Lighter Recyclables May Be Reducing Recycling Rates

Newspapers and Bottles Aren’t What They Used to Be
By RICK MELLERUP | Aug 23, 2017

A few weeks ago The SandPaper reported Ocean County’s official recycling rates, as published on the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management website, for 2015, the latest year for which the figures have been released. The numbers were not encouraging.

In the early 1990s, New Jersey set a goal of recycling 50 percent of its municipal solid waste. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey’s municipalities recycled 44.51 percent of their solid wastes in 1995. In 2014, the last year for which DEP figures have been posted, that percentage had slipped to 41 percent.

The situation was even worse in Ocean County. In 1995, according to DEP statistics, the county recycled 35.03 percent of its municipal solid waste. In 2015, according to Ocean County’s own figures, just 31.62 percent of municipal solid waste (as opposed to “total solid waste,” which includes things such as construction debris) was kept out of the landfill.

Not a single Ocean County municipality managed to leap the 50 percent bar, with Beachwood coming the closest with a 46.24 percent rate. Only four other municipalities cleared 40 percent. Meanwhile three – Berkeley Township, Ocean Gate and Plumsted – reported no municipal solid waste recycling at all.

A couple of Southern Ocean County municipalities posted respectable figures. Stafford Township, the area’s largest town, managed to keep 43.76 percent of its municipal solid waste out of the landfill; Barnegat Light led Long Beach Island with a 42.89 percent rate. Tuckerton was the worst in Southern Ocean County, recording just an 8.47 percent rate. Long Beach Township was the lowest on LBI, with an 11.44 percent rate.

What is going on? New Jersey made household recycling mandatory way back in 1987. How can some municipalities report residents didn’t recycle at all? And there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the Ocean County figures. You’d figure that barrier island towns might have a problem considering they’re filled with tourists in the summer and recycling probably isn’t a major fun-in-the-sun priority. Yet some Island towns do relatively well. Sure, a mainland town such as Tuckerton has some summer visitors and residents. But are there enough of them to drop the rate in “Clamtown” to single figures? Finally, and most importantly, why aren’t Ocean County residents recycling as much as they did a decade ago?

To gain some insight, The SandPaper called Ernest J. Kuhlwein Jr., the longtime director of the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management. With 28 years on the job, Kuhlwein knows recycling – he’s been involved since it was taking its baby steps in New Jersey.

It turns out that so many factors figure into recycling rates.

Recycling Is

A Weighty Matter

A large part of the situation, said Kuhlwein, is that recyclables don’t weigh as much as they did in the past.

“Newspapers,” he said, “are probably the heaviest item (collectively) in the stream. But, historically, the amount of them being recycled is less. And the weight of the paper used is smaller, and some newspapers’ size is smaller.”

True enough.

Newspaper circulation is way down from a couple of decades ago as more and more people get their news on television and especially on smartphones and tablets. “Analysis of data from AAM (Alliance for Audited Media) shows that total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers – both print and digital – fell 8% in 2016, marking the 28th consecutive year of declines,” the Pew Research Center said in May. “Sunday circulation also fell 8%. The overall decline includes a 10% decrease in weekday print circulation (9% for Sundays) and a 1% decline in weekday digital circulation (1% rise for Sundays). Total weekday circulation for U.S. daily newspapers fell to 35 million, while total Sunday circulation declined to 38 million – the lowest levels since 1945.”

Most newspapers also have noticeably fewer pages than they used to have (The SandPaper, which has an enviable niche, is a notable exception). And, in case you haven’t noticed, the remaining pages are smaller. “Thinner. Lighter. Skinnier. There’s a good chance,” Forbes magazine said way back in 2008, “your daily newspaper is a lot easier to lift off your front stoop that it used to be. … Many newspapers, including prominent dailies, like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have adopted narrower page width to save on printing costs.”

Newspapers aren’t the only item in the recycling stream that are much lighter than they used to be.

“Plastic bottles are way more flimsy than they used to be,” said Kuhlwein.

Again, true enough. Next time you’re in a convenience store, lift a bottle of Poland Spring water and compare it to a bottle of Deer Park. The latter can much more easily be squeezed.

A third weight factor, said Kuhlwein, is that plastic bottles have, to a large degree, replaced glass bottles.

“Glass weighed a lot,” said Kuhlwein. “Plastic doesn’t.”

The abovementioned differences in weight may not seem like much when you consider a single newspaper or a single bottle. But when hundreds of thousands of newspapers and bottles are recycled, the grams or ounces add up to tons.

So it may be that people are recycling just as much as they used to, but their recycling bins are lighter. It isn’t the number of items that are recycled that are counted when forming a recycling rate (the percentage of all municipal solid waste that is recycled); it is their total weight in tons. Many recyclables are lighter. Garbage, on the other hand – food scraps, used disposable diapers, etc. – isn’t. So the recycling percentage is lowered.

And here’s a factor Kuhlwein didn’t mention: phone books!

Remember the days when a brand new breadbox-sized phone book used to arrive on your doorstep each year? Do you have a phone book in your house now in an age where landline numbers can be found on the internet and an increasing number of Americans use only cell phones? Imagine how many tons of phonebooks are no longer being recycled, once again lowering the weight of recycled items figured into the recycling rate math.

So, lighter recyclables are in part responsible for falling recycling rates. But what explains the huge range in municipal numbers?

Kuhlwein said the numbers can be misleading.

“Sometimes, it’s how you (a municipality) count the numbers,” he said. “A lot of municipalities take credit for chopped-up wood chips. Items like that can skew the numbers if a lot of land clearing is going on.”

Kuhlwein added that if a municipality has a lot of road projects going on in a particular year, recycling the old macadam can dramatically boost recycling rates.

What to Do

With Glass?

Perhaps the largest problem Ocean County is facing when attempting to raise recycling rates is glass.

Remember, Kuhlwein said, that, in aggregate, glass weighs “a lot.” So recycling as much glass as possible is a sensible way to increase recycling rates. But that’s not easy to do in single-stream recycling, which Ocean County adopted in 2010.

Single-stream recycling was all the rage across the country at that time. People, it was theorized, would recycle more of their household trash if they were able to commingle recyclables instead of having to separate newspapers, glass and plastic bottles, aluminum, steel and tin cans, mixed paper, corrugated cardboard and empty aerosol cans. Unfortunately, what is commingled has to be separated when it comes time to sell the products.

Ocean County constructed a huge, multi-million-dollar facility at its Northern Ocean County Recycling Center in Lakewood so technology could be used to sort the items. Front-end loaders push materials onto the multi-story conveyer belt system. Items are gradually separated by sensors, magnets, blowers, shake tables, gravity assist and plastic composition detection systems.

One problem that has emerged with the separation process is that residents toss all sorts of unacceptable materials into their recycling bins. You can hear the amazement in Kuhlwein’s voice when he talks of bowling balls being found in the recycling mix. It could be worse – New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor newspaper reported that “The brand-new, automated, single-stream plants that hardly had to hire anyone were suddenly clogged up with the refuse in the recyclables stream: car parts … plastic shrink wrap … dead animals, you name it. Suddenly these high-profit trash-handling facilities started breaking down. The towns that were expecting to make a huge profit were faced with big bills for extra processing.”

The biggest bugaboo at the Lakewood facility is plastic bags, which can entangle the machinery and bring the conveyer belt system to a screeching – and expensive – halt. But garbage bags, Brunswicks and pets that didn’t receive a decent burial aside, glass bottles pose their own set of difficulties.

They come in a variety of colors – clear, brown, green – which must be separated to produce good, profitable products. They break, meaning keeping the colors apart becomes more difficult. They can become contaminated by other materials, especially shredded paper.

Shredded paper is not supposed to be placed in single-stream recycling bins. Being so small, paper shreds tend to drop to the bottom in the Lakewood system, along with glass that drops to the bottom because of its weight. Imagine how difficult it is to separate thin strips of wet paper from glass. Kuhlwein said it ruins two products. Shredded paper, usually being white office paper, is the highest-quality paper product in the recycling business, so when it is commingled, it is basically going to waste. Meanwhile the glass is contaminated, driving its already low price down even more.

“A lot of cities, municipalities and counties are taking glass out of their single stream,” said Kuhlwein. “If you collect it separately, you’ll have a much cleaner product.”

Ocean County, he said, has long struggled with glass.

Back in the 1990s, “glassphalt,” an asphalt-based material that uses glass aggregate instead of stone, seemed to be the answer. Ocean County and New Jersey experimented with using glassphalt as a base on road projects – drivers may remember Route 9 between Manahawkin and Tuckerton sparkling at night. “If it proves successful,” then Ocean County Freeholder Director James M. Mancini told the Asbury Park Press in 1991, “99 percent of the incoming (glass) materials which municipalities and haulers deliver to the county would be recycled, and that’s good.”

Unfortunately, glassphalt didn’t take off.

“It never caught on with the DOT (New Jersey Department of Transportation),” said Kuhlwein. “There were concerns about reflection at night.”

Studies also showed glassphalt had less skid resistance than regular asphalt, which made it dangerous in high-speed situations. So glassphalt died an early death.

At one point Ocean County was reduced to lining the Ocean County Landfill in Manchester with difficult-to-recycle glass. That wasn’t a good option considering the tipping fee at the landfill is $71.21 a ton.

Now, said Kuhlwein, the county is once again recycling glass, shipping it to a facility in Pennsylvania.

“There really isn’t a place in New Jersey for glass,” he said. “It isn’t a money maker; it costs $32 a ton to recycle glass. When you add in the cost of transportation to Pennsylvania, it’s a loser.”

We’ve explored the problems that reduce recycling rates at the county level – lighter recyclables and the problem with glass. But why is there such a wide range in municipal recycling rates? Wood chipping and road repair can’t be the total explanation.

Look for future SandPaper articles that try to determine what some municipalities are doing right and what others are doing wrong, or, as is apparently the case in Berkeley, Ocean Gate and Plumsted, not doing at all.

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