RETHINKING RECYCLING by Tia Swanson
Working to find the sweet spot on reusing our trash
For many years, residents of South Orange and Maplewood dutifully filled their recycling containers and left them curbside, secure in the belief that they were doing their part to make the world a cleaner, better place, one focused on reuse, rather than rejection.
That belief collapsed in 2021, when it became apparent that not only were the two towns paying gobs of money to the haulers collecting the recyclables – $500,000 in each town – but that much of what went into those cans and toters was not actually being recycled.
“The thing that kills me,” says South Orange resident and activist Michael Parlapiano, “is...we are spending half a million on a charade.”
That’s not quite true. In 2018, the last year for which statistics are available, South Orange recycled 64 percent of its total solid waste. Maplewood hit 57 percent. In that same year, the state average was 58 percent, the Essex County average was 52 percent and the best performing county, Middlesex, had an average rate of 69 percent. (Maine, the state with the highest recycling rate, hits 72 percent.)
It is also true, however, that experts say that between 15 and 30 percent of what is thrown into single-stream recycling containers cannot be recycled. And the 2018 numbers may not reflect the sudden downturn in the recycling industry that occurred when China announced in the middle of that year that it would no longer take this country’s unsorted recycling.
Nevertheless, both municipalities have pledged to do better. In April of last year, the two governments jointly hired Zero Waste Associates to analyze the issue and come back with proposals. The result was a far-reaching plan encompassing nearly a decade and envisioning a community that eventually places not only recycling, but compost at the curb, where rather than a flat garbage rate, residents pay based on the amount of garbage they produce. Zero Waste describes a place that is home to reuse-it shops that divert used furniture from the waste stream and where at least 90 percent of the solid waste is recycled or reused.
The first step toward that vision will be a change in the two towns’ recycling – and an end to single stream.
Bill Haskins, a longtime environmental advocate who is now a South Orange trustee, reports that the two towns will this spring begin seeking bids for a dual-stream recycling collection system. A dual-stream system, unlike a single-stream, requires a first sort. In most systems, that would mean residents would put out paper, cardboard and junk mail in the recycling one week and everything else – plastics, glass, and cans – the next. A dual-stream system cuts down on contamination, which is one of the things that lowers the recycling rate in single-stream system. Cardboard isn’t ruined by oil that leaks from a plastic jug, for example.
That system asks a bit more of residents; they do the first sort. But Haskins is optimistic. “It’s a process...You ask a little more, and you bring people along.”
Parlapiano thinks government officials are not demanding enough of residents. As he sees it, if the towns could reduce the cost of collection and sorting and cut down on the contamination, then they could make money by selling their recyclables and along the way hit a higher recycling rate. “I think many people if they realized taking these steps would make things more recyclable, they would do it.”
He advocates for increasing the number of drop off locations: Both Maplewood and South Orange accept recyclables at their depots, although that seems to account for a small portion of the recycling haul. Paul Kittner, the director of public works for Maplewood, says that typically less than 10 percent of the township’s total recyclables are collected at the DPW yard off Boyden Avenue.
At the very least, Parlapiano would like to see more sorting done at those sites. Currently South Orange does not separate plastics, glass, and cans at its depot, for example. And Kittner says whatever is collected at its DPW yard goes into Maplewood’s single stream.
South Orange trustee Haskins is open to more sorting at the depot. “I think it’s something we can try. There’s definitely interest in improving our recycling further.”
But while Haskins agrees that more should be asked of people, he also thinks steps must be incremental. He talks about the push to ban single-use plastic bags, which took effect in Maplewood in July 2019 and in South Orange on January 1, 2020. People worried that the ban was asking too much, especially for people on limited incomes, and the proposal had its detractors. And yet now, people remember their reusable bags, or they buy one at the store without complaint.
Haskins acknowledges that it has all gone more smoothly than the doomsayers predicted, but he also notes that Patricia Canning, the woman who spearheaded the effort in South Orange, put six years of work into it before seeing it come to fruition. “It’s kind of this balance.” he says.
Whatever the balance to be struck, experts contend that the method of collection matters less than teaching people how and what to recycle.
“Really what is needed is a better education program,” says Virginia Lamb, a Maplewood resident who served as one of the Zero Waste consultants.
For her and other recycling experts the key is to get people to recycle correctly. The biggest hurdle to better recycling rates is what is known in the industry as “wishcycling.” People hope something might be recyclable, so they put it in. Much of the time, it is garbage.
Shredded paper is not recyclable. Only plastics number 1, 2 and 5 are. Pizza boxes, though made of corrugated cardboard, can be contaminated by the grease that comes off on them. Experts only recycle the top half. Everything needs to be clean. Some things need to have labels removed. Plastic lids can be recycled, but only if they are screwed on to their bottles. Single-use plastic bags need to be recycled at grocery stores, not the curb.
Technology may help save us. It is possible to download an app, Recycle Coach, that keeps track of recycling days in each town. It also has a search button. If someone types in what they are hoping to recycle, they are told whether it’s appropriate or not. Tin cans, yes. Hangers, no.
The state is also trying to up the ante. In January, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation into law that increases the required amount of recycled materials in common goods. Everything from plastic and glass bottles to garbage bags will have to have measurable amounts of recycled material. It is hoped that this will increase the prices for recyclable materials, which is good news since the United States has lagged in finding uses for its recyclables.
A story in The New York Times in late January noted, for instance, that while the U.S. is still shipping much of its plastic offshore to places like Senegal, Senegal has a burgeoning market for recycled plastic, thanks to its adoption by home and fashion designers, who use recycled plastic in rugs, chairs and clothing.
Haskins agrees with Parlapiano on that point. The focus should be on the assets that recyclable materials can provide. “If we want the material to be treated as an asset rather than a liability, we have to treat it as an asset from the start.” To that end, the new proposal from the towns will divide the contract. They will pay one price for hauling and processing the recyclables but they will also receive any income those recyclables generate. Currently, only Maplewood’s contract has this requirement. South Orange is paid nothing for the recyclables that are hauled away.
But it’s complicated. Parlapiano would like to expend more energy on collecting and sorting glass, for example. Glass that goes into the single stream is often broken down by the time it reaches the recycling facility, and, according to Parlapiano, unusable. He thinks it can easily be collected and sold.
But the experts say glass is heavy and expensive to transport and the market for it is not that strong, considering so many things that used to be packaged in glass bottles are now put in plastic. As one expert puts it, we need a return to the ’70s or ’80s, when packaging was not so disposable and people routinely took glass soda bottles back to the store to be cleaned and refilled.
Haskin agrees. “The most important thing is we have this entire effort in source reduction.” In other words, we need to use less.
He talks about water. If you use a reusable container and get water from the tap, “You don’t have to have a conversation about what to do with those plastic water bottles.”
“It starts with our decision-making,” Haskin adds. And maybe that’s the biggest ask of all.
Tia Swanson is embarrassed to acknowledge that she has engaged in wishcycling. She pledges to do better. For the last two years her resolution has been not to buy drinks in plastic bottles. It’s difficult.