Monday, April 05, 2004

Corner Market Failure 

From the "Of Local Interest Only" Desk:

So, New York City has, happily, decided to reinstate full recycling on a weekly basis. Since it appears that most of my readers aren't New Yorkers, let me explain. About ten years ago (maybe more), New York began picking up paper, cardboard, glass and some plastic waste to be recycled. It was easy: you just sorted your trash and put recyclables out on the curb once a week. Actually, it wasn't always that easy: there were rules about what color bags which kind of trash could go in, and in some neighborhoods (for example the Chelsea block where my wife and I lived until 16 months ago), some mysterious enforcement agent would come by and periodically paw through all the bags, assessing fines against landlords for sorting violations.

Two years ago, in the middle of a budget crunch, the City of New York decided to stop recycling plastic and glass. Environmentalists complained bitterly, so last year, in what I think was supposed to be a compromise, the City decided to start recycling plastic again, but to reduce pick-ups to once every other week. Keeping track of whether this Friday or the next is recycling day turns out to be surprisingly hard, and the result at my apartment was a giant and growing pile of bound newspapers waiting to be taken downstairs. (Actually, anyone who has ever visited a place where I live knows that such piles are always present, but trust me, the every-other-week schedule made things worse.)

But now, as of April 1st, the original program has been reinstated. Glass is back on the list, and the recycling trucks come around every single week. Great, right? Well, yes, except this time the market seems to have failed where the City government has been successful. Despite the fact that there has been a virtual avalanche of publicity for the new recycling drive, and despite the fact that much of this publicity has been in the form of posters indicating what materials to recycle in which color bag, it appears that it is completely impossible to find a clear plastic recycling bag in the West Village. A highly-scientific survey of my neighborhood (methodology: go into every bodega, supermarket and deli within three blocks of my apartment) turned up exactly zero boxes of clear plastic trash bags for sale.

Although it seems unlikely that my neighbors are all such enthusiastic recyclers that they had bought out the stock of these bags, I decided that, just to be sure, I should ask the managers of some of the stores whether they had seen an upsurge in recycling bag sales. The answer: "What the hell are you talking about? If it's not on the shelf we don't sell it."

My point? I am a cranky old man. Also, I can think of no good explanation for this missed, albeit minor, business opportunity for local vendors. It sure isn't an information problem.

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