New Yorkers are throwing away less trash, but more lithium-ion batteries and vapes, study says

Most of the things New Yorkers are throwing away could actually be recycled in some way, a recent city Department of Sanitation study found. And while people have thrown away less trash than in previous years, there was a dramatic jump in some new discarded items like lithium-ion batteries and vape pens, the study said.

The 2023 NYC Waste Characterization Study reviewed the makeup of the trash the DSNY collects from residences, NYCHA, street litter baskets and public schools. It found that while New Yorkers have thrown away less trash than in previous years that the study was conducted in 2005, 2013 and 2017, 75% of that waste was made up of materials that could have been diverted from landfills one way or another.

The report also found that as e-mobility has skyrocketed in popularity, lithium-ion batteries have become a common occurrence in the city’s waste stream despite a state law that bans the disposal of rechargeable batteries in the trash. The study also reported that more than 500 tons of e-cigarettes or vape pens were collected in 2022.

“Improper battery disposal has a significant negative effect on our operations, and it puts our sanitation workers and those who work at our solid waste management facilities at significant risk,” said Francesca Haass, DSNY executive director of policy and planning.

In 2022, there were 18 fires in DSNY collection trucks related to batteries, and 151 at recycling facilities, according to the report. Instead, New Yorkers should dispose of rechargeable batteries at disposal events and special waste drop-off sites, the report said.

A third of residential waste was made up of recyclable materials including paper, cardboard, metal, glass and plastic, which can be recycled via DSNY’s curbside collection available citywide. Another third was made up of organics, including food and yard waste, which can be diverted from landfills through DSNY’s organics collection services — set to be available citywide in the fall.

A plastic bag ban enacted in March 2020, which banned the distribution of carry-out bags by businesses, had significant results, the department’s study showed. The weight of plastic bags collected during the most recent study declined by nearly 70% compared to when the study was last conducted in 2017, though some of that weight was partially made up by replacement bags.

The study was conducted over the course of two seasons. Trash collected from samples that were determined to be statistically significant was sorted into 826 categories.

Haass said knowing what New Yorkers are throwing out is crucial to informing policy that will help to reduce waste.

“In order to do our jobs, which is to collect the waste and dispose of it properly downstream, we need to know what’s actually in the waste,” she said. “Sustainability is at the core of the mission of this department, and it’s incredibly important to what we do.”

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