Less Really Is More

10/14/2009 4:00 AM |

I was toodling around my Brooklyn neighborhood on trash night recently, marveling at the many, varied approaches to trash and recycling on display: our garbage (as is the case in most of the city) goes out three times a week, and recycling is picked up once a week. In my mixed-residential ‘hood, that means bigger buildings with piles of garbage, small one-to-three unit town houses that put out little trash, sometimes no trash, and the odd tower with mini trash towers out front. Recycling ranges from the meticulous (neighbors who wash and de-label every can they put out) to the apathetic- mid-sized buildings with all kinds of recyclables mixed into the garbage willy-nilly.

A recent report revealed that New Yorkers are recycling less than half of what could be recycled. We’re still a city without any kind of municipal composting, despite the fact that compostables make up as much as a third of our waste stream. Judging from the miserable habits of a few buildings on my block, which have remained unchanged for years and years, there is little to no enforcement of “mandatory” recycling. (Bloomberg’s two-year suspension of glass and plastic recycling in 2003 didn’t help much, either.)

And still we’re sending out garbage trucks three times a week.
In many European cities, trash is managed very differently, as Elisabeth Rosenthal pointed out in a recent editorial at Environment360.com. In Zurich, trash is picked up once a week, recyclables once a month: as a result, less packaging is a must, and “televisions leave naked from the store” so that the purchaser needn’t host the empty cardboard box until recycling day rolls around again.

I’ve long thought that a lot of energy, noise, and money could be saved if we could scale back to once or twice a week pick-up. In our house, where garbage management borders on the OCD, we generate about one small grocery bag of true trash a week. Even factoring our neighbors, our three-unit building puts out less than a full can a week, plus recyclables: we have no need of thrice-weekly pickups, so we only drag cans to the curb once, on recycling night.

If trash pickup were cut back to once a week, it could nearly halve the cost to the city (there would have to be a few more trucks out, because there’d be more trash): the money left over could go into setting up an official composting system, thereby further shrinking the waste stream, ultimately bringing the total cost down again, once the compost was running (eww).
Compost could even be a revenue generator for the city: sold to area farmers to fertilize their fields, or to homeowners for their gardens, a good system could help pay for itself. Or urban farms could take responsibility for some composting on their land in exchange for the final product.

The less-is-more concept could also free up money for better enforcement: instead of paying to collect trash, the city could send out more trash inspectors: a couple of $200 “you ain’t recycling” tickets might motivate the landlords and property owners who can’t be bothered to do the right thing. Tickets would mean more money too, to invest in more recycling/composting/enforcement. And of course, as recycling rates rise, so will the amount of money from selling materials back into the system.

While we’re at it, why not take less-is-more to the street cleaners too? Clean each side of each street once a week: it would save millions of gallons of gas a year, countless tons of CO2 emissions, and thousands upon thousands of man hours wasted by everyone who currently has to move their car a minimum of three times a week. Add in gas/hours/wear and tear on the street-sweeping machines, not to mention the unholy racket they make, and you’ve got some pretty huge savings, financial and environmental. All from doing a little bit less. Less really could be more.