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Crossing Streams

As I walked through Dwight, a largely residential neighborhood west of downtown New Haven, I saw trash and recycling bins crammed into alleys between buildings and, occasionally, waiting out at the curb. Pickup for most residents was still two days away, but many of the bins were already brimming.

The recycling waiting inside those bins, or toters, has recently become a major focus for the city in recent years. In late 2009, the Board of Aldermen authorized a new single stream recycling policy that the Office of Sustainability, partly established to create this policy, implemented citywide by the end of last year. Single stream recycling means that residents no longer need to sort their items into glass, paper, and plastic. Instead, the city’s Department of Public Works picks up the mixed recyclables and exports them to Willimantic Waste in Norwich, Connecticut, where they are processed by a machine and their remains bundled into large bales to be resold.

The city distributed blue ninety-six-gallon toters for recyclables and brown forty-eight-gallon ones for trash to every home in New Haven, free of charge. Most of the toters that I saw along the streets and alleyways of Dwight seemed to have items sorted properly — recyclables in the blue and trash in the brown.

Although data shows that recycling rates have tripled overall, and in every neighborhood, not all districts recycle equally. Currently, most neighborhoods report rates between 21 and 28 percent, and there is significant room for growth. Areas such as Dwight which haven’t consistently recycled in the past have shown limited increases since the policy has been implemented, especially compared to areas like East Rock with historically higher recycling rates. Despite the city’s efforts, which include new toters, educational campaigns, and mobilization of community management teams, certain neighborhoods still lag behind.

Why are some residents so resistant? It seems that the city could hardly make it easier to recycle: its bins are bigger, its instructions clearer, and, more importantly, the process has been drastically simplified. But there’s only so much that the city can accomplish through policy. An important factor seems to be the example of other residents; if residents recycle, it’s likely their neighbors will too.

To Christine Tang, director of New Haven’s Office of Sustainability, the increase in recycling rates isn’t enough. “Recycling isn’t optional,” said Tang. “It’s a state law and it’s a requirement in the city of New Haven.” Tang said that neighborhoods with higher rates of rental occupancy and greater population density usually have lower recycling rates, though she was quick to note that correlation does not imply causation.

Neighborhoods with higher rates of turnover also have lower recycling rates, said Justin Elicker, Ward 10 alderman and chair of the City Services and Environmental Policy committee. Immediately following the distribution of new bins, recycling rates increased significantly, he said. But as educational campaigns were completed, the message didn’t get out to people who had moved, which was a particular problem in the neighborhoods with more turnover. To meet the city’s ambitious recycling goals—30 percent of household waste recycled by the end of 2012 and 58 percent by 2020—all neighborhoods need to participate.

Tang has considered implementing certain “enforcement mechanisms,” although no decisions have been made. Though the Office of Sustainability would rather maintain a friendly relationship with city residents than apply the proverbial big stick in dealing with “serial noncompliers,” Tang said that fines, though unpopular, could be an option. The Department of Public Works, which directly handles recycling and trash pickup, sometimes refuses to pick up trash “contaminated” with recyclables.

But Tang is also looking ahead. Eventually, the office hopes to create a bulk citywide composting program, a goal even more ambitious than raising recycling rates. Currently, no facility exists in Connecticut to handle bulk composting, but the more daunting task is getting residents on board.

Progress still needs to be made in the recycling program. While the service’s rates have risen, many residents didn’t seem aware of the single stream policy, much less that compliance was a law. Come garbage pick-up day, some will put out both of their toters, recyclables and trash waiting separately. But most won’t. In neighborhoods like Dwight, the city’s encouragement alone may not be enough to effect the change it wants to see.

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