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Curbside vs. Drop-off Collection

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The way a recyclable is collected has a lot to do with its marketability. In NYC, there are essentially two kinds of recycling programs:

curbside collection
drop-off programs

recyclability: infrastructure

Curbside Collection Programs

Curbside collections accept a variety of materials commingled together (see what NYC recycles). These must be separated and sorted (see what happens to recyclables).

To help offset recycling collection and labor costs, NYC needs economies of scale. Commingled collection is part of that economy. Nationally, even with commingling, curbside collection costs are the highest taxpayer-funded expenses associated with recycling.

The secondary markets for recycled commodities fluctuate. Sometimes certain materials are worth a lot, other times very little. In a curbside recycling program, the materials set out for recycling has to be collected no matter what the markets for the materials are at any given time. This means that only materials with markets that are strong in the long term can work reliably with commingled curbside collections.

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Drop-Off (Take-Back) Programs

Drop-off or take-back recycling programs (such as those for plastic bags) accept, store, and periodically transport clean, pre-sorted materials that people have voluntarily dropped off at a central location. This is a very different model of collection for two reasons: First, certain items must be clean and pre-sorted in order to be marketable, and, in these programs, this labor is done ahead of time by the consumer. Second, manufacturers and retailers provide the infrastructure for recycling, so there are no costs to taxpayers for real estate or labor.

The "free labor" and the significant reduction in overhead changes the economics of recycling. Drop-off (take-back) programs can yield enough revenue from materials with relatively weak markets to cover processing costs. The economics under a city-wide curbside collection program are vastly different.

Since drop-off (take-back) programs are viable for certain items, these programs are increasingly part of recycling legislation. Unfortunately, there are many materials for which the markets are so weak or nonexistant, that even drop-off (take-back) programs aren't viable.

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