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What Happens To Our Recycling, Part Two The Work Of Recycling

Story by Cailin Riley, Photos by Joseph Louchheim, Dana Shaw and Kyril Bromley

Mike Vitale saw the writing on the wall, even when many others did not.

It was the early 2000s, and single-stream recycling was the newest, hottest trend in the recycling market. Waste Management, the garbage disposal and recycling behemoth, was pushing the trend, touting the convenience of allowing a family to separate out all recyclables and discard them in a single container. The different types of recyclable material then would be sorted after collection.

Mike Vitale of Great Northern Fibers

The idea: An easier process would encourage more households to recycle, and thus greatly increase the volume of material being pulled out of the waste stream. Companies that collect recyclable materials would save money, too, since they’d need only one truck for curbside pick-up on one day a week, rather than sending separate trucks on separate days to pick up different types of recyclable materials.

For many years, it worked.

But then China, which purchased 40 percent of post-consumer recyclables from the United States, decided in January 2017 that it had had enough, and banned nearly all imports. At the same time, it announced that the recyclables it would continue to accept had to be no more than 0.5 percent contaminated—a rate nearly impossible to achieve for many vendors.

There were plenty of recyclable materials to sell. But the collapse of the China market sent vendors scrambling to find buyers in other countries.

The disruption caused by China has forced vendors to find new markets overseas.

“I kept my mouth shut, waiting in the background for it to fall on its face—and in this market, it has,” Mr. Vitale said of single-stream recycling, which had become the model for many towns, including Southold—which adopted the single-stream model at its transfer station—and Brookhaven, which went with single-stream for its municipal pick-up program.

A Different Path

The recycling operation that Mr. Vitale runs, Great Northern Fibers in West Babylon, has survived that disruption. The company never jumped on the single-stream bandwagon, so his partnerships with brokers and mills in China have remained largely unaffected.

The new standards have forced Great Northern to hire additional laborers to hand-sort materials, and it has led to a higher percentage of residual material destined for landfills, because the recyclables need to be much more pristine. But the fact that the material Mr. Vitale processes there has never been co-mingled with garbage or other potentially contaminating recyclables—he never brings glass into his facility—means his relationships with China are still strong and the company remains profitable.

Baled cardboard at Great Northern Fibers.

This is good news for the people in East Hampton and Southampton towns who self-haul trash and recyclables to the town-operated facilities, where they’re sorted on site. Many of the recyclables taken to the town transfer stations end up at Great Northern for processing—and that means those materials are, to a very large degree, being sold and actually recycled.

Like Great Northern, Southampton and East Hampton town leaders made the decision—wise, in retrospect—to stick with the so-called “dual-stream” recycling collection model, although it is more accurate to describe it as “multi-stream,” since they provide multiple containers for different types of recyclables.

But it is still a good news/bad news situation for the two towns. The good news: Self-hauling to town transfer stations provides far better outcomes for recyclables. The bad news: Only a small portion of town residents are self-haulers.

In East Hampton, which has 22,000 full-time residents, the town sold a total of 11,005 transfer station permit stickers from February 2017 to March 2018, although 2,097 of those were secondary stickers for another vehicle in the same household.

The East Hampton Town Transfer Station.

At least on the surface, the numbers suggest that East Hampton Town has a much bigger buy-in from its full-time residents for utilizing transfer stations rather than private carters.

In Southampton Town, by comparison, officials estimate that 15 percent of its residents dispose of waste at the transfer stations, although some residents take only their recycling there, which is harder to track.

The vast majority of residents who don't self-haul use private carters, often relying on them to take care of their recycling as well. Most carters don’t offer separate recycling pick-up, and those that do say that many of their customers do not take advantage of it. Offering separate recycling pick-up costs those private carters money, because they have to have another fleet of trucks and send drivers out on different days to pick up that material. When asked, however, the carters imply, or state outright, that co-mingled materials are being separated and recycled after collection.

But only a small percentage of recyclables that are collected and tossed in the same truck by private carters on the South Fork is actually being recycled, and that percentage can range from around 10 percent or lower to as high as only 30 percent, depending on where the material is processed, the sorting technology at the facility, and the number of human laborers employed there—because recycling remains a labor-intensive endeavor.

Recycling involves significant human labor.

So for residents who want to assure that they are getting the most out of their recycling efforts, self-hauling to the town transfer stations is far and away the best option.

Why Self-Hauling Works

The fact that the self-hauling model leads to good recycling outcomes illustrates a harsh reality about recycling: Doing it right requires a serious investment of time and energy.

That investment can come in one of two ways. Consumers can make that commitment themselves—separating recyclables, cleaning the discarded items and keeping them clean, then loading them into a vehicle and taking them to the transfer station, where they’re diligently separated. Or they can make it financially viable for private carters and trash collection facilities to do that—by paying them more for the service.

East Hampton residents separate and take recyclables and garbage to the transfer station.

That second option? According to many of the private carting companies, most residents simply aren’t willing to consider it.

When recycling first came into vogue, people thought there was money involved,” he said. “They’d say, ‘There’s gold in that garbage!’ That’s bullshit. Whoever laid that predicate out there, whether it was the government or the media or the companies themselves, they should have known better.

Will Flower, the vice president of corporate and public affairs for Winters Brothers, a Westbury-based carting company that serves the Northeast, with a local operation in Quogue, said that many residential customers balk at the additional $15 per month the company charges to pick up recycling separately. Emil Norsic and Son and S and P Carting have offered separate recycling pick-up for years, but they say that participation in that service has dropped significantly in recent years. The companies work together to gather the curbside recycling for their combined customer base, splitting the territory to save money on transportation costs. They offer the service free of charge, even though they make no money on it and often take a loss, according to Skip Norsic.

Winters Brothers Transfer Station in Holtsville. Workers at the facility pull recyclables from household and commercial garbage.

Mike O’Brien, a senior manager at Paumanok Environmental—which processes a good portion of the material that local private carters pick up—has decades of experience in the recycling and waste management industries, and he agrees that it’s a financial matter.

“When recycling first came into vogue, people thought there was money involved,” he said. “They’d say, ‘There’s gold in that garbage!’ That’s bullshit. Whoever laid that predicate out there, whether it was the government or the media or the companies themselves, they should have known better.”

Mr. O’Brien does not shy away from the fact that the Paumanok facility in Yaphank does not pull a high volume of post-consumer recyclables from the waste flow, but he says the facility does not bill itself as a high-end recycling center. The majority of the 2,000 tons of garbage processed each week at Paumanok is commercial waste and construction debris, and the facility is set up to pull from that waste stream the bigger, heavier items that have value—cardboard, metal and wood. There is simply not enough of those smaller recyclables (tin cans, plastic water bottles, aluminum cans, etc.) present in the waste stream at Paumanok for it to make business sense to pull it out. It would require paying more laborers to pluck the materials, and with only a small volume of household waste, it would not make sense for that facility to change its business model to accommodate that small percentage.

Different Carters, Different Results

Because of the diligent separation requirements, and because the recyclables are never mixed with regular garbage, the two towns’ transfer stations do the best job of keeping recyclables out of landfills.

But for residents who can’t or don’t want to devote the time and energy to haul trash and/or recyclables to those stations, but are still hoping for good recycling outcomes, not all carting companies are created equal.

Anyone who uses or retains our services will factually and absolutely have a higher rate of recyclable material pulled out of the waste stream.

Generally speaking, hiring a private carting company that offers a separate recycling curbside pick-up is a good call, because those recyclables will not be co-mingled with regular trash, thus keeping them cleaner and more marketable.

Winters Brothers offers a separate, single-stream pick-up, sending those recyclables to one of its single-stream recycling plants in Babylon for sorting, while Norsic and S and P Carting also provide separate pick-up.

Go Green Sanitation, Mattituck Environmental—which does residential pick-up on the North Fork and in Flanders—and Suburban Environmental Services (formerly Suburban Sanitation), which is now owned by Mattituck, do not offer a separate recycling pick-up. But the three carters send their material to Peconic Recycling and Transfer Corporation, a state-of-the-art waste management and recycling facility in Cutchogue that opened in 2015.

Jon DiVello, whose family founded Mattituck Environmental and who is part-owner of Peconic Recycling and Transfer, touts the facility’s ability to pull a great volume of recyclables from the waste stream, something he says they are able to do “better than any other facility out there,” both because of the high-tech system they use and the employment of a larger team of human laborers who diligently pick through the flow of trash.

“Anyone who uses or retains our services will factually and absolutely have a higher rate of recyclable material pulled out of the waste stream,” he said.

Peconic has an industrial magnet that pulls any metals out of the stream, and a system that separates the stream into large and small items, sending them down two different conveyor belts, which helps in identifying smaller recyclables like aluminum cans and plastics, which are hand-picked.

Mr. DiVello has so much confidence in his system that he believes—contrary to most others in the industry—that it is more efficient to extract recyclables from the waste stream than to send separate trucks down the same streets on different days to pick up different recyclables, keeping them separate from garbage and from each other.

If he’s correct, neither single-stream nor dual-stream recycling is the best system—technology could improve the sorting process to the point where the private carters can begin to compete with the transfer stations when it comes to efficiency of recycling.

The Bottom Line

As the local private carting companies differ in how they manage recyclables and where they send trash and recyclables for processing, the transfer stations in East Hampton and Southampton towns also differ in the way they manage the materials they receive. The common thread, however, is that they both provide residents a great opportunity to maximize recycling—far beyond the options presented by carting companies.

At the same time, by and large, the system of recycling makes sense, fiscally speaking, for both towns.

Recycling cardboard and mixed paper has been a revenue generator for both towns.

Getting rid of solid waste is a costly endeavor on Long Island, because there are no local landfills. Disposing of a single ton of solid waste can range from around $70 to more than $100 per ton; the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a single person generates 4.4 pounds of garbage a day, so a ton is one day of trash from about 450 people.

Southampton Town operates a “pay-as-you-go” system that requires self-haulers to purchase special “green bags” for roughly $3 per large bag to dispose of general non-recyclable waste at the transfer stations. The model encourages people to recycle more, because doing so reduces the number of garbage bags they will need to purchase. Recyclables of various kinds are collected separately, for free, at the same facilities.

Southampton Town Transfer Station in North Sea

One family of four in Water Mill that “diligently” recycles said it used one large (33-gallon) green bag each week for its garbage—although they noted that they may have set the world record for how many smaller bags of garbage can be stuffed in that one bag. At a cost of $3 per bag, per week, it represents a significant cost savings over hiring a private carter. Their monthly charges can range from as low as $28 for once-weekly pick up of one rolling cart to as high as around $40 or $50.

East Hampton Town does not use the green bag system, instead charging a town resident $115 for a sticker for a vehicle that allows them to visit the transfer station on an unlimited basis, and dispose of however much waste and recyclables they want—and so offering no financial incentive to separate.

Recycling cardboard and mixed paper, meanwhile, has been a revenue generator for both towns, with Southampton Town netting $65 per ton for cardboard and around $35 per ton for mixed paper from Great Northern Fibers for the past year and a half.

Transfer stations educate residents on what can and what can not be recycled.

Southampton Town does not generate revenue for its co-mingled containers—glass, plastic, aluminum and tin—but recycling those products is still a money-saver, since it removes them from the garbage headed to a landfill, at a much higher cost. Southampton just extended a multi-year contract with the Town of Islip’s dual-stream facility, paying that town $21 per ton to take its co-mingled containers, as compared to the $73 per ton it pays to dispose of the regular waste it collects in the green bags. East Hampton Town pays $90 per ton for disposal of non-recyclable waste.

Jim Heil, who runs the Town of Islip’s recycling facility, praised the self-hauling systems in the Eastern Long Island towns. “If people are truly interested in recycling and dedicated to it, they should take it to the town transfer stations,” he said. “It’s very nice material, and it’s clean.”

Although Great Northern is a frequent buyer of its materials, East Hampton Town also sells more directly to recycling vendors, putting out requests for bids on a regular basis and selling to the highest bidders, so it experiences a bit more fluctuation in its return on recycling. Unlike Southampton, East Hampton also has its own baler, so it can bale its own cardboard and paper and cut out the middleman in the process that Southampton sometimes has to use. East Hampton does not sell glass, but grinds it up on site and allows contractors to take it for use in projects.

Great Northern processes a lot of recyclables from the East Hampton and Southampton town transfer stations.

Susan Miller, who works at the East Hampton Town transfer station, said that the market changes caused by China’s recent moves have certainly made their presence felt locally, as prices for recyclables have plummeted in the last year.

“From last year to this year, it’s drastic,” she said. “We were making big money, but this year, it’s next to nothing, or we’re paying to have it taken away.” The experience is similar in Southampton Town.

But directly landfilling the materials still represents a higher cost—so even at break-even it makes sense for East Hampton to continue collecting recyclable materials from its residents.

The End Point

The multi-stream model of processing recyclables, as set up by the towns’ transfer stations, sets the table for good recycling outcomes, but the hauler is part of that equation as well.

The recyclables that residents drop at the transfer stations go through several stages of processing before they are given a new life—and many of the items don’t make the cut because of small actions taken, or not taken, by consumers.

Meanwhile, the markets for recyclable materials vary widely and can be volatile. The new standards imposed by China have set off a sort of chain reaction in other global markets as well, with other companies trying to follow suit with stricter contamination rates. That makes it even more imperative for consumers to be educated on best recycling practices.

Keeping paper and cardboard dry is key to maintaining its value.

When it comes to cardboard and mixed paper, moisture is the enemy. A pizza box with a large grease stain or a stack of newspapers that got wet with rain will ultimately be filtered out and sent to a landfill. It’s one reason, among many, why single-stream recycling plants are struggling right now—once-valuable products are being lost because of contamination, and higher standards.

An example: In Brookhaven Town, which has municipal garbage and recycling pick-up—and recently announced a return to dual-stream recycling, after running a single-stream program for years—residents were told by the town that they could leave their recycling containers uncovered at the curb.

George Bateman, who ran the Greensteam single-stream recycling facility at the Brookhaven landfill, until it went out of business last month, expressed frustration at that directive. Uncovered cardboard and paper, exposed to the elements, would often arrive at this facility soaking wet and, essentially, worthless. Brokers and mills looking to buy bales of cardboard will send inspectors to insert moisture probes into the bales, and if the water concentration is too high, they move on—and the cardboard goes to a landfill.

George Bateman

The same principle applies to co-mingled containers, where the enemy is food residue: A can of beans with bean juice still pooling at the bottom is more likely to find its way into a landfill than a recycling center.

And then there is glass. Whether hauled to transfer stations or taken away by a private carter, glass is never recycled, in the strictest sense of the word. That glass bottle you’re throwing away? It will never become another bottle in its lifetime. The process to turn post-consumer glass into new glass products is simply too expensive, and when different colored glass is mingled together, it can no longer be turned into new glass.

But glass does have what is called a “beneficial use.” When it is ground down to a sand-like material, it can be used as cover in landfills, for drainage, and even as an ingredient in asphalt, although that last use has had mixed results.

Glass is typically crushed and used as cover at landfills.

So it is still worthwhile to drop that glass into the recycling bin, as long as programs continue to accept it.

The Single-Stream Crisis

The presence of glass in single-stream facilities was one of the biggest factors leading to its downfall. Glass shards mixed in with paper and cardboard causes contamination and makes that 0.5 percent threshold nearly impossible to meet.

Plastic bags—now largely banned from stores on the South Fork—also are a big nuisance in recycling centers. They are never recycled, and not only are they sent to landfills, they can wreak havoc on the sorting equipment at recycling facilities. When Greenstream was still in operation, Mr. Bateman said, his workers would have to stop the sorting machines up to five times each day to unclog the bags wound around parts of the machinery.

Plastic bags clog machinery at the Greenstream facility.

A recent string of announcements by towns that had employed single-stream that they’re returning to dual-stream seems to suggest that, at least without the benefit of high-tech sorting facilities, single-stream recycling is waning. Brookhaven announced a return to dual-stream, and also announced it will no longer accept glass.

“You’d be crazy to open a single-stream plant in this market,” Mr. Bateman said, just a few weeks before Greenstream pulled out of its contract with the Town of Brookhaven.

The Town of Southold, which runs its own transfer stations like Southampton and East Hampton, appears to be setting up for a switch from single-stream to a dual-stream model at its transfer stations. (Like Southampton and East Hampton, Southold does not have municipal pickup). Riverhead has been operating with dual-stream municipal pick-up, as has Islip.

While the market changes have certainly created some very real challenges for all recycling operations, there is a marked difference in tone between the dual-stream adherents and the single-stream operators.

“You’d be crazy to open a single-stream plant in this market,” Mr. Bateman said, just a few weeks before Greenstream pulled out of its contract with the Town of Brookhaven.

Mr. Heil’s approach was decidedly more low key. “I think we will continue to stay with what we’re doing and just ride it out,” he said. “I’m sure the world conditions will adjust, somehow, and markets will improve. You sort of take it with the ebbs and flows. We’re in a good position, because we stayed with dual-stream, and we have people who will take the material.”

Next Week: What Happens To Our Recycling, Part Three, will compare waste management and recycling practices in other nearby municipalities in eastern and central Suffolk County, explore why there is no municipal pick-up on the South Fork, and explore the future of recycling on Long Island, including what Southampton Town and East Hampton Town officials are doing to foster more sustainable and environmentally responsible practices—and what you, as a consumer, can do to ensure that your recycling efforts are best put to use.

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