Recycling advocates hit NYCHA with lawsuit

Longword’s Mothers on the Move is one of three environmental justice organizations that have filed a lawsuit against NYCHA, contending that workers routinely flaunt laws requiring them to sort recyclables from regular trash.

Community organizers met at Mothers on the Move in Longwood on May 20 to help publicize their lawsuit against NYCHA.
Residents  from several public housing complexes in Mott Haven and Northern Manhattan met at Mothers on the Move in Longwood on May 20 to announce their lawsuit against NYCHA.

Residents say workers toss their recyclables out with the trash

Three community environmental justice organizations have filed a lawsuit against the New York City Housing Authority, contending that workers routinely flaunt laws requiring them to sort recyclable items from regular trash. Instead of separating plastic, paper and other goods residents sort out for recylcing, the plaintiffs contend, NYCHA tosses the recyclables in with the regular trash destined for landfills and incinerators.

In a letter to NYCHA’s chair and CEO Shola Olatoye, lawyers for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which represents the groups filing the suit, says NYCHA has failed to comply with a 25 year-old law mandating recycling in public housing.

“Because of NYCHA’s failure to provide recycling at all of the buildings under its control, more than 1000 tons a week of recyclables generated at NYCHA developments are bypassing recycling facilities and are instead being sent to landfills and incinerators,” the letter reads.

The plaintiffs add that the housing authority’s failure to comply with the law has dragged down citywide recycling rates and reduced the cost-effectiveness of recycling.

A number of Mott Haven and Melrose NYHCHA complexes are named in the suit as being shortchanged on mandated recycling services.

  • Betances Houses-Bins are too small and there are no signs indicating residents can toss their recycling there.
  • Andrew Jackson Houses-There are no bins or signs for recycling. Trash piled up at both the 765 and 785 Courtlandt Ave. entrances contained unseparated landfill trash and recyclables.
  • Melrose Houses-No recycling bins or signs.
  • Mott Haven Houses-Bins are too small, causing tenants to throw recyclables in with trash. No signs.
  • Patterson Houses-Some bins were unused and no bags supplied, while others were snowed in during the winter.

One of the groups filing suit, Longwood-based advocacy organization Mothers on the Move, hosted a press conference at its Intervale Avenue headquarters on May 20, to announce the action. Wanda Salaman, the group’s executive director, said that during recent workshops with local NYCHA residents, surveys quizzed tenants about ways the South Bronx could overcome its notorious pollution and sanitation problems.

“One of the things that came out was recycling,” said Salaman. “One idea was door-to-door recycling, getting a carting company and paying them” to haul off the recyclables from NYCHA property. But although that study led to meetings between residents and public housing officials to discuss its viability, she said, the plan fizzled because the housing authority got nervous about being held liable for any mishaps.

The force behind the idea of door-to-door recycling was Brigitte Vicenty, a resident of Mott Haven Houses, who attended the May 20 press conference. Vicenty, an avid recycler, said she had assumed maintenance and sanitation workers were separating recycling and trash all these years, until one day while putting out her bottles and paper in the bin in front of her building, a teen sitting on one of those bins told her, “I don’t know why you keep putting your recycling in there. They don’t recycle.”

Hoping the teen was wrong, she continued separating her recyclable material from her trash until one day while stuffing her clear bag of recycled goods into the bin that had been designated for that use, she saw workers tossing clear recycling bags into the dark colored trash bags.

“I was shocked,” she said.

Having once worked delivering a NYCHA publication door-to-door in her complex,Vicenty said, the idea of applying that same principle to recycling dawned on her.

“Why can’t we do the same thing with recycling? Jobs, environment…everybody wins,” she said.

But Vicenty found it wasn’t as simple as just laying out a proposal for the housing authority, no matter how straightforward it seemed.

“They were very resistant,” she said, recalling that at every meeting with NYCHA personnel she attended, entourages of attorneys and officials were present to tell her her ideas were fraught with insurmountable obstacles. When she met with Margarita Lopez, the“green tsar” under Mayor Bloomberg, she was told that the refuse “doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to NYCHA.” Vicenty said she was so angry she snapped.

“You mean to tell me the container of orange juice I bought at the supermarket and that’s in my refrigerator is yours?” she remembered responding. “Maybe it is once it’s in the chute, but that’s not where it should be going.”

There were no bags in a recycling bin at Patterson Houses  during the winter.
There were no bags in a recycling bin at Patterson Houses during the winter.

Residents contend the bins meant for recycling on NYCHA properties are hard to access. They are either behind chain link fences, they’re too small, or there are no bins at all, they say.

“This is the legacy of the failed policies of the last 15 years,” said Jonathan Krois of the Defense Council. And yet, he said, getting NYCHA to recycle will take more than just providing more accessible receptacles.

“Installing bins alone isn’t going to solve the problem,” Krois said, adding the housing authority should be providing recycling education for its residents. But the plaintiffs are optimistic that the de Blasio administration will step in to help pressure NYCHA.

In an email response to the Herald, a NYCHA spokesperson wrote “the de Blasio administration has made clear that access to recycling for NYCHA residents has been totally inadequate for too long – which is why we are already tackling this issue head on.” Under the mayor’s new OneNYC plan, NYCHA and the sanitation department “will install recycling bins at all developments,” by the end of 2016.

The plaintiffs say they will forge ahead with court proceedings if the housing authority does not offer concrete solutions within the next two months. The Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, both based in Northern Manhattan, are the other two groups who joined with Mothers on the Move to file the lawsuit.

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