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N.Y.'s Recycling Rollback Decried

Budget: Advocates for the homeless protest as the city stops collecting glass and plastic.

July 02, 2002|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration significantly rolled back recycling Monday--prompting criticism from advocates for the homeless who said the effort to save $40 million will diminish a vital revenue stream for the poor.

With the city facing a $4.9-billion budget shortfall, residents were ordered to stop separating plastic and glass from trash. Sanitation workers will continue to pick up metal and paper for recycling.

For many, the new rules meant one less chore. But advocates worried that the consequences could be dire for a subculture of the homeless--the redeemers--who collect empty cans, plastic and glass bottles and return them for a nickel deposit. They are a common sight on some streets, wheeling carts full of the containers they have gathered.

"A redeemer can make between $15 and $35 a day," said Guy Polhemus, founder and executive director of We Can, a nonprofit recycling center where the homeless exchange containers for cash. "It is not enough to move into Trump Tower, but it can be enough to survive."

Since its founding in 1986, We Can has paid out more than $30 million to the poor and homeless who redeemed more than 80,000 tons of recyclables. Bottlers and distributors pay the organization a 2-cent handling fee per container.

Environmental groups also attacked the move, saying it would curb the public's enthusiasm for recycling in general.

"It is going to be hard to restore the public's confidence in the recycling program," said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group. "You can't turn on and off a public participation program like a light switch."

In a budget compromise with the City Council, which initially protested the cutbacks, Bloomberg retained recycling for cans and other metal products but halted separate collection of plastics for a year and glass for two years.

Sanitation officials said a market no longer exists for selling glass and plastics for recycling--that even though New Yorkers dutifully separated them from ordinary trash, these products ended up in landfills. In the end, officials said, the program cost too much for too little benefit.

Bloomberg said the cutback was temporary until a more cost-efficient system could be established. "We all want recycling to work," he said.

The economics of the marketplace were little comfort to advocates who expressed concern that large numbers of homeless people might turn to ripping open garbage bags piled on the streets, searching for redeemable bottles.

Under state law, people can collect 5 cents for returning certain empty bottles and cans.

Polhemus said that in many cases, building owners had established relationships with redeemers who collected plastics, cans and glass from specially marked trash bags.

"This essentially created a day job for a lot of people," he said. "Ninety-eight percent of people don't redeem their containers, don't take the time to go to a store and wait on line to get a nickel."

Polhemus, a former media consultant, started We Can, which serves as a redemption center for as many as 250 homeless people a day. While volunteering in a soup kitchen, he observed that many of the homeless were having a hard time collecting money for bottles and cans.

In a memory that still haunts him, a man who came into the soup kitchen trying to redeem the containers he collected was thrown out. The man later was discovered frozen to death with $30 worth of cans and bottles at his side.

"If he had been able to redeem it, he would have made it," Polhemus said. "Redemption money is the currency of the street."

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