Taking out the MTA’s trash, one piece at a time

By · Published in 2007

Subway trash sits idly at Coney Island. (Photo by flickr user Martin Deutsch)

I find the two cleanliness categories to be among the more amusing aspects of the Rider Report Cards. Riders have continually ranked station cleanliness concerns as the fifth or sixth most important issue, and the grades are repeated C-minuses or D-pluses.

Of course, no one bothers to note that we only have ourselves to blame for the issue. The MTA isn’t responsible for the fact that subway riders seem to be unable to figure out that garbage should go in the garbages cans and not on the ground, on the benches, on the stairways or anywhere else really. But, hey, who needs to take personal responsibility for something when we’ve got the MTA to blame?

While cleanliness itself may be problematic, the MTA recently came under fire from the Governor’s Office for its lack of recycling. In a very interesting story on WNYC a few weeks ago — you can listen at right — Beth Fertig literally followed the trash. The MTA, you see, doesn’t have recycling bins in their stations. Instead, the trash is gathered as one and shipped out to All American Recycling in New Jersey where it is manually sorted. A full 40 percent of all subway garbage ends up getting recycled. Who knew?

The Governor’s Office doesn’t like this program. “Recycling is not rocket science,” Judith Enck, Deputy Secretary for the Environment, said. “But it is essential that we have good source separation programs right at the outset and not these questionable programs where you try to pull out newsprint that’s stained with coffee grinds, and mustard and broken glass that’s just not the efficient and effective way to do it.”

Enck went on to claim that, with an at-source separation program similar to the ones found in the D.C. Metro and Boston, to name a few, would save the MTA money because their recycling wouldn’t be corrupted with the ever popular “mustard and coffee grinds.” What is it with that woman and her mustard-flavored coffee?

For their part, the MTA disagreed. Mike Zacchea, the man at NYCT responsible for the artificial reef program, noted that the MTA would have to overhaul the way it collects trash and that yield would actually be lower. The systematic changes would negate any savings brought about by the higher grade of recyclable materials recovered. “If the paper product that was coming out of the transit system, the subway system, were a better quality his marginal ability to make another dollar would be small,” he said. “Transit’s cost to produce that cleaner grade would be in labor, infrastructure improvements, operational impact and also we believe, based on experience, a lower volume.”

I’m siding with New York City Transit on this one. If the MTA starts employing dedicated recycling bins, I would give those containers about ten minutes before getting corrupted. Subway riders can’t throw our trash into the garbage cans as it is now. Are New Yorkers really going to take the time to make sure they throw their coffee cups in one container and newspapers in another? I doubt it.

The system right now, while not 100 percent perfect, works better than many of the other MTA programs under scrutiny these days. Let’s not mess around with a good thing. The governor should just leave well enough alone.

7 Responses to “Taking out the MTA’s trash, one piece at a time”

  1. Scott says:

    This isn’t the only place where all the trash gets thrown in one bin, just to have workers rummage through it later to pull out recyclables. An entire residential community in southwestern Nassau County, Long Island does the same thing, according to this Newsday article. Although it defies common sense, the article goes into some detail as to why this is a better solution for recycling.

    If the way its done today works, then great — lets continue it. Otherwise, we’ll see more “contamination” of recyclables, more poor/homeless rummaging through the cans-and-bottles containers looking to collect unclaimed nickel deposits, and more people re-assembling and re-selling discarded newspapers.

  2. Marsha says:

    After listening to the report, I ‘m inclined to agree with NYCT too. If the residents of my building are any indication of knowing what to recycle and which clearly marked garage can to put it in, I think Benjamin is being generous in giving the containers 10 minutes.

  3. Scott C says:

    Two Scotts on this board – the horror.

    I do think that a dedicated newspaper recycling program would be effective – especially at large station complexes like Times Square, Union Square, Penn Station, etc. – look at what metro north does with the large newspaper recycling bins on the platforms at GCT.

  4. Todd says:

    There’s no need to spend the money on new bins. Just collect all the bottles that are thrown down into the tracks! There’s at least a couple bucks in bottle deposits lying at Atlantic/Pacific alone. Heck, this could solve the fare-hike issues too! 🙂

  5. Gary says:

    Second what Scott C said . . . for another highly successful example of the same see NJ transit at Hoboken Terminal . . . an intermodal stop where most people get off and take the PATH or ferry.

    They have large newspaper bins where everyone commuting from the NJ hinterlands toss their papers . . . and reverse commuters can easily pick out a few sections to read on their way to say, law school in Newark.

    It was my favorite feature of the station when I lived there, and I have proposed we do it here.

  6. martin says:

    I’m glad someone found my rubbish photo to be useful – but the trash train was passing through, not sitting idly!

    At least New York has trash cans, though – the London Underground hasn’t for years. They’ve just got lots of cleaners – who apparently collect more than 10 tonnes of free newspapers daily.


  1. […] few weeks ago, I took a look at how the MTA deals with its garbage, and I think the problem is institutional. The MTA doesn’t provide recycling bins — as they […]

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