Single-Stream Recycling Has Some Drawbacks

What Not to Recycle As Important As What to Recycle
Jul 19, 2017

New Jersey became the first state in the Union to make recycling mandatory, 30 years ago. Recycling was much simpler in those days, according to Angela Andersen, Long Beach Township’s sustainability coordinator, who gave a presentation at the Beach Haven Library on July 12, assisted by her intern, Brielle Piterski.

Part of Andersen’s job is to serve as the township’s recycling coordinator. Now, she doesn’t know much about PowerPoint – that’s why Piterski was on the scene – but she knows recycling. Indeed, recycling is in her blood; her father drafted the recycling bill signed into law on April 20, 1987, by Gov. Tom Kean.

In 1987, the only things folks had to keep out of their garbage cans and recycle were newspapers, bottles, cans and leaves. The state’s goal was to prevent 25 percent of solid municipal waste from reaching landfills, concurrently helping the environment and also taxpayers, by avoiding landfill charges.

Over the years that goal was upped to 50 percent, so more items had to be added. Now residents are required to recycle bottles, cans, newspapers, mixed paper such as magazines, catalogs, junk mail and used writing paper, leaves, white goods (appliances – the term white goods may be outdated in an age of stainless steel refrigerators), tires, motor oil, auto batteries, televisions and computers.

But the biggest change in recycling in Ocean County took place in 2010 when the county began a “single stream” recycling program. No longer did residents have to separate their curbside recyclables. Now they could simply place all acceptable materials – emptied and rinsed glass bottles and containers of all colors and sizes, plastic containers with necks smaller than their bases, aluminum, steel and tin cans, empty aerosol cans, corrugated cardboard, mixed paper and newspapers in the same container. The county’s objective was simple: to make recycling easier so participation would increase.

Technology would take care of the sorting at the Ocean County Single Stream Recycling Center in Lakewood. Curbside recyclables from all over Ocean County are trucked to Lakewood, where what Andersen described as “a Rube Goldberg” machine takes over. It is actually a multi-million-dollar facility owned by Ocean County and contracted to Waste Management Inc.

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. Ah, the wonders of the modern age!

Unfortunately the law of unintended consequences sometimes rears its ugly head. When residents place unacceptable materials in their single-stream containers, they can really gum up the works.

So, interestingly, Andersen’s library talk was more about what not to recycle than about what to recycle.

People, said a bemused Andersen, have even put bowling balls in their recycling bins! Ocean County reports people have dumped all sorts of ridiculous things into their recycling bins that they clearly should have known were ridiculous – propane tanks, garden hoses, bikes, bats, brake rotors, window blinds and VHS tapes. But some unacceptable items aren’t so obvious, and Andersen said two items that are much smaller and lighter than bowling balls cause the most problems at the Lakewood facility, bottle caps and plastic bags.

The bottle caps are made of a different type of plastic than bottles, so they should be removed and tossed into the garbage before the bottles are thrown into a bin. It would be nice if people were to strip off the labels as well, but the Lakewood machinery can take care of that, although the process is time consuming. But the bottle caps become dangerous projectiles as they are caught up in the conveyer belt system, giving a new meaning to the expression “capping” somebody.

Plastic bags are the real nightmare. Filled or empty, they entangle the Lakewood sorting equipment, jamming it and requiring hours of down time to be removed.

Other unacceptable items for curbside recycling pickup that would seem acceptable include phone books and shredded paper (aren’t they mixed paper?) and mixed rigid plastics. They are all collected separately at recycling centers.

More unacceptable items include wood of any kind, anything Styrofoam, motor oil, plastic cups and utensils, bagged or bundled material, plastic flower or shrubbery pots, plastic laundry baskets, plastic garbage cans or buckets, garden hoses, plastic lawn furniture, PVC piping, motor oil bottles, plastic food storage containers and lids, microwave trays, plastic six-pack holders, ice cream or frozen juice containers, waxed paper or waxed cardboard containers, milk, juice and egg substitute cartons, file folders, stickers and address label sheet waste, paper plates, paper towel or toilet tissue rolls, soiled cardboard pizza boxes, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, aluminum throw-away pans, dinnerware or glassware, window glass, mirrors, ceramics, Pyrex dishes or cookware, light bulbs, pots and pans, scrap metal, and aerosol cans for paint, lubricants and other hazardous materials.

As mentioned earlier, corrugated cardboard – think shipping boxes – is an acceptable single-stream item. But chip/gray board boxes, things such as cereal, cookie, tissue and gift boxes, are not.

Recycling clearly isn’t simple anymore!

Recycling coordinators try to make the gigantic recycling puzzle simpler. Back in the early days of recycling there was much talk about the seven types of plastic and the codes for them, listed on many containers, usually on the bottom. Well, that was as confusing as a Rubik’s Cube for most people. So now the rule of thumb for plastic containers is “where the neck is smaller than the base.”

Readers might be thinking “what sort of plastic container has a neck larger than a base?” They forgot dairy tubs for things such as margarine, yogurt and sour cream.

The system at Lakewood tries to weed out unacceptable items. But some slip through and not only risk damaging the system in Lakewood, but also threaten to reduce the quality of recovered materials, which are sold to companies to turn them into new products.

Remember that plastic bottle that you were told to remove the cap from before putting it in the recycle bin? Well, forgetting to remove the cap is a venial recycling sin. But leaving liquid in the bottle as well turns it into a mortal sin!

Andersen explained that just one ounce of water, soda or juice left in a plastic bottle is enough to make it as heavy as a glass bottle, so it would drop in with the glass in the sorting process and would contaminate the glass. When that happens enough times, companies become wary of buying Ocean County’s recycled glass.

The fact is that Ocean County no longer sells its recycled glass. Instead, said Anderson, it is now used for landfill cover.

There’s another reason besides contamination for the county not selling its recycled glass. There is simply a much smaller market for glass than in the old days. Look in a typical supermarket or convenience store and you’ll notice there are many fewer products sold in glass than there used to be. Plastics, as Dustin Hoffman was assured of in “The Graduate,” became the future.

It is amazing recycled glass is no longer sold off but put in the Ocean County landfill because glass bottles and beer and soda cans were perhaps the main impetus for the 1987 recycling legislation. Andersen said deposit laws were sweeping the nation, pushed by environmentalists. New Jersey resisted because of pressure from bottlers and retailers. If the state was unwilling to establish a deposit system, recycling was the next best thing.

Recycling is much more complicated than it seems at first glance. That’s why Andersen is proud of a new, free app being offered on the App Store or Google Play – the Recycle Coach app. It will give you complete waste and recycling information for Long Beach Township.

The township, she said, mails out recycling information to every address garnered from the county’s tax rolls. But how many people simply throw it out? (It sounds like mixed paper, so actually it should go into the recycle bin.)

“We thought (the app) would be a good way to reach millennials,” she said.

Still, recycling is complex, especially single-stream recycling.

“When it doubt, throw it out,” Andersen advised.

— Rick Mellerup

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