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July 4, 2002

The New York Times

100 Bottles of Beer in the Trash

New York City's programs to recycle plastic and glass were years in the making. But Mayor Michael Bloomberg abruptly suspended them this week as a budget-shaving measure. The change, imposed on people conditioned to recycle as automatically as they brush teeth, has triggered a crisis of conscience and left many New Yorkers cringing as they throw out milk jugs and beer bottles.

While the more committed and well heeled talked of just taking the stuff to the country for recycling there, most of us have no recourse; after a 60-day grace period, fines will be imposed for any glass or plastic found lurking in the recycling-day pickups. With luck, by then, residents might even know about the new policy, which has not been accompanied by a publicity campaign.

Adding to the confusion is that some of the recycling, for paper and metal, will go on as before. The moratorium on glass is two years, and plastics one year. That, the mayor said, saves the city $40 million.

In truth, most of the glass and plastic we virtuously sorted wasn't being recycled anyway. Lacking markets, the city found it cheaper to toss them in with regular trash and ship it all to landfills. So the program was as pointless as it was expensive. Mr. Bloomberg wants recycling to be more than a costly dog-and-pony show - and we agree. Revamping the process so it works will fall to a mayoral task force and the Sanitation Department. It will take some doing. Plastic has many forms, but only some of them can find a recycle market. Glass has recycle value, but only if the tints - clear, brown and green - are separated. To reduce litter immediately, city and state leaders should push for an expanded bottle bill, which would add containers for juices, water and other noncarbonated beverages to the list of bottles with refundable deposits.

And New York should follow California's lead and grab deposits unclaimed by its residents to finance other recycling projects. For New York City alone, the amount is tens of millions of dollars a year. It's possible, if leaders have the courage to take on the powerful bottlers' lobby.

Interrupting our recycling rituals was a drastic move. Only more drastic action, to control and manage our waste, can make it worthwhile.

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