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Towns in Suffolk scramble to adapt to changing marketplace for recyclables

RIverheadLOCAL file photo: Katharine Schroeder

Restrictions imposed by China and other Asian countries on imports of recovered materials have thrown recycling programs in U.S. communities into chaos.

“Certain recyclables have gone from being commodities to being an expense,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio told Riverhead Town Board members at today’s work session. Giglio, town board liaison to the sanitation department, attended a meeting about the looming crisis convened by the county executive to develop a county-wide strategy for dealing with the escalating problem.

China has been the destination market for much of the plastics, metals, glass, paper, cardboard and other materials mandated for source separation and recycling in American communities since the 1980s. Vietnam and Malaysia, two other major Asian markets for recovered materials from U.S. exporters, along with China have also begun imposing stringent restrictions. China earlier this year announced its intention to completely ban the import of many recovered materials.

When the markets for the materials dry up, the materials can’t be exported. At that point, they are considered solid waste — and just like other household trash, must be disposed of at landfills or incinerators at significant cost.

So instead of a town like Riverhead earning revenues from the sale of recyclables, the town will now have to pay to dispose of the materials. And at as much as $90 per ton, solid waste disposal gets expensive.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is pushing for a uniform recycling policy and education effort county-wide, Giglio reported.

Contamination of recyclables is one of the biggest problems, according to the county. Contamination takes many forms, from a resident tossing non-recyclable waste in the recycling bin, to liquids spilling onto recyclable papers and cardboard. Contamination rates are as high as 30 percent for some residents, in some cases, according to carters.

Single-stream recycling programs, which were implemented by many municipalities a few years ago — but not in Riverhead — are the number one culprit when it comes to contamination, according to a presentation given by the county executive’s office and distributed by Giglio at today’s meeting. Single-stream recycling programs allow residents to co-mingle paper and cardboard with plastic, cans and glass recyclables.

“When bottles, cans and containers come into contact with paper, the residual liquid that had been in those containers gets absorbed by the paper products sharing the bin,” according to the county presentation materials.

The sorting and reclamation costs go up in single-stream programs, while the amount and quality of materials reclaimed diminishes.

Some Suffolk towns that have implemented a single-stream program, such as Brookhaven, are returning to dual-stream recycling because they’ve been unable to market their recovered materials and solid waste disposal costs have gone up as a result.

The county wants all towns to have uniform recycling standards – “the message must be clear, concise and co-ordinated” no matter where people live.

There is no longer a market for recovered glass. (Riverhead’s solid waste carting contract provides for the curbside pickup of glass containers as recyclables and will be in place for another four years, Giglio said.)

All empty plastic bottles, metal cans, paper and cardboard should be recycled — but they must be clean and dry. These items must not be bagged.

Loose plastic bags, styrofoam containers, foods, liquids, clothing, batteries and hazardous wastes must not be placed in the recycling bin.

The county wants to embark upon a uniform education campaign county-wide to promote the same message. And municipal programs must have an enforcement component, so that people who don’t recycle properly won’t have their bins emptied.

“We’re in a crisis situation pretty much,” town engineer Drew Dillingham told the board today. The engineer oversees the town’s sanitation program.

Board members discussed possible education efforts, such as preparing a presentation to air on the cable television government access channel and board members going into local schools to provide students with information about proper recycling.

The county wants to produce a sticker containing recycling guidance, which could be affixed to recycling containers, Giglio said.

She asked board members to look at the prototype provided by the county and give feedback. She suggested that some of the information on the proposed sticker could be incorporated on the magnet the town provides to residents each year, which depicts the solid waste and recyclables pickup dates.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.