Public housing tenants team up against waste

GrowNYC representative Ermin Siljokovic had attendees play the “recycling game” to show them how to separate materials. Photo by Elizabeth Chen

They say they have to because officials aren’t following through

Mott Haven Houses’ resident Brigitte Vincenty doesn’t want to go all the way into Manhattan to make sure her trash gets recycled. So she and her neighbors are taking on the challenge of recycling their community’s trash, which they say the New York City Housing Authority fails to do.

“NYCHA talks a lot about green roofs and retrofitting, things that haven’t been made into law yet,” said Vincenty, organizer for Mott Haven Houses’ Resident Green Committee. “But recycling is the law and they’re not even doing that.”

NYCHA officials did not return calls for comment.

Out of the five boroughs, the Bronx lags behind on recycling, according to a Department of Sanitation annual report. The Bronx recycles at a rate of 10.3 percent compared to Manhattan’s 19 percent. Community District 1, where Vincenty lives, has the poorest recycling rate in the Bronx―only 4.8 percent of the total trash in that neighborhood has been diverted for recycling.

The Natural Resources Defense Council observed an 0.6 percent increase in trash collection in the Bronx in the past year, despite a 1.4 percent decrease city-wide, according to a Daily News article in October.

Vincenty and members of her initiative, named the InnerCity Green Team, plan to go door-to-door to collect recyclable materials. They held an event on November 17 to educate residents about recycling and saving energy at the Mott Haven Community Center.

“This is a little helpful,” said Alfonso Dingwall, a 45-year-old resident. “We could be doing better with recycling.”

They hope their efforts will encourage NYCHA to hire public housing residents to work in maintenance, which they believe will help bring down their community’s high levels of unemployment.

But a week earlier, NYCHA representatives held a closed meeting with the residents  to hear details of their recycling program.

“They were very skeptical,” said Erica Ramos, a Resident Green Committee member. “They sounded like they wanted to help, but you could tell they were really hesitant because of they were worried about costs.”

NYCHA officials said in a statement that they support the efforts of the concerned residents, or Resident Green Committees, that work on  NYCHA’s “Green Agenda” program. However, they refused to comment about the residents’ allegations about recycling in their facilities or about the closed meeting.

Representatives from GrowNYC, Mothers On the Move and the state’s Public Service Commission also attended the committee’s green awareness event, and distributed compact fluorescent light bulbs and recycling collection bags that colorfully explained how to separate plastic and paper materials.

“NYCHA’s green efforts mostly focus on gardening and planting trees,” said Nova Strachan of Mothers On the Move. “That’s important, but NYCHA also really needs to work on recycling.”

Vincenty’s volunteers see a daunting task ahead of them. Rachel Osorio, a volunteer, said she felt encouraged by the information given at the event.

“Especially in the Bronx, we get forgotten about,” said Osorio. “This is a lot of info I didn’t know before. It makes me want to know more about how I can improve my community.”

3 thoughts on “Public housing tenants team up against waste

  1. For the last four years I have been trying to get someone to write an article about how public housing residents in New York City (all half million of them) are not required to recycle and even if they do their recyclables are ending up as garbage. In fact, the agency that runs public housing, The New York City Housing Authority has a recycling unit, spends millions of dollars on recycling bins, and says on their Green Agenda website they are “fully committed to providing safe, affordable housing for more than 400,000 residents in a cost efficient and environmentally conscious manner.” But the landlord does not recycle and can’t be fined or penalized for it.

    I am a NYCHA resident myself and came to this conclusion by scrutinously watching how garbage is disposed and interviewing maintenance staff. (not to mention photographs which serve as irrefutable proof) The recyclables and garbage are commingled and transported to a yard. The yard has roll-off containers which compact the garbage. And the Department of Sanitation picks up the containers using flat-bed trucks taking it to a waste transfer facility. Don’t take my word for it, have your staff go to any NYCHA development and see for themselves. The recycling bins usually contain black garbage bags and are contaminated with non-recyclable garbage. For the permanent recycling bin the latch is behind the bin. It may seem like it requires a key but in many developments it is unlocked. To open the recycling bin just press down on the latch and lift up.

    They also have a waste management / recycling unit where Margarita Lopez is paid 187K and at least two of the staff members are paid almost 100K. A Canadian company Haul-All was contracted to provided thousands of recycling bins for the city’s 2,604 NYCHA buildings. However none of these bins are being used. Margarita Lopez will blame the layout of public housing as the reason why recycling doesn’t take place. She says many tenants have to walk to their recycling bins. I believe it is more over a lack of education and enforcement. For example people take large bags of unsorted garbage outside that don’t fit down the garbage chute and throw them into the recycling bin. But even if recyclables are put into the recycling bins they are just mixed with the garbage by the building maintenance staff.

    NYCHA officials vehemently claim that the garbage is picked through and sorted but I highly doubt this. The housing manager of my development said that my claims are unsupported. I would also be in violation of my lease agreement if I attempted to go public because it was slander.

    To test if this was true I filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request January of 2011 about their recycling practices, where recyclables are processed, the salaries of their recycling staff and contracts spent on recycling bins. But NYCHA ignored my repeated attempts to provide this information. I also filed a FOIA request with Sanitation and they claim not to have no records of this information.(see attached PDF).

    I also filed numerous complaints with the Department of Sanitation for recycling violations but they merely just closed my complaints. After speaking with insiders who wanted to remain anonymous they said that is has been popularly known NYCHA doesn’t need to recycle and one city agency can not fine another city agency. The agency is exempt from New York City recycling laws and the stiff fines.

    This isn’t the first time NYCHA has been exempt from city law. All elevators in buildings are required to be examined by Department of Building inspectors however NYCHA was allowed to employ their own staff. Their elevators also were exempt from having elevator door restrictors which prevent the elevator from opening up in between floors. In August 2008, Jacob Neuman, 5, fell ten stories down an elevator shaft to his death. It came to light that the elevators in public housing buildings had failed numerous inspections. And NYCHA inspectors were passing elevators they knew were dangerous while moonlighting as private inspectors and shopping at Kohl’s. This public outcry resulted in a changes to the system including the resignation of the elevator director and chairman of NYCHA.

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