Between the plastic bag ban, the paper bag fee and new warning stickers being announced, recycling and waste reduction have been in the news a lot lately. Many of the recent measures are centered around one large problem – recycling revenue in the county is significantly down.
The reason is largely contamination, which is when trash gets put in the same collection bin as recyclables. It’s a problem that’s been growing over the years, and sources involved in this issue argue a solution should focus not just on reducing contamination but also on putting more emphasis on reducing and reusing to decrease waste overall.
According to the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management 2018 Annual Report, the county received and processed 14,355 tons of recyclables at the Recycling and Solid Waste Center (RSWC) in 2018. Recycling revenues declined throughout 2018, resulting in a loss of $319, 876 in the county.
Barb Eckstrom, director of the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management, said she anticipates the county receiving about $250,000 from recycling revenue this year, down from an average of $700,000/year just a decade ago.
Eckstrom said that currently, recycling streams in the county are about 10% contamination, well above the 2% considered acceptable by most markets. Common sources of contamination include plastic bags and Styrofoam.
Because of the drop in revenue, explained Legislator Deborah Dawson, chair of the Planning, Energy and Environmental Quality Committee, recycling fees have had to increase by nearly 10% over the past two years.
Tompkins County Legislator Mike Sigler said that can have detrimental effects on the environment.
“As [fees] go up, too, then you’ll find that people will just dump things in the woods,” Sigler said.
And as contamination increases, more recycles have to be thrown out, filling up landfills throughout the Finger Lakes region. Legislator Anna Kelles, member of the Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development and the Planning, Development and Environmental Quality committee, said that though the landfill problem in Tompkins County is significantly less than in surrounding counties, that doesn’t mean the waste is out of sight, out of mind.
“We can’t look at just our borders when we ask what’s the impact of what doesn’t get recycled,” she said.
How did this happen? The journey to this downtrend mainly began about 15 years ago, when most domestic recycling mills closed, forcing departments to ship materials to be processed internationally, mostly in China.
Not long after, systems all across the country switched to single-stream recycling, meaning people no longer used two separate bins and instead just combined everything into one bin for collection. And as the years went by, fewer items were being considered “recyclable.”
This led to a significant increase in a practice sources universally dubbed “wish-cycling,” described as when people throw just about anything in a recycling bin, hoping it’s recyclable but never actually verifying that guess.
“When all of the big facilities were going with everything in one bin, we started having a lot more contamination, and the markets in China and even in the United States didn’t want that material,” Eckstrom said. “It was considered to be trash.”
This came to a head in 2018, when China announced it would no longer buy most plastic waste from places like the United States. The result was even more lost revenue to municipalities like Tompkins County.
Solutions and strategies
Cutting down on contamination is perhaps the most direct solution to increase recycling revenue for the county. Sigler and others said the best way to accomplish that goal is through education.
“People generally want to recycle, but they also want to know that when they recycle, what they’re throwing into the recycling is actually getting recycled,” Sigler said.
But what will ultimately have a much larger impact on bringing revenue into the county is by decreasing the amount of waste, both recyclables and trash. Eckstrom said that no matter the level of contamination, recycling is an expensive process.
“Waste prevention is by far the best [solution],” she said. “If we didn’t have any recyclables and we didn’t have any waste, … then we wouldn’t spend money on processing the material in any way. Recycling costs money, whether we have bad markets or even in good markets.”
Reduction strategies are centered around a few areas, mainly education, alternatives like reusing and legislative measures that incentivize behavior change.
Finger Lakes ReUse Executive Director Diane Cohen proposed educating more people about the recycling process and the resources that go into processing those materials to help decrease people’s waste consumption.
“The mystery of what happens downstream is something that, if that mystery was a little more transparent, I think a lot of consumers would make different choices,” she said.
Cohen said that reuse requires far more sustainable efforts than recycling and is therefore better for county revenue and the environment.
“Reuse uses a lot of human energy, and recycling uses a lot of other types of energy, likely fossil-fuel driven energy,” Cohen said. “To be able to avoid the next [product] from being produced by simply reusing one that we already have here in this community can be profound when you start multiplying the number of items we’re able to use.”
Kelles said legislative solutions include things like bans and fees that encourage consumers to use renewable and reusable materials instead of recycling or throwing things away.
Sigler proposed another measure, which, though not legislative, could significantly help decrease the use of bags in grocery stores, helping to reduce waste from that area.
“The person who’s ringing you up simply asks, ‘Do you need a bag?’ And you’ll find a lot of people going ‘No,’” he said.
Kelles said that China shutting out the United States was the wakeup call the country needed to start making some of these changes.
“I’m actually excited to see more domestic markets develop that would then encourage recycling programs in counties to become more robust again,” Kelles said.
The two biggest challenges standing in the way of these solutions are a lack of corporate accountability and a consumerist culture. Sigler and Cohen both addressed the issue that many companies and restaurants utilize single-use materials like plastic containers and Styrofoam to package products, and it’s the municipalities, not the companies, that have to pick up the added cost required to process all those recyclables and waste.
“The producers of the recyclables should take some responsibility,” Cohen said.
Making companies feel that financial loss as well requires a change in consumer choices, but for economic and cultural reasons, that is no easy task.
Renewable and reusable materials and food that doesn’t come packaged is often more expensive than products available in packaging, making waste reduction harder for lower-income families.
Even those who can afford to reduce, though, don’t have much incentive to because the effects of increase waste can seem like a far-off problem. Kelles said that’s why there needs to be more education to make this a personal issue.
“There’s a switch that happens, and all of the sudden, you see the impact on the world, and it feels really, really personal, and then, people are invested,” Kelles said.
Look to the future
According to a recent press release, on Nov. 19, the Tompkins County Legislature passed a local law that will impose a 5-cent fee on paper carryout bags beginning March 1, 2020. The local law will act in conjunction with the statewide ban on single-use plastic bags from retail establishments.
The fee is meant to incentivize the use of reusable bags rather than single-use bags at grocery stores. The fee will not apply to SNAP or WIC recipients. Revenues collected from the fee will go to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund (60%) and to the county’s efforts to purchase and distribute reusable bags for low- and fixed-income families (40%).
Sigler, who opposed the original plastic bag ban but supported the 5-cent paper bag fee, said that once the plastic bag ban goes into effect, people would likely switch to paper, which takes up far more space.
“It takes seven tractor trailer loads of paper bags to equal one tractor trailer load of plastic bags, so while, yes, you’re using less plastic, you’re using a lot more paper, and it takes a lot more energy to get those bags to where we need them,” he said.
Another change came this December. According to the Department of Recycling and Materials Management winter newsletter, this month starts a warning period for recycling bins, where bins placed on curbs with contamination will receive an orange sticker, giving residents an opportunity to take note of recycling mistakes they made.
Once that warning phase is over in April, residents who put contaminated recyclables out will receive a red “Rejected” sticker and will not have their bin collected.
A new fee structure is coming in 2020 as well. According to a recent press release, by Jan. 1, the Department of Recycling and Materials Management will implement a new fee structure for the recycling and disposal of certain materials, impacting both commercial and residential users of the Recycling and Solid Waste Center. The exact fee rates are available on the department’s website, https://recycletompkins.org.
Outside of the recycling department, Kelles said 16 new recycling mills will be operational in North America within the next few years, allowing for 4.6 million tons of increased capacity for mixed paper and cardboard by 2021.
A legislative measure approved Dec. 18 will further address the use of single-use products. The measure, drafted by Legislator Amanda Champion, bans purchases of single-use plastic items by county departments and agencies and facilities. The ban applies to county staff, facilities and departments but not to the residents and businesses throughout the county, Dawson explained.
What you can doWith the holidays coming up, sources cited several behavior changes concerned citizens can take up to help decrease waste. First, educate yourself on what can and can’t be recycled. Foil wrapping paper, for example, cannot be recycled, but wrapping paper tubes can.
And recycle your Christmas tree, sources urged. Richard Moore, owner of Moore’s Tree Farm in Lansing, said Moore’s is one of many options to properly dispose of real trees.
“We take all the trees that are dropped off here and take them two miles down the road to the town of Lansing’s … highway building because they have a huge pile of biomass,” Moore said.
That material gets ground up and set on the side of the road as free mulch for Lansing residents. This sustainability is why Moore advocates for the use of real Christmas trees.
“A real tree can be recycled and reused … whereas an artificial tree might be in the home five or six years but then might be in a landfill for 5 or 6,000 years,” he said.
Anyone, even those who don’t live in Lansing, can drop off Christmas trees at any time at Moore’s, as the drop-off lot is accessible 24 hours.
Overall, sources urged citizens to think twice before consuming, throwing away or recycling anything. Eckstrom offered a good rule of thumb for anyone unsure of what goes in their curbside bin.
“If you doubt that something can go in, it probably can’t, so don’t put it in and hope for the best,” she said.
Kelles said the most profound change has to be at a societal level, with efforts that help to curb consumerist culture while still making it easy for everyone to do their part.
“We have a need for a system of recycling that is profound to try to keep up with a consumerist culture that is based on convenience,” she said. “It’s reduce, then reuse, and then recycle. Recycle shouldn’t be the first.”
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