I Threw It All Away: why Is New York City so wasteful?

Earlier this year I moved to New York, and quickly came to realize that while I had moved to what many regard as the greatest city in the world, it is also, veritably, a city of garbage.

As someone who cares very deeply about the health of the earth, I am troubled by the everyday actions – big and small – that contribute to the demise of that health, both by individuals and larger entities alike. Perhaps the most difficult part is, for me, knowing how much I contribute to the problem, try as I might to combat it.

Pre-New York, I lived in places where environmentalism seemed second-nature. I didn’t question that businesses and homes would have basic things like recycling available to them, and that the people inhabiting those spaces would, if not enthusiastically, then often habitually utilize such basic, environmentally conscious resources. 

At university, I became more excited than ever about environmental sustainability and justice. Somewhat unconsciously, I surrounded myself with people who had the same concerns that I did, and who shared my drive – and in many cases exceeded my drive – to take action in a multitude of ways. We bonded, organized, and worked daily to do the work we were passionate about. By the time I graduated and left that lovely incubator of environmental activism, I was more inspired than ever before to keep furthering the cause in any way I could, and whenever possible, inspiring others to do the same.

When I arrived in New York I was quite unhappy with what I found. The city and all the boroughs that comprise it hold a lot of beauty, but there’s also a lot by which to be frustrated. For all the loveliness of the leaves changing in autumn and the thrill of live music and theatre, one can’t help but notice the little tragedies that ornament the city. 

Walking down the street here can be a great experience: depending on where you are, you might turn your head one way and see the Chrysler Building and in another direction see Madison Square Park. But it is just as likely that as you continue down that street you will pass by piles of trash bags. I remember while a friend was in town a couple of months ago,  we came upon a scene like the one described and so they asked me if it was “trash day.” I had to give them the news that, no, the trash wasn’t there because it was time for the weekly pickup, but rather that it was the norm for there to be overflow from businesses and apartment buildings on any given day.

According to the environmental organization Grow NYC, New York City residents produce 12,000 tons of waste every day. This is aided by the fact that they recycle only 17 percent of their total waste, when they could be recycling twice that amount. Additionally, in a city that has a devoted relationship with delis and bodegas, it perhaps isn’t surprising that 7.5 percent of waste is from filmy plastics, like grocery bags. It is also difficult to not take note of the lack of recycling bins around the city. While trash bins are located on nearly every street corner, opportunities to recycle are far rarer, resulting in overflowing trash bins containing a great many recyclable items. 


Another contributing factor to the accumulation of waste is the carry-out culture. Since arriving I have come to appreciate that New Yorkers order a lot of their meals. In a bustling city where so many people are working multiple jobs (or the equivalent hours) to get ahead, or just stay afloat, maybe it makes sense that they don’t want to spend time on practical things like food shopping and preparation. This, however, results in a lot of extra plastic and uneaten leftovers – and so the daily 12,000 tons comes into being. As the restaurant industry thrives, so too does the landfill.

But this waste doesn’t occur for lack of alternate options. As with many facets of the environmental movement, there are ways to make personal changes that can be very costly, but there are also changes that are inexpensive or don’t cost anything.  In New York there are opportunities to compost, recycle, and eat more sustainably. A few months back I bought a counter-sized compost bin, and have been dropping off my food scraps at a weekly compost station just a few blocks away from where I live ever since. But some apartment buildings have compost bins for residents to use, that are then picked up by the city, thus making it even easier to limit landfill donations. Similarly, while the bustling restaurant scene may be a dirge overall to environmental health, there are a great many places that focus on local, ethically produced ingredients for their dishes. If not locally harvested, then there are also at the very least always vegetarian or vegan options on the menu – like many other movements, all it takes is a bit of research to see how you can become an active participant.

Even so, I am constantly left with the feeling that I am not doing enough. I can’t help but think about how even though I have very purposefully developed sustainability-minded habits, for every apple core I compost, I also throw away a lot of things as well. I would estimate that the majority of the things I toss in the bin are self-maintenance products: toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, lipsticks, and so on. I have made a concerted effort in recent months to buy products that come in recyclable packaging, but even so, I know I fall short in a lot of ways. For example, while writing that last sentence, I threw away a piece of gum; I am full of flaws, there can be no doubt.


But I’m trying. While I believe that the most far-reaching and impactful change happens when governments and corporations prioritize environmental justice, I also believe in the positive effect that individuals can have when they make decisions that are good for the environment. In that spirit, I have decided to ameliorate the nagging cognitive dissonance and figure out how to truly be as close to zero waste as possible. I know this will take some time to sort out, so I am going to begin with a one-month challenge to only use non-disposable self-maintenance products. This will require a bit of digging, but I’m excited to see what I can find – and I’ll be back here next month with updates on how it goes.

In the meantime, I will keep encouraging my fellow city-dwellers to incorporate sustainable practices into their lives. The world is a busy, maddening place, but it is absolutely crucial that in the midst of it all, we all make the time and put forth the work to care for our earth the way it desperately needs to be cared for. 

Written by Megan Embrey.