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City's Recycling Program Lags Behind National Average

City Hall’s halfhearted efforts to increase its anemic recycling rate in Buffalo are plagued by a failure to enforce laws, educate the public, or act on a host of recommendations, Investigative Post has found.

The result: Buffalo’s recycling rate is less than half the national average, costing Buffalo taxpayers more than $1 million in potential savings.

A new green tote program that allows residents to place all recyclables in one container has increased Buffalo’s dismal curbside recycling rate to about 16 percent this summer. But there has been slippage since.

“We haven’t sustained a 16 percent level,” said Public Works Commissioner Steven Stepniak. “Those are peak months. It’s anywhere in the range of 12 to 16 percent on a general basis.”

Meanwhile, numerous proposals calling for incentives, enforcement and education to boost recycling rates haven’t gotten past the talking stage.

An Investigative Post examination of City Hall’s recycling efforts found:

• Recycling rates are well below the national average of 34 percent for both residential and commercial collections. Buffalo’s recent fluctuating rate of 12 to 16 percent only takes into account houses, apartments and businesses that participate in the city’s program, which city officials maintain could be as high as 90 percent, but which some Common Council members say is substantially lower in their districts.

• Buffalo is not enforcing its own multi-residential and commercial recycling laws. Many business owners and property owners aren’t even aware of the mandate. By failing to mandate recycling for single-family residences, Buffalo’s local law only partially complies with state law.

• The city’s low recycling rate has cost consequences. The combination of reduced landfill fees and rebates for recycled materials could save the city more than $1 million annually if its rate was closer to the national average.

• Buffalo is not following terms of its contract with private recycling hauler Allied Waste-Republic, which requires annual spending of $105,000 on recycling promotion and education.

• Buffalo hasn’t a submitted a required annual recycling report with the state Department of Environmental Conservation since 2008.

• The administration has largely ignored recommendations on how to improve recycling made by auditors in the city comptroller’s office, citizen groups, and councilmembers.

• City Hall hasn’t replaced the full-time recycling coordinator who left in 2009, even though funding for the job is budgeted. Although Maypr Byron Brown and Stepniak have opted not to fill the job until now, the vacancy was posted on October 26, two days after Stepniak was interviewed for this story. All applications must be in by November 9.

Most of the work has now been assigned to Raymour P. Nosworthy, the son-in-law of University District Councilwoman Bonnie Russell, one of the mayor’s staunchest political allies on Council. Nosworthy’s previous job with the city was as a seasonal clerk in public works. Nosworthy, 27, also made seven contributions from 2009 through this year totaling $775 to Brown’s campaign.

Nosworthy says that he has been hands-on with recycling in the city since he was appointed to an assistant to the commissioner in 2009.

“I’ve learned the ropes pretty deeply to earn this responsibility,” he said. “Whether I get the job or not, that’s fine. I didn’t just fall out of the sky just because I am on good terms with the mayor. I am pretty qualified.”

He adds that his donations to Brown were the first donations he’d ever made to a political campaign. He

Stepniak said recycling is “important to the city” and that improving the recycling rate is a top goal of the Brown administration. Rolling out the green totes was phase one. The second phase beginning now is to introduce the green totes into the school system with an educational program. The final phase will be an outreach program with businesses.

Stepniak said by this time next year, he hopes to have the recycling rate about 20 percent. Anything less would be deemed a failure.

Buffalo’s public school system’s recycling efforts are even less ambitious than those of the city. Most schools aren’t even recycling bottles and cans, and the ones that do have active programs are only recycling paper and cardboard on a regular basis.

“If you can’t have the consistency, then the program is going to fail,” said Susan Eager, the school system’s director of plant operations.

For the full story on Buffalo’s recycling program, visit investigativepost.org, or tune in to WGRZ TV News on Thursday, Friday, and Monday.

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