Brendan Sexton, a Pioneer of Recycling, Is Dead at 78

Brendan Sexton, who as New York City’s sanitation commissioner initiated what at the time was the nation’s most ambitious mandatory garbage recycling program and hired the first women as uniformed workers in the department’s 105-year history, died on Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 78.

The cause was prostate cancer, his daughter Dr. Tara Shelby Sexton said.

An indefatigable public servant, Mr. Sexton worked under five mayors. After leaving city government, he remained active as a civic leader: He oversaw the Municipal Art Society’s mandate for historic preservation, the Times Square Alliance and its millennial celebration in 2000, and the South Street Seaport Museum as it struggled to advance from municipal stewardship.

But it was his campaign for curbside recycling that had the greatest impact on New Yorkers. The City Council passed legislation in 1989 requiring millions of households to bundle newspapers, magazines and cardboard and separate them from other trash, and to place glass bottles and metal cans in their own plastic bags or receptacles for curbside pickup. The new rules were to be phased in over the next several years.

Mr. Sexton spoke at City Hall in 1988 about the dumping of medical waste, Mayor Edward I. Koch looked on.Credit…Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

“What we are doing is working a cultural revolution, a social revolution,” Mr. Sexton, who had been sanitation commissioner since 1986, said at the time. “We are changing the way property owners manage their property, the way householders manage their kitchens.”

His goal was to have 25 percent of the city’s garbage recycled within five years. But with the city facing a budget gap by the early 1990s, the program proved prohibitively expensive. Today, according to the Sanitation Department, only about 17 percent of all the city’s garbage is recycled.

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