special knowledge,” he says. “It’s inviting to everybody.”

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