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What Happens To Our Recycling, Part One The Recycling Myth

Story By Cailin Riley. Photos By Dana Shaw and Joseph Louchheim

For most of the 80,000 people who live in the towns of Southampton and East Hampton, the region’s recycling effort comes down to this:

Four men, wearing dust masks and gloves, standing on either side of a fast-moving conveyor belt inside an industrial building in Yaphank. They pluck mostly cardboard and large pieces of metal from an endless stream of household and commercial waste.

A steady parade of plastic water bottles, tin cans, empty yogurt containers and countless other “recyclable” items, either fully or partially obscured by the thick stew of garbage—and perhaps even still imprisoned inside unopened garbage bags that fall onto the belt—don’t stand a chance.

Those recyclables continue down the line before dropping into a massive compactor. The trash is then either pressed and packaged into 2-ton bales and shrouded in thick black tarp-like wrapping before being loaded onto flatbed trucks and transported to landfills in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania or sent to an incinerator.

None of those bales is recycled.

On a gray and drizzly September morning, Andrew, Jose, Pablo and Yonathan did what they do every day in their job as “pickers” at Paumanok Environmental. Dwarfed by a mountain of garbage, some 15 feet above the floor of the cavernous, metal-clad building, the four men lessen the load that is sent to landfills.

It’s a money-saving move for the company, which processes commercial waste, construction debris, and household waste collected from a variety of different streams, including its own carting company, Maggio’s, other private carting companies that service the East End, and waste collected at Southampton and East Hampton town transfer stations from residents who choose to haul their own trash.

What they are picking through is mainly commercial waste, but several of the carting companies that pick up trash from homeowners on the East End take it to Paumanok. Most of those haulers do not offer separate recycling collection. Instead, they tell customers to put recyclables in the same trash container they roll out to the curb once a week. They say, or imply, that the recyclable materials will be picked out later and recycled.

That’s technically true. But the vast majority of that material is never recovered. It ends up in a landfill.

It is a cold, hard fact. There are several reasons, and the blame does not belong to any one company or entity, or official or government body.

Understanding why much of the material we consider recyclable does not, in fact, get recycled requires a deeper look at the recycling and waste management industries, both at the local level and internationally. Meanwhile, recent changes to the world recycling markets have created what industry insiders call a “paradigm shift” when it comes to recycling as we know it—and it’s not a shift in favor of more recycling.

Haul It Away

For up to 12 hours a day, 363 days a year—the exceptions being Christmas and New Year’s Day—large dump trucks bearing the names of many of the local private carting companies pull in and out of the facility on Old Dock Road in Yaphank, a stone’s throw from several other waste transfer stations. The pungent smell of solid waste is powerful enough to seep through car windows on the drive down Horseblock Road to the facility.

Flatbed trucks pull in and out all day long, coming in empty, leaving with the giant black cubes of garbage. They may have originally come to deliver some kind of material to Long Island, a region that consumes far more than it produces, and are looking to make money on a back-haul to wherever they came from.

Recyclables that have high value, and are easy to extract from the waste stream, are pulled out. Smaller, less valuable items don’t make it—in fact, they aren’t even targeted.

There are no landfills on Long Island anymore, so the trucks take the garbage to landfills out of state.

What happens at Paumanok happens at many other facilities in Suffolk County, with predictable results. Recyclables that have high value, and are easy to extract from the waste stream, are pulled out. Smaller, less valuable items don’t make it—in fact, they aren’t even targeted.

Corrugated cardboard, as in the voluminous numbers of Amazon boxes? Highly valued, often snagged and recycled. Construction debris? It has enough value to justify pulling it out of the commercial waste flow.

But plastic water bottles? Empty vegetable cans? Glass? Almost never.

Cardboard collected for recycling.

Take Your Pick

East Hampton and Southampton Towns are unique when it comes to waste disposal and recycling, because, unlike many other townships, they do not offer municipal curbside pickup.

Residents in those towns have, essentially, two choices: haul refuse to one of the town transfer stations, or hire a private carting company to pick up their garbage on a weekly basis at the curb. Which option they choose has a great impact on the efficacy of their recycling efforts.

In Southampton Town, residents must dispose of their household waste using the town’s “green bags,” which are sold at various locations throughout the town--large bags cost $3.10 each; recyclables can be tossed into separate large containers at the town transfer station, free of charge. Residents who produce less trash by diligently separating recyclables—and by composting, and generally reducing their waste production—will save money by buying fewer green bags.

Roughly 15 percent of Southampton Town residents are self-haulers.

In East Hampton Town, recyclables are disposed of in the same way, but instead of purchasing green bags, residents pay a flat fee per year, $115, for a sticker for their car (cheaper for additional vehicles, or for senior citizens), or $20 per trip, which allows them to dump an unlimited volume of trash and recyclables.

But self-haulers are the exception. Southampton Town’s director of municipal public works, Christine Fetten, estimates that only 15 percent of Southampton Town residents take their refuse to the transfer stations—the rest of the town residents hire a private carting company to take away their trash and recyclables.

East Hampton Town officials said it was difficult to estimate what percentage of its population self-hauls and what percentage uses a private company for curbside pick-up. The town, with a population of 22,000, orders 18,000 stickers each year, but some people purchase two, one for each car.

There is one common thread with all the private carting companies, however: They all assure would-be customers that their recyclables will be recycled, even if they are thrown away in the same container as regular household trash and picked up in the same truck.

There are numerous private carting companies that serve the East End, but the main players are Montauk-based Mickey’s Carting, which primarily serves East Hampton Town; S&P Carting, based in Water Mill; Winters Brothers/East End Sanitation, with its local operations in Quogue; Sunrise Sanitation of Westhampton Beach; and Go-Green Sanitation and Emil Norsic and Sons, both of Southampton.

As a group, they vary in terms of services they offer when it comes to recycling, how they process recyclable materials, and where they send them. S&P and Winters Brothers, for example, do offer separate curbside recycling pick-up, unlike the other companies, although not all of their customers take advantage of that service.

And while many of those companies send their waste to Paumanok, not all of them do. Winters Brothers operates its own trash sorting facilities, while GoGreen uses Peconic Recycling and Transfer Corporation, located in Cutchogue, which is a newer facility that has more updated machinery to help extract more recyclables from the waste stream.

There is one common thread with all the private carting companies, however: They all assure would-be customers that their recyclables will be recycled, even if they are thrown away in the same container as regular household trash and picked up in the same truck.

If this sounds too good to be true, it often is.

No Markets, No Recycling

A first key to understanding why this happens lies in the fact that recyclable materials are commodities, and, like any other commodities, the price for them can vary wildly. It’s not always a matter of whether or not facilities like Paumanok and PRTC have the ability to pull recyclables from the waste stream—rather, it’s a question of whether it’s worth their while, from a business standpoint, to do so.

The price that recycled plastic will fetch on the open market, for example, depends on the price of oil, because crude oil is used to manufacture plastic. When oil prices are low, it is cheaper to produce virgin plastic than it is to make new material from recycled plastic—and thus the price for recycled plastic bottoms out.

There also is great variation in the types of plastic used in everyday products: some have high value (clear or white plastic milk jugs and detergent jugs, for instance) while some have little or no value (thin-film plastic or plastic water bottles).

White and clear plastic milk jugs are some of the most valuable recyclables.

A general lack of knowledge among average household consumers is a problem as well. Some of the material most commonly targeted by households for recycling has little to no market value at all. Glass is the biggest example—it literally is not recycled, period. At best, the glass that consumers drop off at recycling centers is either crushed to a sand-like fineness and used as cover at landfills, or as an ingredient in asphalt, or for drainage. It has what is called a “beneficial use,” but it is never turned into a new glass product. And aside from being non-recyclable in the traditional sense, glass also can be a contaminant to other recyclables.

Glass has been one of the biggest factors in the decline in popularity of “single-stream” recycling—a system where all recyclables are collected together and sorted later at a sorting facility. In those systems, broken glass can get mixed in with cardboard and paper, ruining its ability to be recycled, and thus its value. Glass is so unmarketable, in fact, that many townships and municipalities have recently stopped accepting it.

Brookhaven Town, in fact, recently announced that it would drop its single-stream recycling program and return to dual-stream recycling, a decision that could have a ripple effect in other nearby communities that relied on the infrastructure that served the large population in Brookhaven.

The company that operates this single-stream recycling facility in Brookhaven Town recently walked away from its contract with the town because it was losing too much money.

The laborers who pick through the municipal solid waste at facilities like Paumanok are instructed to grab only recyclables that have value and that are not contaminated by regular waste. Clean cardboard is the biggest prize that those pickers are looking for.

“IF THERE ARE NO MARKETS, THERE IS NO RECYCLING.”

Once recyclables are mixed with regular trash, they often become dirty and contaminated, and trying to clean them up enough to be passable simply does not make good business sense. For certain recyclables, the market value is so low that the companies would lose money trying to get them off their hands if they pulled them out of the garbage headed to a landfill.

Will Flower, the vice president of corporate and public affairs at Winters Brothers, put it simply: “If there are no markets, there is no recycling.”

One In 10

Mike O’Brien is one of the principals at Paumanok Environmental. He’s worked in the waste management and recycling industry for years, running programs in Chicago, Hawaii and everywhere in between.

The majority of the 2,000 tons of municipal solid waste and construction debris that enter the Paumanok yard every week comes from commercial entities, but the transfer station also takes in all the solid waste from both Southampton and East Hampton towns, as well as garbage and recyclables collected from residential customers by Mickey’s Carting and Sunrise Sanitation.

Workers at Paumanok sort construction and demolition material.
“Forty to 50 percent of what’s being thrown in recycling [by consumers] is garbage.”

Mr. O'Brien estimated that, of that entire waste load, no more than 10 percent is diverted to recycling centers.

That estimate squares with what other industry insiders say about extracting recyclable material from the waste stream. Brian Gilbride of Emil Norsic and Son has more than 50 years of experience in the industry, starting out riding the back of a garbage truck, to at one time working for industry giant Waste Management, and also working as the sanitation supervisor for Southampton Town. He delivers his expertise succinctly and bluntly.

“Forty to 50 percent of what’s being thrown in recycling [by consumers] is garbage,” he said, adding that he estimated that no more than 10 percent of recyclables that are mixed in with regular solid waste are able to be plucked from the waste stream.

Mr. Gilbride’s boss, Skip Norsic, blames this on a lack of education, saying that in the 1990s, when recycling was in vogue, there seemed to be more of an effort to get it right. “There was a constant education process in the 1990s,” he said, referring to recycling ads and education campaigns featured on public access television. “That has fallen by the wayside.”

Ironically, the public needs that education now more than ever, thanks to China—which had in recent years been buying roughly 40 percent of U.S. recyclables.

The country announced a new policy in January 2017, essentially saying that it would not accept most post-consumer recyclables from the United States, and adding that what little material it would continue to take would need to be no more than 0.5 percent contaminated. Before that, a level of 4.5 percent contamination or lower was acceptable.

“There was a constant education process in the 1990s. That has fallen by the wayside.”

On top of that, China has threatened to impose tariffs on incoming material as part of the larger trade war with the United States. It has put enormous pressure on peddlers of recyclables to make their products cleaner—and for many in the business, that low of a contamination rate is simple impossible to achieve.

Richie Shire is the site manager at the Winters Brothers Transfer Station in Holtsville, which takes in mainly commercial garbage but also garbage collected from Winters Brothers and Norsic residential customers on the East End. He estimated that around 8 percent of the material that enters the yard these days is recycled; in years past, before China changed its policy, anywhere from 18 to 20 percent was recycled.

Garbage being processed at the Winters Brothers Transfer Station in Holtsville.

Mr. Shire said he no longer sells any recyclable material to China, but rather now does business with other emerging markets, including Vietnam, Malaysia and India. Like Mr. Shire, Jon DiVello, who manages Peconic Recycling and Transfer, said he no longer sells to China. Mr. DiVello said he is still able to produce recyclables with a low enough contamination level, but that China simply won’t take it anymore. He said his former buyer in China introduced him to a new buyer in Taiwan.

‘People Don’t Want To Pay’

The fact that most common household recyclables end up in a landfill is likely upsetting to homeowners who have been led to believe by the carting companies that pick up their trash that they will be recycled.

But the people who run Paumanok, Winters Brothers and other processing facilities that take refuse from private carters make it clear that they have never billed themselves as high-tech recycling centers. Mr. O’Brien, for instance, points out that Paumanok is more aptly described as a transfer station rather than a true “dirty MRF,” industry speak for a materials recovery facility that employs high-tech machinery—such as eddy currents, magnets and optical sorters—as well as a larger team of human laborers to pull and sort the smaller recyclables from that waste stream.

With the stricter contamination requirements placed on the industry by China, however, it is becoming less and less financially viable to pay for that machinery—which can cost millions—and for extra laborers to pull out material that may ultimately be undesirable anyway, because it has already been mingled with regular waste.

Nick Guarino

Paumanok site manager Nick Guarino summed it up while watching Andrew, Jose, Pablo and Yonathan on that drizzly September day. He stood off to the side on the metal scaffolding balcony, leaning out over the railing, looking at both the conveyor belt and the pair of excavators with giant grapples grabbing chunks of garbage and swinging them onto the belt.

“You could do so much more,” he said. “But people don’t want to pay.”

Next week: Part 2 will discuss how changes in the international recycling market have put single-stream recycling on its deathbed, why a return to diligent separation of recyclables is likely in the future, and will also delve more deeply into where our recyclable material goes. Part 3, the following week, will discuss the future of recycling and how consumers can do their part to make recycling more effective.

For more great local reporting, visit 27east.com

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