New Perspectives On Plastic Recycling

A recent article from Insider takes a look at the controversial opinion of MIT researcher Andrew McAfee that plastic is not worth recycling. Though a few other experts have expressed this view, the idea has not caught on with the public, who sees it as equivalent to promoting “trashing the planet.” Wherever you may fall on the issue, it is a worthy read and certainly a discussion starter:

Recycling Greenwashing Exposed as Keurig Faces Coffee-pod Lawsuit

by Liz Skolnick

Many of us are familiar with those little Keurig plastic coffee pods (or, “K-cups”) used to make a single serving of coffee. While the cups are marked “recyclable”, the reality is that the cups are too small and light to actually be recycled in modern materials recovery facilities. In light of this, a U.S. District judge has ruled that a class action lawsuit brought against Keurig may proceed.

This is a big win in the fight against corporate greenwashing that uses promises of recyclability as a kind of panacea against bad publicity and an excuse to perpetuate wastefulness. We hope that it may set the tone for a new age of increased transparency and real responsibility on the corporate side. All in all, it’s an important step in the fight against excessive packaging and waste.

Some highlights:

  • While Keurig pointed in their defense to instructions that consumers “check locally” concerning the pods’ recyclability, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam countered: "Common sense would not so clearly lead a person to believe that a package labeled as 'recyclable' is not recyclable anywhere.”

  • Judge Gilliam went on to state: “if a product is rendered non-recyclable because of its size or its components -- even if the product's composite materials are recyclable -- then labeling the product as recyclable would constitute deceptive marketing."

  • Keurig stated that it intends to make all its caffeinated pods recyclable by the end of next year and convert to 100% recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.

See the full article below:

Why Recycling? As Plastic Ban Battles Rage On, Recycling Is Shown In a New Light

by Liz Skolnick

A lot of states and even some countries like Canada have recently placed bans on problem plastics like single-use items (think disposable forks and plastic shopping bags). This trend has been sweeping whole regions across the globe, and some of the more environmentally-conscious areas of the U.S.

Interestingly, this process has raised some questions about the logic behind recycling - with respect to plastics, but also to the practice in general. Along the way it has unearthed some rather dark truths about how we got started recycling as a country in the first place.

The “waste management pyramid” places waste prevention/reduction at the top, then comes reuse and finally recycling. Since recycling has caught on and grown in popularity since the 1970’s, the tacit implication was that waste prevention/reduction was “just too hard” to do in any real and impactful way. But, thankfully, some of these assumptions are now being questioned, and more and more articles are coming out exposing how the practice of having everyday citizens recycle - and (through taxes) foot the bill, along with their municipalities - was the centerpiece of an effort by beverage and petroleum product/manufacturing (plastics) industry lobbies to deflect support and attention away from efforts to ban, tax and otherwise reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the waste stream, our cities and towns, and eventually, our rivers, oceans and even our own bodies.

That’s right, microplastics are now in the food we eat and the water we drink, and we are all becoming increasingly aware of how they got there. I hope your interest is piqued. To that end, please do take a few minutes to read this excellent investigative piece examining the origins of recycling, and its links to powerful industry lobby groups who turned a blind eye to the problems plastic was creating and continues to create today:

“Inside the Long War to Protect Plastic” (The Center for Public Integrity)

Further reading:

Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America's dirty secret:

As Municipal Recycling Falters, Producer Responsibility Is Noticeably Absent from the Conversation

by Liz Skolnick

Don’t use straws, refuse plastic bags, pack a lunch, and avoid single-serving plastics. These are commandments we’ve become familiar with amid our growing awareness of just how much we waste. From reports of plastic-choked oceans to the contamination of Long Island’s own sole-source aquifer, we are waking up to the problems of too much refuse. And the heavily-reported recycling crisis that’s rocked the country’s waste management infrastructure has only upped the ante.

In recent months, a slew of news articles have detailed the failure of municipal recycling programs. One message has dominated that news cycle: “It’s up to you, the consumer, to make good purchasing decisions and save the planet.” Of course, there’s truth to this; our behavior around the goods we buy and the things we throw out—including the torrent of seemingly unnecessary packaging that has increased in recent years—really does make a difference. Tweaks to behavior such as bringing your own canteen and refusing plastic cutlery do add up. It’s important not to discount that. But lately it’s been looking like the pendulum has swung the other way. Is the national conversation around waste over-emphasizing individual responsibility?

I’ve heard so many people, environmentally-conscious and not, marvel at the sheer amount of stuff they are throwing out in the process of making simple purchases. Who decided that my new headphones needed to be wrapped in multiple layers of hard plastic that I will discard within seconds of purchasing? That the slotted spoon you ordered from Amazon must be delivered in not one, but three increasingly smaller cardboard boxes? It’s truly mind-boggling.

Most of us simply accept the framework of recycling as we know it. Throughout the course of daily life, we end up with stuff—mostly packaging—that we must dutifully rinse, sort, and set out for collection or take to the dump. But why are the activities and infrastructure of recycling set up this way? Where did all this “waste” come from? Who is ultimately responsible for putting it out into the world, and why are they not being held to account for the environmental consequences? Well, this line of questioning has been the elephant in the room for longer than you’d think.

In her eye-opening book Recycling Reconsidered Samantha MacBride, former Deputy Director for Recycling at the New York City Department of Sanitation, chronicles the rise of municipal recycling as we know it, beginning around the first Earth Day in 1970. Having undergone big changes in the way goods (especially food and beverages) were packaged, the country was experiencing a waste crisis. Cities were getting dirty; trash was piling up everywhere. Much like Long Island today, New York City was running out of room and options for waste disposal.

Environmental and community groups began to organize and initiate conversations about how to reduce waste at the source, as well as deal with it at the ground level. But when corporate entities, including Coca-Cola, Seven-Up, the National Aluminum Association and the National Petroleum Council, began funding these environmental groups, the discussion was radically reframed. Now blame was placed squarely on the “litterbugs” who throw their empty Coke bottles on the ground, and on the municipal agencies that had failed to properly handle the trash problem.

For producers of packaging-heavy commodities like food and beverages, recycling presented an attractive alternative to source reduction that served the multiple purposes of allowing container manufacturers to maximize profits through unfettered production, deflecting attention away from source-reduction initiatives, and allowing citizens to feel active in the process of protecting their environment. In the end, it was an easy sell and the recycling movement gathered momentum. Community groups started offering container collection in return for cash and eventually handed this responsibility over to city sanitation departments. In a nut shell, these activities, seen and unseen, birthed the modern municipal recycling system.

At the same time, efforts to stop packaging waste at the source were being blocked around the country by corporate lobbying groups. While a few states successfully passed bottle deposit laws and banned some refillable containers, efforts to renew the laws were defeated by producer activism. Attempts to pass similar legislation in Congress were also defeated. Meanwhile, producers launched massive anti-littering campaigns including public messaging like the memorable "Crying Indian" TV ad from Keep America Beautiful (whose current Board of Directors includes executives from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Phillip Morris, McDonald’s and Dow Chemical).

In this way, beverage and packaging producers were able to shift the discussion away from themselves and successfully carry off one of the biggest obfuscation campaigns in the history of the modern materials economy. The results persist today. We see them reflected in industry efforts to block bottle bills, the absence of effective product “take-back” programs, and the lack of dialogue around corporate responsibility for waste.

Producers of “waste-generating commodities”, as MacBride rightly labels them, have effectively conned us into picking up their trash for them—trash we never asked for—while they continue business as usual without regard for the environmental fallout. And judging by the tone of the national conversation, which has overwhelmingly condemned the bad behavior of individual consumers, history is poised to repeat itself.

But there may be a way out. We’re at a pivotal point in the history of the environmental movement. As municipal recycling comes crashing down around us, it’s opened up an opportunity to say: We’re going to do it differently this time. We’re not going to let manufacturers off the hook while berating ourselves for forgetting to pack a lunch. It’s time to create powerful, effective legislation around extended producer responsibility, to focus on upstream solutions that prevent waste before products even hit the shelves. Manufacturing corporations can and should evolve to meet the demands of a world increasingly threatened by the system of disposal they perpetuate.

Research into sustainable packaging alternatives is being explored, but remains underfunded and slow. It’s no mystery why, when there is no financial or legal incentive for corporations to invest in this research. There are a host of products that can be packaged in more environmentally-friendly materials. For those that can’t, the onus should be on manufacturers to create sustainable packaging that can hold up.  

It’s time to reverse the equation and rethink our priorities. Instead of sacrificing the health of our environment and human society to serve corporate interests, we need to change the modes of production to serve the interests of society and the environment. As our understanding of the damage done grows daily, the urgency of radically rethinking this system increases in step.

Note: For much of this article’s contextual and historical information, we are heavily indebted to Samantha MacBride and her book Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States. New York Public Library members can access an online version for free here (Click the UPCC Books… link).

Further reading:

Brookhaven Landfill’s Closure Could Trigger a Waste Crisis

by Liz Skolnick

The issue is hardly news to most Long Islanders, especially residents of Brookhaven: The town’s landfill, the last municipal landfill on the Island, is slated to close sometime between 2024 and 2025, precipitating what could prove to be a waste crisis for the whole island. Each year, it accepts approximately 2,000 tons of dredge spoil, 24,000 tons of street-sweeping refuse, 370,000 tons of incinerator ash, and more than 800,000 tons of construction and demolition debris generated throughout the Island from Brooklyn to East Hampton. In all, that’s well over a million tons.

As some may not know, continuing to bury trash (especially toxic incinerator ash and construction debris) on the island is not an option due to its potential to contaminate the island’s sole source aquifer. Indeed, a huge waste transport effort off the island is unavoidable. But at the moment, contemplating life after the closure conjures up visions of the L.I.E. clogged with 18-wheelers full of trash, creating a traffic-stopping bottleneck of massive proportions.

How to get the refuse off Long Island is a question that’s been plaguing Brookhaven town officials and environmental groups for quite some time. There have been calls for state agencies to “wake up” to the impending waste crisis and start planning. And yet nothing has been done; no grand plan has been unfurled.

We believe that the time to act is now. We propose—and many municipal officials, county legislators, and nonprofit groups agree—that Long Island establish a regional waste authority to replace the backwards and parochial patchwork of local waste departments that currently exists. With a deep understanding of challenges unique to the island, a regional authority could help tackle the problems of managing waste and recycling and assist with the transition during the landfill closure.

The trash hits the fan

Last year was a particularly trying time in the world of recycling. China, the largest importer of the U.S.’s recyclables for many years running, stepped up a massive crackdown on dirty materials and banned many recyclables outright. This dramatically affected the whole materials economy as U.S. recyclers frantically searched for new buyers for their scrap. Many stockpiled for as long as they could, but eventually were forced to send thousands of tons of valuable materials to landfill. It was a disaster that the country’s waste and recycling industry is only starting to address.

After the crisis hit, many residents of Brookhaven and other Long Island towns noticed some big changes in the way they recycle. Following costly investments in switching to single-stream recycling a few years back, some towns had to switch back to dual-stream sorting methods and drop glass from their collection entirely in an effort to get cleaner, more marketable materials. With so much extra stuff going into the landfill, this makes the need to find alternatives for waste disposal all the more urgent.

There have been calls to step up reuse, to recycle smarter and cleaner, and to press corporations for biodegradable packaging. These are all wonderful ideas and can cut down on waste when everyone pitches in. And on an island that increasingly relies on other regions to handle its trash—plus the environmental problems that go with it—one could argue we have an ethical duty to lighten the load. But the reality is, we will probably still have tons of waste that needs a good disposal option, even after fastidious recycling and reuse, as well as conscientious purchasing choices, are factored in.

When the Brookhaven landfill closes, where will that million-plus tons of waste go? The clock is ticking, and we have less time than ever to plan our way out of a crisis.

Weighing the options

There are a few ways to move materials off an island: by truck, by rail, and by barge.

Trucks currently transport off the island recyclables and waste that don’t make it into the Brookhaven landfill. But considering the volume of waste that Brookhaven currently handles, simply adding more trucks after it closes is not realistic. Rail and barge are options that have been discussed, though no decisive steps have been taken.

Creating a port and barge system for shipping trash comes with some challenges. Some public resistance likely stems from residual anxiety about the heavily reported “Garbage Barge” incident of 1987, in which a trash-laden barge set out from Islip and carried its decaying load from port to port, only to be turned away everywhere it went. Although the crisis arose from a confluence of forces, the garbage barge became a national symbol of American excess. In any event, it’s not clear whether any part of Long Island can host a port large enough to handle this volume of waste transfer. Some local officials say no—and they add that to call it a tough sell to the residents of any potential location would be an understatement.

Despite these concerns, using barges is a common practice in waste transport around the world, including right next door in New York City. The Islip garbage barge catastrophe was a result of poor planning, broken deals, and an overblown media frenzy, not of some inherent flaw in using barges as a mode of waste transport. In the face of the impending waste crisis, long-held prejudices and the outcry of NIMBY organizations might need to be set aside in favor of the greater good.

Rail has been considered more seriously in recent years. In 2017, Long Island Business News covered a test-run of transporting waste off the island via freight train. The project seemed ambitious but sound, perhaps offering a real solution for life after the landfill. But little has been heard about this since. As Will Flower, general manager of Winters Brothers Waste Systems, a private carter on Long Island, opined to Long Island Business News reporters “When you start thinking about rail movements, these are projects that aren’t built overnight ... they could be two-, three-, four-year projects, and they need to start today.” That was more than two years ago.

Whichever method Long Island chooses to send its waste away, it will likely take years of planning and construction of new infrastructure to get things prepared in time for the Brookhaven landfill’s closure. While the issue has been on the minds of many Long Islanders for some time now, we’ve seen very little public discourse about the nuts and bolts of new waste planning. As time runs out, continuing the status quo will become impossible.

At the moment, we have more questions than answers, but one thing is certain: It’s time to plan intelligently, and act swiftly. The crisis point is around the corner, and it’s too big to be solved by many insular and disparate municipal sanitation departments, as the lack of movement on this issue has shown. We need the kind of focused, consolidated effort that only a Long Island regional waste authority could provide.   

Further reading:

How Much Trash Does Long Island Recycle? It’s Anybody’s Guess.

Screen Shot 2019-03-08 at 2.12.34 PM.png

by Liz Skolnick 

When Long Island Recycling Initiative first started researching how the waste system works back in 2017, one of our burning questions was: How do we know how much we’re recycling?

The answer, it turns out, is that we don’t. Although municipalities have reported their own recycling rates, those figures are far from reliable. Indeed, we don’t know exactly how much waste, recyclable and otherwise, that Long Island generates.

Experts have estimated the Island’s waste stream at between 2.4 million and 4 million tons per year, but they’re not measuring the same things. Most estimates focus on recyclables and municipal solid waste, the stuff generated in single-family homes and delivered to local recycling plants, transfer stations, or waste-to-energy combustion plants. They don’t typically include colossal amounts of yard and compostable waste, street-sweeping debris, incinerator ash, and other materials that private haulers remove from schools, apartment buildings, hospitals, businesses, and construction sites.

We’ve tracked down data from a number of reports—annual reports that each town submits to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and tallies from waste and recycling transfer stations, private trash carters, and materials recovery facilities (MRFs) like the one in Brookhaven.

What we found: 

The numbers don’t always add up. We’ve spent weeks trying to reverse-engineer the totals on facility and carter reports, and comparing them to overall town waste reports. Sometimes, the numbers just don’t jibe. This could be due to honest miscalculations, but painting a blurry picture of the waste stream can be convenient for waste handlers—it can cover up situations where more than the allowable amount of waste was processed. DEC reports ask entities to fill out how everything was measured; the options are “scale weight,” “truck count,” “estimated,” and “other.” Although scale weight is the only accurate way to measure waste, we found that facilities and carters often use other, much less accurate, counting methods.

Inflated recycling rates. Does the recycling rate for your town or village, or the entire state seem a bit high? It’s not just in your head. LIRI spent a lot of time parsing the difference between what a town says it recycles and what actually gets recycled. At the heart of the issue: When a town ships its waste and recycling away, its solid waste report counts everything that is put into a recycling bin as “recycling.” Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff does not actually get recycled, often because the item was never recyclable in the first place (“wish-cycling”). Other times, items are too contaminated with food or other waste, or have become cross-contaminated by other materials in the process of collection. The actual percentage of what gets recycled is generally always smaller than what towns report as “recycling” at the point of shipping it away. This inaccuracy can benefit towns, as well as state agencies and officials, who can tout the high recycling rates. We have heard concerns over inflated recycling rates echoed to us by everyone from waste studies scientists to members of the New York State Assembly.

Double-counting. As items move along the recycling collection and supply chain, they are counted as many as three or four times. Recyclables from several Long Island towns are often combined together at one transfer station to allow for ease of transport. There, they are counted once and reported to the state. They may be counted again by the company that sells the materials, and a third time by the Port Authority as they travel out of the region. Untangling the mess of double-counting is a daunting task, and this confusion can add to the problem of inflated recycling rates and create an inaccurate picture of the waste stream 

Not all data is captured. What many people don’t know is that when waste and recycling rates are calculated, it doesn’t reveal the full picture. The town only counts what’s picked up by its own curbside collection or dropped at the dump. This means a huge chunk of waste collected by private carters from housing complexes, construction sites, office parks, and private residences may be misattributed to another town or skip that reporting process altogether if that waste is directly trucked out of the region.

General sloppiness. In many cases, the reports themselves are not filled out clearly or correctly. They are full of illegible numbers and scribbled notes; required values or permit information is often missing or reported incorrectly. We have catalogued more than 30 different types of reporting errors that are repeated again and again in the documents we’ve reviewed.

No accountability, no transparency. As the DEC admits, these various waste tracking reports are completed on the “honor system.” Currently, there is no real way of holding each entity accountable, of checking on the accuracy of their numbers. Private carters have the least amount of oversight from the DEC, which insists that the towns should be checking up on them.

What can be done?

It’s not difficult to imagine a functional data capture system that gives us a clear picture of the waste stream and our recycling success. Many countries and parts of the U.S. have already established successful methods for getting good data. Here are a few recommendations that stem from our research:

Require and fund weighing of all waste and recycling. Too much of the current reporting uses imprecise methods for calculating waste and recycling. In this day and age, there’s really no excuse for not using a scale to get a precise, tonnage-based measurement. We realize that not every transfer station or carter can afford a scale, but the DEC makes funding available for improvements like this. Furthermore, the new Shared Services Initiative is encouraging municipalities to work together to eliminate redundant services. This could be applied to sharing scales and other waste infrastructure. Some argue it’s just “too hard” to make changes. But until we get serious about good measurement, we’re never going to know how much waste we’re generating, recycling, and disposing. This information is essential for creating good policy around recycling and taking action to reduce trash.

Nix the antiquated pen-and-paper reporting. Studies have shown that states and countries using electronic reporting have a better picture of their waste stream. E-reporting systems, when set up well, are easier to use and derive data from. They provide for standardized ways of entering the numbers, and ensure that all required information is given. Though switching over to a more accurate system (which has the added benefit of saving paper!) may be met with some grumbling, this technology is really essential. It’s time to bring Long Island into the 21st century with a good waste management database.

 Hold entities along the waste chain accountable. Conversations with waste scientists and personnel from the DEC have made one thing clear: it takes a lot for the DEC to bug waste handlers about their bad or missing data. If a report is several months late or rife with errors, the DEC may reach out with questions, but more often than not the agency’s personnel are left to painstakingly coax bad data into something that seems acceptable. Why is this our standard for accuracy? Whether it’s the DEC’s or towns’ responsibility to hold waste handling entities accountable, someone needs to step in to make this system work.

A Data Success Story

Though Long Island comes with its own set of unique challenges, good measurement is a boon to waste management everywhere. CalRecycle, the agency that oversees the waste system in California, switched the state over to electronic reporting several years ago. Its website has a user-friendly data entry page for waste handling operations and invites their feedback on how to make it easier to report accurately. Lo and behold, California has fantastic metrics for waste and recycling that anyone can access online. Here in New York, it could fall to the DEC to set up this kind of database. Implementing this technology is key to understanding how much waste we produce and recycle, and taking next steps to improve waste management around the state.

Will Glass Get a Second Chance in Long Island Recycling?

by Liz Skolnick

Just before the holidays, glass was abruptly dropped from the curbside recycling collection in the towns of Brookhaven, Smithtown and Oyster Bay, among others. This came as a bit of a shock to faithful recyclers in those towns, many of whom wrote in to me with questions and frustration - “Glass is a valuable material, it’s ridiculous to just throw it out. Isn’t there a better option?” Though some glass-only collection centers had been set up in those towns, the reality is that the glass collected at these centers would be crushed and used for landfill cover or in road paving products, not given a second life as a beverage bottle.

My advice in response was for residents to bring glass bottles to the bottle redemption centers which are usually found outside or in the entryway of grocery stores. These bottles have a better chance of actually being recycled, not simply crushed or trashed. Unfortunately though, this is not always an option for those with mobility issues, and there simply are not enough machines to handle all the glass that now lacks a proper municipal collection service.

But it looks like an opportunity for large-scale separate glass collection may be in the works. Yesterday, Newsday reported that Brookhaven is launching a pilot project with a glass recycling company in New Jersey, to see whether separate, color-coded glass recycling (separating glass into clear, green, and brown) could make economic and environmental sense going forward.

Though recycling and reusing materials pretty much always nets an environmental positive, as long as recyclables are considered a “product” to be bought and sold, recycling any material has to be profitable. Glass has been a tough material because not only has it had little value in recent years, but when collected with other materials like paper and plastic, it can shatter and contaminate those materials, which in many cases makes them worthless or decreases their value. The situation went from bad to much worse when China - for years the US’s main recyclables importer - enacted materials bans and harsh cleanliness restrictions on incoming recyclables. The chain of events that followed led many LI towns to make the switch from single-stream back to dual-stream recycling, and to drop glass from curbside collection.

We at LIRI are anxious to see what success Brookhaven has with its new glass-only pilot program. We hope it proves to be a great new option for making sure this durable, valuable material remains part of a closed-loop recycling system, and that it will make financial sense for all parties involved. If this proves true, the program could really take off and spread to other LI towns that have recently dropped glass.

In the meanwhile, if your town no longer collects glass, we urge you to bring it to your local bottle redemption centers. Press your town officials to consider new glass recycling options, and hold business owners accountable to ensure their reverse-vending machines are in working order. It’s been a rough few months for recycling, but we have options. And, just today, Mayor Cuomo announced plans to expand the state bottle bill to include more kinds of beverage containers, such as those for juice and energy drinks. Some on the island have also suggested we include the region’s wineries and breweries in a future plan for local glass recycling.

Though recycling may not be perfect, and to be sure, lots of glass has recently gone to waste, some creative new strategies seem to hold promise for preventing waste and ensuring the environmental health of the region. It’s been impressive to see the proactivity of Long Islanders who have written to us, or to their local officials and newspapers to talk about how this affects them and try to work out a solution. That kind of energy is what’s needed to move the needle on big environmental issues, recycling and beyond. Thanks for your emails and thanks for doing your part to foster the resiliency and health of the island.


Kids lead the way in local recycling efforts

by Liz Skolnick

We wanted to recognize all the students and schools that have been making great strides both in collecting materials for recycling, ensuring things are saved from the trash bin, and creatively spreading the word about recycling using beautiful artwork.

As Newsday reported just before Christmas, students from 12 Suffolk County schools participating in the Suffolk Share School Recycling Partnership Program have recycled around 23,320 bottles and 24,380 pounds of paper since the program began last spring. That’s quite an achievement - Bravo Suffolk County Schools!

Perhaps local governments could even learn something from the shared school initiative — sharing services like recycling may actually save towns money and legwork.

Around the country, school groups in New Jersey, Washington and West Virginia are being honored for creating beautiful art and calendars which illustrate the importance of recycling and serve as friendly reminders for community members to pitch in.


How to not Bust the Bin this Season: Your Waste Reduction Tips for the Holidays!

By Liz Skolnick

The holidays are upon us! And often, with times of great joy come great mounds of trash in the form of wrapping paper, disposable packaging and disposable dishware left over from those hearty meals with the relatives. In 2016, the EPA reported that household waste increases by upwards of 25% between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But have no fear — holiday time doesn’t have to equal tons of trash! We’ve searched high and low for the best waste reduction tips to help make your holidays as “green” as can be. So before you wrap those gifts, plan that meal or make that cross-country trip, check out our tips for minimizing your footprint this season:

  • Try ditching the wrapping paper and ribbon in favor of pretty reusable gift bags. Or go a step further and try out cloth gift wrap like Lilywrap, which offers many cute design options. You could even get creative and use appealing pictures from old magazines and newspaper as DIY wrapping paper. Lastly, if handled carefully tissue paper can easily be reused.

  • Going out to do some holiday shopping? Don’t forget your reusable tote bags! Word to the wise: Take a couple more than you think you’ll actually need.

  • Plastic cutlery creates LOTS of non-degradable trash and isn’t even accepted for recycling in most states. Though there’s a lot of temptation to cut down on clean-up, consider that those disposable items may take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. Ask for help! Have the whole family pitch in to clean up after meals.

  • Got some leftovers to store? Plastic cling-wrap (which is not recycled in many parts of the US) does not have to be your go-to. Check out this link for a list of excellent plastic-free alternatives, including sturdy glassware (e.g. Pyrex), attractive silicone lids that create a seal, and beeswax or other natural food wraps.

  • Consider a truly “green” Christmas tree. As the EPA suggests, opt for “a potted tree that can be replanted, or a red cedar slated for removal during habitat/farm maintenance.” While you’re at it, check your options for energy-saving LED holiday lights (and do remember to keep those out of the recycling bin!).

  • When recycling wrapping paper, plastic and other packaging, check your local recycling and waste guidelines to make sure what you put in the bin is actually recyclable, and that you’re separating correctly.

  • Be sure to keep food-stained or burnt aluminum foil out of the recycling bin. Unfortunately, once it’s got stuck-on residue it’s not recyclable anymore. In some cases, you can eliminate the need for foil in the oven by just using oil directly on your baking trays.

  • Give the gift of experience rather than objects. The EPA suggests making gifts of “event tickets, museum memberships, gift certificates, or even your time and talents.” Gift cards to local restaurants, spas, wine-tastings, or gourmet markets are among the many thoughtful and waste-free ways to show you care.

  • If you’re gifting items, most of all try to ensure it’s something your loved-one will use! You can encourage reuse through gifting attractive canteens or tote bags. Or search in local craft shops or online for gifts that are sustainably sourced or made from recycled materials.

  • Consider using rail travel, subways, buses or other forms of motor coach and public transportation, if possible. Air travel generally has the highest carbon footprint. If you have to drive, think about carpooling.

  • Lastly, here’s a great “how to” guide for disposal from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation:

Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 6.58.22 PM.png Publishes Sweeping Report on East End Recycling

The Press News Group’s is developing a multipart news report examining recycling in the East End towns of Southampton and East Hampton. The first part, titled “What Happens To Our Recycling, Part One: The Recycling Myth” takes a deep look at how recyclable materials move through the chain, from the curb or “dump” to the sorting facility and beyond. The piece exposes how many of those materials never actually see a second life, due to factors such as “wishful recycling” of contaminated or nonrecyclable items, and recent dramatic fluctuations in the recyclables market. It’s a fascinating piece with lots of great insights, and we look forward to reading Part Two.

Big Changes in Recycling Come to Suffolk County Towns

by Liz Skolnick

As Newsday reported just before the Thanksgiving holiday last week, three Suffolk County towns have decided to switch from single-stream to dual-stream recycling in light of problems caused by the global recycling crisis. The crisis was itself set into motion by China’s bans on foreign recyclables, which came as a reaction to the high levels of contamination in those imported materials.

Now, instead of throwing all the paper, metal, plastic and glass into one bin, residents of Brookhaven, Smithtown and Southold will be asked to separate paper from metal and plastic, and glass will be dropped entirely from curbside collection. Starting Nov. 28 in Brookhaven, metal and plastic, and cardboard and paper will be picked up on alternating weeks. Dual-stream recycling is expected to begin January 2019 in Smithtown and Southold. The Huntington villages of Lloyd Harbor and Asharoken will also be included in the new joint agreement between the Suffolk County towns.

This development comes after a long and arduous period of upheaval at the Brookhaven Town’s materials recovery facility (MRF), which has received and sorted recyclables from many east end towns for years. As we reported in an earlier post, Green Stream, former operator of Brookhaven’s MRF, recently backed out of its 25-year contract when it found that it was no longer able to sell materials entering the facility, buyers having dried up as a result of China’s bans. This sent Brookhaven’s waste management department scrambling to find a new contractor/buyer for recyclables, as the facility bulged with stockpiled materials. Now, a new joint deal between Brookhaven and Smithtown will allow for dual-separated materials to be stored at Smithtown’s facility, and ultimately be processed by private carters. Southold is expected to sign on after completing its review of the proposal.

Brookhaven has promised that separate municipal glass collection centers will be created in the coming months, with one center at the Town Hall and others scattered between Manorville, Holtsville, Mount Sinai and the Brookhaven hamlet landfill. The glass collected will be crushed to create sand and landfill cover material for municipal use. But some worry that members of those communities will not want to make the extra trip to drop off their glass, asking “Where is the incentive?” With bottle deposit schemes, which have been successful in boosting recycling rates across the country, people are incentivized to redeem bottles with the promise of 5 to 15 cents for each. Brookhaven has not yet outlined any sort of incentivization plan and it seems unlikely that such activity would be municipally financed.

Brookhaven residents can check the following link for details about the new dual-stream recycling program and new collection calendar:

Note: Brookhaven’s switch back to dual-stream made national news when it was covered by industry news giant Waste Dive earlier this month. Read that article here: New York town switching back to dual-stream program


Celebrating America Recycles Day!

by Liz Skolnick

Today we celebrate the 21st annual America Recycles Day! And on that note, we’d like to encourage everyone to not only recycle, but recycle smart.

As discussed in previous posts, China’s bans on the import of many recyclable materials stemmed mainly from problems with contamination of those materials — simply put, lots of nasty, non-recyclable stuff gets mixed in to what started out as nice clean bottles, cans, paper, etc. This happens as a result of a couple factors: a) cross-contamination from materials collected together such as broken glass and greasy food containers, and b) aspirational recycling or “wishcycling” in which well-intentioned recyclers stick non-recyclable material in the bin hoping it will get a second life (and yes, sometimes folks just knowingly throw trash in there, too).

In the wake of the bans, communities and the country as a whole have been struggling to find importers for recyclables; and some of the “greenest” towns have been hardest hit — forced to send materials to the landfill after stockpiling for as long as possible. Lots of changes may be needed on the side of industry and government to weather this environmental/economic storm.

But while things remain in flux, everyone can do their part to ensure cleaner, more valuable materials that have a better chance of seeing a second life. The trick is to know the YES and NO’s of recycling in your area. Long Island has a notoriously tricky patchwork of solid waste authorities and private trash carters, and collection rules often change from village to village, town to town. And because of China’s bans, some communities have even reduced what they collect for recycling. While most still take the basics like metal (think aluminum, tin and steel cans), and cardboard, some have temporarily stopped collecting certain plastics, or ask that glass be set aside from the rest, among other things.

We encourage you to contact your local sanitation district or solid waste management authority, or reach out to your trash carting company directly for an up-to-date list of what can be recycled and how to separate for collection.

We’ve made it easy for you! — you can find contact info for most LI carters here:

Below are recycling guides for each town. But keep in mind, some villages, hamlets and sanitation districts have their own recycling rules that differ:

Huntington Recycling guide:

Southampton Recycling guide:

Southold Recycling flyer:

Brookhaven Recycling guide:

Islip Recycling guide:,NY/Recyclable-Materials

East Hampton recycling guide:

Long Beach Recycling guide:

Glen Cove Recycling flyer:

Hempstead Recycling guide:

North Hempstead Recycling guide:

Shelter Island Recycling guide:

Smithtown Recycling guide:

Oyster Bay Recycling guide:

Babylon Recycling calendar and flyer:

Riverhead Recycling flyer:

European Parliament Approves Ban on Single-Use Plastics by 2021

By Liz Skolnick

On Wednesday, October 24th, the European Parliament voted in favor of a complete ban on single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery, straws and cotton swab sticks, by the year 2021. The ban covers the 10 plastics most commonly found in the world’s oceans, as well as oxo-degradable plastics (e.g., polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS)) which make up plastic garbage and sandwich bags, and the familiar Styrofoam food take-out containers. The proposed legislation includes reduction targets for Union member states, including a reduction of 25% or greater by 2025 on plastics “for which no alternative can be found,” and measures against cigarette butts (yes, there’s even plastic in these!) and fishing gear. Additionally, 90% of plastic beverage bottles will be required to be recycled. The final decision on the ban will come after deliberations with the European Council of government ministers, and is expected by Dec. 16.

Impetus for this legislation came after findings from European Commission research clarified the scale of current and projected future marine plastic pollution, and the damage it continues to do to European environment and economy. Those findings estimated costs of marine litter to the EU of between $295 million and $793 million per year.

What does this have to do with recycling?

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, reduction is the cousin of recycling, found further up the hierarchy of waste management (remember those 3 R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”?). Reduction is the first defensive measure we can take in the fight against waste. It means preventing waste before it starts, before it ever enters the waste stream and becomes “garbage” we have to make choices about how to dispose of or reuse responsibly. Recycling is one measure we can use to give materials a kind of new life after it has already become waste, however, unlike simply reusing materials —  like refilling a glass bottle or reusing a paper bag — recycling involves processing materials and the inevitable energy consumption and addition of new (“virgin”) materials needed to produce a new, high-quality product. Therefore, while recycling is a fantastic and environmentally-friendly alternative to disposal, there’s a reason that reduction and reuse of material is preferred.

Is a similar ban on the horizon in the US?

While federal legislation around single-use plastics is not in the works here in the US, states are taking some initiative to enact similar bans. Here in New York, the topics of banning or taxing plastic bags has been hotly debated in a “two steps forward, one step back” fashion since the early 2000’s. Earlier this year, Cuomo announced a bill to ban the single-use bags by 2019, after rejecting a surcharge on the same in 2017. Parts of Long Island including all of Suffolk County have imposed a fee on plastic bags at retailers including pharmacies, supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores. As of April, 2018 ten cities, towns and villages in New York had put bans into place.   

While single-use bans or fees are not widespread across the nation, small pockets of resistance have cropped up in many states. And the recent difficulties with recycling plastics and other materials in the US has given rise to more talk of bans or taxes on problem materials, and of extended producer responsibility (EPR), which would shift the onus for responsible handling of materials to companies that produce them. EPR measures can also spur innovation into development of new, more environmentally-friendly materials, and encourages companies to use those materials that are easier to dispose of or reuse with less harmful consequences.


Long Island Recycling Update: Finally Feeling the Global Slump

By Liz Skolnick

Update: (Oct. 23, 2018) Brookhaven materials recovery facility operator Green Stream Recycling has announced that it will cease operations at the plant next week. Facing nearly $2 million of debt to the Town, the company is likely to dissolve. Brookhaven’s plant represents the largest single-stream recycling operation on Long Island. The Town has announced that it will seek a new contractor if Green Stream discontinues its service. Read further here: Brookhaven Recycling Operator Green Stream Expected to Dissolve, Officials Say

As the summer draws to a close, let’s take a minute to check in on the state of recycling on Long Island. Back in the spring, operations on the island had only been minimally affected by China’s ban on 32 types of post-consumer materials — the latest in a series of increasingly austere import bans. In June, the Long Island Recycling Initiative spoke with several recycling processors on the island, who reported that their main product streams of food-grade plastics, scrap metal and paper had not been significantly affected, but that some secondary products, such as the thin plastic bags used to collect other materials, were quickly losing value. Some companies had in fact started to brace for the changes, altering their business plans. Others spoke optimistically of new markets opening up in southeast asia, but as we’ve seen in the intervening months, several of those Southeast Asian countries have enacted bans similar to China’s.

A few months ago, industry news source WasteDive, which has been tracking the bans’ effects on all 50 states, rated the impact on New York as “minimal.” Now it has been bumped up to “heavy” as communities across the state see recycling collection costs soar, municipal contract renegotiations, and more communities electing to cease recycling altogether until markets stabilize, with many promising to “resume the discussion” in 2019. Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA), one of New York’s most impressive and successful municipal recycling agencies in recent history, is now facing a $2.5 million deficit for 2019 and contemplating a substantial fee hike at its incinerator, which would ripple financial hardship through the community. The capital region’s largest recycling plant announced over the summer that it would start charging $120 a ton to take mixed recyclables. At an August 29th meeting called by Governor Cuomo to discuss strategic planning in light of the bans, OCRRA Director Andrew Radin predicted that disposal after China could cost NYS communities $78-100 million. Further general meetings on the subject were cancelled, but two targeted meetings on outreach and education, and markets and infrastructure, are now tentatively planned.

This brings us to Long Island — do we continue to enjoy a bubble of smooth sailing as others panic? Not so, unfortunately. Over the summer, the town of Oyster Bay found itself in a battle with long-time trash hauler, Winters Bros., which had threatened to pull out of its municipal contract early citing “unprecedented market shifts” which have made it unprofitable to continue servicing the Town. Last Tuesday, Oyster Bay and Winters Bros. reached an agreement that the hauler will complete its contract until the end of the year. The town will not take advantage of its option to renew thereafter. Winters Bros. had been paying the town $25.08 per ton of collected recyclables, a financial equation which no longer makes sense for the trash hauler as buyers dry up. In Smithtown, worries are also mounting as the Brookhaven recycling facility swells with material that has yet to find a home. Green Stream, the vendor for the facility, which purchases materials by the ton and resells it (historically, to China), finds itself in a bind as it struggles to find new interested parties. And so Winters Bros., part owner of Green Stream, is embroiled in yet another struggle as the market remains volatile. Contracts between Brookhaven and Smithtown on the one hand, and Brookhaven and Green Stream, on the other, are subject to change as this crisis continues to unfold. In the quest to offer a more marketable, higher-quality product, Newsday reports that Smithtown is even considering reopening its shuttered dual-stream recycling facility (dual stream recycling has been associated with cleaner end-products, which fetch a higher price).

It remains to be seen how this upheaval will play out. One thing that’s certain is that it’s not possible to simply return to the status quo. Calls for changes to the way recycling is managed have inevitably found fresh urgency. As many within the waste industry have opined, crisis usually brings innovation, progress borne of necessity. What shape that will take is unclear, but the wake up call has certainly now been heard on Long Island.


Picking Up The Pieces: US Recyclers React to China’s Bans

By Liz Skolnick

This piece is a follow-up to our article “Understanding China’s Recyclables Bans” from March, 2018.

It’s been over four months since China’s latest update to its recyclable materials bans, which began in 2013. And we at the Long Island Recycling Initiative have been keeping an eye on how things have played out domestically. This past year has seen many articles detailing US recyclers’ woes and the stockpiling of materials at processing centers. While profits took a nosedive and space ran out, recyclers waited to see what new pathways would open up. So what has happened since? And are things as grim as where we left off? Below, we take stock of some changes on the horizon and a few already underway in the arena of domestic recycling.

From the Curb to the Landfill, Costs Soar

As predicted, one of the first changes associated with China’s bans has been an increase in landfill tip fees (WasteDive puts the average domestic increase at 3.5%) and tipping fees at recycling plants, driven by the plummeting value of recyclable materials. In turn, trash haulers that used to pay communities for their recyclables, are now charging to haul them away, in the most dire cases leading communities to stop recycling altogether. These cases are in the minority, and a lot of states have laws which prevent items from going to landfill. Still, in some places the laws themselves are being tested as solid waste authorities have been forced to relax regulations, allowing items to be temporarily landfilled while the market stabilizes.

In most cases though, communities have agreed to shoulder the extra carter costs, and there is a general sense that residents want to continue recycling. Of course, tough decisions are being made in lots of communities around the country, and the higher the costs, the more of a strain on the municipal till. For an in-depth look at how this is playing out, see WasteDive’s excellent state-by-state breakdown of the effects of China’s bans.

Switching Back to Dual Stream

Collection and sorting practices have come under review in some communities, and proposed changes seek to address problems that spurred China’s bans in the first place. One such problem (arguably the problem) is the dirtiness of materials. Single-stream recycling at first glance produced higher recycling rates — simply more tons of stuff collected. However, mixing together all different kinds of materials created lots of contamination, and more non-recyclable items ended up in the bin. This dirty and unusable material then had to be sorted and thrown out when it got to China, leading to pollution, health problems and profit loss.

Several communities, from Canada to California, have realized that dual-stream recycling, which keeps materials separate (paper and cardboard from glass/metal/plastic) produces cleaner materials, which command a higher price. In short, switching back to dual-stream, could actually save money in the end, and some areas have begun to take such action.

Domestic Recycling Gains Appeal

Another result of China’s bans has been investment in domestic mills to process recyclables. Though Southeast Asian countries have stepped up to fill some of the void left by Chinese processors, they cannot handle the sheer volume that we’ve been sending China for years. Some cities see a silver lining in the market upheaval and are working to develop their own municipal facilities as a source of revenue. The city of Phoenix, AZ is reviewing proposals for a mixed plastics remanufacturing mill (plastics #3 to #7 have become particularly difficult to recycle since China banned them last year, with much of them heading to landfills and incinerators). And long-standing domestic operations such as Pratt Industries in Georgia are benefiting from the bans, as items which would have been bound for China now stream through their gates.

Interestingly, some Chinese recyclers in need of clean material are now looking to shift the sorting here; several significant proposals from Chinese companies have cropped up since the beginning of the year. Proposed facilities include a plastics processor in Alabama, and a food and beverage carton recycler in South Carolina.

“There’s No Away in Throw Away

To be sure, China’s bans of many common recyclables has sent the global materials market into a tailspin, with exporters in the US and abroad panicking as we find new ways to give valuable items a “second life.” But the fact is, China’s decision stems from a growing understanding of the toll all this recycling has taken on their country’s environment. Recycling can be a messy business when the materials are not clean and proper environmental and health regulations are not in place. There are, however, cleaner and more environmentally responsible ways to do it, and it’s precisely this kind of innovation that we hope to see in the wake of the bans. We have already seen early reactions in the forms of investment in domestic facilities, and a switch to more source-separation. Materials processors themselves have been candid both about their current struggles and their - sometimes surprising - optimism that this turmoil will herald in an age of greater awareness and responsibility in how we create, use and process everyday materials.

Will we start swapping out those plastic forks for a travel lunch kit? Or even separating recycling into more categories? Whatever happens, China has sent a message loud and clear that we need to start thinking beyond the bin.  And now when we throw things “away,” we might find that they land a little closer to home.



Ocean Plastics and Texas-Sized Garbage Patches

by Liz Skolnick

A number of people have asked me about ocean debris and ocean plastics lately, questions usually taking the form of: "So, what's going on with that giant garbage patch in the ocean? Isn't it like, twice the size of Texas?" Although known to the scientific community since the late eighties, the existence of ocean “garbage patches” didn’t reach public consciousness until decades later. Now the issue of marine debris, with a focus on plastics, is receiving international attention from environmental groups and a public increasingly concerned with its impact on the global ecosystem. For those of you that don’t know, let’s start with some basic questions: What are ocean “garbage patches”? And how did we discover them?

Discovery of the ocean garbage patches

Although marine pollution has been around for longer than we can know, the extent of the problem became clear about 30 years ago, when Alaska-based researchers discovered large amounts of marine debris gathering in calm areas of the Pacific Ocean. Based on their observations and corroboration with research from Japan, they hypothesized that similar masses of debris must exist in other parts of the Pacific Ocean. These findings led to the discovery of the North Pacific garbage patch, and in 1988, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) published a paper describing this phenomenon.

Though it contains plenty of visible floating debris, much of the garbage patch consists of microplastic particles invisible to the naked eye, so that a sailor in the vicinity may not be able to recognize the true extent of the floating expanse of pollution (estimated anywhere from about the size of Texas, to that of Russia - a whopping 5,800,000 square miles). We now know that in addition to the Great Pacific garbage patch, there is a North Atlantic garbage patch of similar composition; that is, mostly plastics.

As many news articles have reported, the amount of trash entering the oceans is equivalent to one truckload every minute, a shocking figure that is difficult to fathom. It’s also evident that plastic has found its way into the ocean’s food chain, as particles mistaken for food are ingested by fish, seabirds, and sea turtles among other organisms, many of which starve with bellies full of the plastic debris. Back in 2015, the Ocean Conservancy issued a warning that ocean pollution was reaching a “crisis” level, estimating that by 2025 the oceans would contain more trash than fish. In the state of this growing crisis, what is being done?

Making headway across the seas

In recent years, many initiatives and coalitions have grown out of concerns over marine pollution. Last year, the European Union held its fourth annual Our Ocean conference, which focused on ocean pollution, overexploitation, coastal degradation, and climate change. According to their website, achievements from this conference included 433 “tangible and measurable” commitments, $8.5 billion in financial pledges, and the addition of around 965,000 square miles of Marine Protected Areas. About one year ago, UN Environment launched their #CleanSeas campaign, which resulted in many coastal countries making pledges to cut back on single use plastics and take other important steps to protect the marine environment. And here in the US, the Save Our Seas Act passed the Senate last August, renewing funding for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program and encouraging the State Department to work with top contributors to marine pollution curb their escaping waste.

In the private sector, last year six corporate giants - MARS, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever and Werner & Mertz - pledged or renewed pledges to use 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025, as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative. Some innovative companies such as Zogg’s Ecolast swimwear are even harvesting ocean plastics to fabricate their products.

But there’s more to be done…

As the Ocean Conservancy discussed in their 2017 Annual Report, “nearly half of the plastic that flows into the ocean every year … escapes from waste streams in just five rapidly developing economies in Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and China).” These countries are the target of a new initiative to upgrade waste collection and sorting technology, and improve recycling markets with the aim of dramatically reducing the amount of material that makes its way into the oceans. Since a huge percentage of the world’s waste and recyclables are processed by these countries, improving their waste sectors makes a lot of sense.

But we also need to look upstream towards the waste generators themselves (all countries, but particularly economically developed countries with high levels of consumption, like the US), and at the products we use and buy everyday. As Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace US, said in an oft-repeated quote "There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw something away it must go somewhere." As consumers, we can do our part by reducing our waste to begin with, by pressuring companies to quit their use of plastic and other non-biodegradable packaging, and by supporting legislation requiring the use of recycled content. I believe we have much more power to create this kind of change than most of us realize. At the end of the day, our choices add up, and in our own way, whether it be through helping with a beach clean-up or opting for a reusable water bottle, we each have the power to effect positive change.


Further reading:

As Single Stream Recycling Sweeps Long Island and the Nation, We Ask: “Is It Working?”

By Liz Skolnick

By now, many Long Islanders are probably familiar with a method of recycling called “single stream.” While some parts of the island still use “dual stream” collection, single stream has been swiftly replacing it in many areas over the past few years. For those who don’t already know, let’s start by going over the basics.

How does single stream work?

In contrast to the traditional form of collection involving two bins - one for metal, glass and plastic; one for paper and cardboard - with single stream recycling, everything can go into one bin. The cartons, bottles, cans, cereal boxes and old homework all go together in one spot. Sounds easy, right? Well, easier may not equal better. While single stream has many champions, revelations from industry insiders have given us reason to question whether it is truly the solution to recycling woes.

A question of numbers

One point of contention between supporters of single stream and of dual stream has been the recycling rates obtained with each method. Single stream supporters estimate that it has driven recycling rates up to somewhere between 30% and 50%. But if this sounds too good to be true, it may very well be. Dual stream advocates aptly note that this inflated number is the result of measuring only what’s collected at the curb. Yes, it may be the case that people are throwing more into the blue bin, but to get the full picture we also have to look at what happens further down the line.

What most people don’t know is that mixing all these materials together often results in “contamination” of recyclables. Contamination can happen, for example, when shattered glass or food grease coats paper and cardboard at some point in the recycling process, whether it be in your kitchen bin, during carter pick-up, or once it gets to the recycling facility. The glass shards or grease can contaminate whole bales of paper, rendering it non-recyclable. Despite the best intentions of dutiful home recyclers, contaminated material, or “residuals”, will simply get sent to landfill with the rest of the trash. In light of this widespread phenomenon, one can see how measuring at the curb can yield a much higher recycling rate than doing so after all those residuals have been factored out. Dual stream supporters argue that at the end of the day, keeping things separate actually results in higher recycling rates because it prevents this cross-contamination, thereby preserving more materials that can actually be turned into new products.

Single Stream Comes to Brookhaven

In 2014, the Brookhaven Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) made the switch to single stream recycling, with a $7 million investment from its operator Green Stream Recycling, LLC. This new system, the town reasoned, would increase recycling rates by doing away with confusing separation rules and adding a larger bin. Residents could now feel confident throwing all recyclables into that bin and letting the professionals sort it out later. Also anticipated was significant revenue gains from serving other Long Island municipalities, and a savings of $125 per ton of material for the town. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this change has led to better understanding on the part of your everyday resident, of what is recyclable and what isn't.

Those impressive-sounding upfront recycling rates, and the incredible ease of the no-sort process are enticing - everyone wants this system to work - but they obscure some harsh realities. Though Brookhaven’s contamination rates have not been made public, broader studies show that single stream recycling leads to over ten times the amount of unusable residuals than multi-sort methods like dual stream. As Susan Collins, of the Container Recycling Institute, noted in an Interview with Fortune: “Single-stream is not the system that leads to the highest quality of recyclables. There are consequences if you mix [materials] together: you can’t unscramble an egg.” While some may reason that the technology simply hasn’t been perfected yet, it’s hard to imagine that this is simply a problem of mechanics — have you ever tried separating the grease from a cardboard pizza box? Now imagine “degreasing” 50 pizza boxes a minute.

The Bottom Line

So who actually wins out with single stream, and what is the end goal? Though single stream may not be as kind to the environment, it has certainly helped fill municipal coffers around the country. It’s also been a boon to recycling carters, who need less manpower than ever on their pickup rounds. But the appeal of the financial gains must not distract us from the truth - single stream is simply not a great method for producing clean materials, or protecting our environment and our communities from the proliferation of waste. It’s true that the two goals of strong economics and environmental health both need to be kept in view, but as our global community increasingly turns toward environmental stewardship, we need be more wary than ever when the scales are so clearly tipped in the direction of profit. If this system isn’t working, let’s not try to pass it off as the “magic bullet” it’s not. Let’s instead work to create solutions that make environmental sense, not just dollars and cents.



State Budget for 2019 Draws Mixed Reactions from Environmental Contingent

By Liz Skolnick

On March 30, Governor Cuomo outlined the new State Budget for FY 2019. The budget allocates funds for various environmental initiatives including improvement to parks and trail systems, promotion of NYS agricultural products, and combating algal blooms, with most of the monies coming from the Environmental Protection Fund (EPF).

Long Island saw one big win with significant funding going toward the testing and improvement of water quality. Proposed actions and infrastructure include drinking water filtration and lab testing to address concerns over the presumed carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, which has been the source of much concern on the Island. Relatedly, the budget proposes to fast-track the construction of new wells to contain and treat the 4-mile long plume of industrial waste originating from the U.S. Navy/Northrop Grumman Bethpage manufacturing facilities in Oyster Bay. Other Long Island highlights include the addition of 1,000 acres to the Pine Barrens Preserve, funding to eradicate invasive species like the Southern Pine Beetle, and continued funding for the Peconic Bay Estuary Program.

Support for these projects has drawn praise from some environmental groups and advocates, while others have expressed disappointment with the Budget plan's failure to fund the Food Recycling and Recovery Act (though it does propose $2 million to fund municipalities and food banks’ recycling of food scraps), and to include support for the long debated statewide plastic bag ban, which has received much attention in the past few years, and which I recently wrote about here.

Some dissenters contend that Cuomo’s support for environmental initiatives amounts to “cherry picking” projects based on their popularity, and momentary place in the hearts of a fickle public. Other groups claim that not enough is being done to make New York the “green,” environmentally progressive state that residents and politicians like to see it as; rather, they maintain, the plan simply keeps up the “status quo.”

While the Budget plan was indeed a boon to parks, water quality and agriculture, improvements to recycling and solid waste management did not receive mention. For our part, we hope to see a general raising of the level of awareness about the inefficiencies and obstacles that plague recycling programs in New York State and Long Island. The lack of recognition in the state budget is symptomatic of the current general lack of awareness and attention to these issues. It can’t be denied that needed changes such as upgrades to antiquated pen-and-paper solid waste data reporting, not to mention adding more DEC personnel for badly needed programmatic oversight and document processing, would be impossible to achieve without more funds. And with the pending solid waste crisis on Long Island, it is absurd that the issue did not even warrant debate.

However, money alone may not be the simple (or, only) answer. Some meaningful improvements to the way we handle our recycling and waste may be achieved in its absence. Certain programmatic changes, for example, and increased transparency at all levels of governance and program administration may be created through making waste documentation public, and through better outreach and recycling education efforts, and general engagement with local communities. These need not be costly ventures.

For the time being, while waste management is again passed over for funding and acknowledgement, as other issues are given the spotlight, we must strive to remember — and to remind others —  that the waste crisis facing Long Island isn’t going away. We must continually bring this issue to the attention of policymakers and Long Island officials who have pushed the problems to the back burner. We must remind them that, the sooner they face the problem, a vital and fundamental part of our infrastructure that is in dire need of attention, the better we can avoid, or at least mitigate, the real “crisis” that scientists and academics (and a few wise local politicians) have been warning of for decades.




Plastic-free Packaging Materials: Innovative Designs that Really Hold Water

By Liz Skolnick

Shifting our focus momentarily from the challenges to recycling, this week we’ll look at some alternative packaging materials which may offer “upstream” solutions, in the form of relief from the mounds of plastic that accompany everyday products we buy and ship to our homes. Some of these alternative materials are still being developed and tested in the lab, though versions of them are already used in commercial and industrial applications. Others have been used in some capacity for years and are now gaining in popularity. Below, we discuss some of the eco-materials that have made waves in recent years, hopefully paving the way for nixing petroleum-based packaging for good.

Liquid wood

Liquid wood is made from lignin, an organic polymer found in plant cells, and a readily available paper mill byproduct. When lignin is combined with water and subjected to pressure and heat the end product is a biodegradable, flexible and fully recyclable material that performs like plastic and has many applications. Liquid wood has been used to make toys, speaker cabinets, and can be injection molded to form nearly any desired shape for accessories like sunglasses and wristwatches.

Algae-based packaging

After successfully shipping a fragile bottle wrapped in its algae based packaging material - which functions like bubble wrap - Japanese design company AMAM went on to win the grand prize at the 2016 Lexus Design Award. Now, other biofabrication companies are following suit using agar, a gelatinous substance found in seaweed, to produce foam packaging. Other uses for seaweed have already been found in the form of architectural cladding, yarn and lampshades. Seaweed-based packaging materials are fully biodegradable, and as agar retains water, some manufacturers even suggest it be added to home gardens to improve soil quality.

Mushroom-based packaging

Fungus is steadily gaining attention as the main ingredient in the packaging of the future. Forward thinking companies like Ecovative Design have developed technology that capitalizes on the quick growth of mycelia, the “roots” of mushrooms which create a weblike system of material that combines with agricultural waste products to create a durable “mycofoam.” This mycofoam functions just like cardboard shipping material. The fungus-based material is toxin-free, and is fully biodegradable and compostable.

Milk proteins

Revolutionary eco-packaging has been developed in the past few years from a milk protein called “casein.” Resembling plastic film, casein-based material is actually 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen out and away from food products vulnerable to decomposition. What’s more, it’s completely biodegradable and edible! Some manufacturers are even discussing adding vitamins and probiotics, as well as flavoring to make the edible packaging nutritious and tasty. Casein-plastics stand as a great alternative to regular plastic packaging, but we must take care to ensure the milk protein is ethically sourced with proper consideration to prevent harm to animals.

PLA Polyesters

Polylactic acid is a polyester that can be made from the lactic acid in starchy plants like corn, wheat, beets and sugarcane. Like other plastic-alternative materials, PLA polyesters use agricultural byproducts readily available from the milling of plant materials, thus utilizing biodegradable source material while also cutting down on the amount of waste sent to landfills. PLA’s break down in 47 days in industrial composting conditions, and do not release toxins when incinerated. PLA is an incredibly versatile material which can be used to make household objects like coffee cups and shrink wrap, and also has applications in the medical and automotive fields.

PHA Polyesters

These polyesters are formed when a certain types of bacteria feed on sugar, creating a durable plastic-like substance that can be used to preserve food, as an additive in films and injection molded bottles, among other uses. While there are a few different types of PHAs, they all biodegrade in water and carbon dioxide in aerobic (oxygen-containing) or anaerobic (oxygen-free) composting environments. PHAs are currently somewhat expensive to make, as compared with plastics, but continued refining of the manufacturing process may lower costs in the years to come.

These eco-materials present us with some truly amazing, environmentally-friendly alternatives to the usual petroleum-based packaging that can leach toxins into land and waterways, and become trash that sticks around for hundreds of years. We expect to see even more innovation along these lines in the near future. But in the meanwhile, the majority of packaging materials still include petroleum products of some kind. This means we must keep up the fight, urging legislators and policy-makers to make recycling a priority, and tackling the problems associated with the waste we continue to create as a global community.



The Great Plastic Bag Debate: Storied History, Uncertain future

By Liz Skolnick

It’s a familiar sight to most of us — plastic bags dancing in the wind on city sidewalks, dotting highway medians, accumulating in our kitchen cabinets. But as many of us have come to know, it’s the ones we don’t see that are doing the most damage. According to Ocean Crusaders, plastic bags are the number one man-made object sailors come across in the ocean. Fish, seabirds, and other animals often become entangled in them; other times, they mistake them for food, leading to starvation and death. And it will only get worse, as China’s ban on recyclable plastics goes into effect, as I wrote about last week.

While evidence of plastic’s destructive effects on marine and land habitats piles up, communities in many parts of the world, from Tanzania to Long Beach, are changing the way plastic bags are used in their local economies. Many have decided that the only way damage can be mitigated is to nix them altogether. Others have taken measures to discourage their use by attaching a fee to each bag consumers take home. These methods have proven effective in many places: Irish Environment reports that Ireland saw a 90% drop in the use of plastic bags once a fee was imposed in 2002; California and Hawaii have passed aggressive, statewide legislation to either ban or charge for plastic bags at retail stores, which has done much to reduce their proliferation. This may lead one to wonder, what’s the hold up in New York?


Though some municipalities in the state of New York have chosen to implement their own bag bans or fees, no statewide legislation has been put into place banning bags or requiring a fee. New York City has also been slow to put any such bans or fees into place. After a 6-cent fee was proposed by Mayor Bloomberg (and shot down) in 2008, legislation has been knocked back and forth in City Council. The “Plastic Bag Bill” proposed in 2014, required that a 5-cent fee be imposed for each plastic bag provided in supermarkets and most shops. With support from Mayor De Blasio, the bill passed by a relatively close margin of 28-20. The idea behind it was to urge shoppers to bring their own bags in order to avoid this new fee, while simultaneously reducing the number of bags that end up in landfill, sully urban and rural landscapes, the oceans, and even faraway islands now rimmed with “plastic beaches.” At the time, opposition to the bill argued that such a fee would unfairly burden low-income residents, and that reuse of bags was “unsanitary.”

In January 2017, one day before the NYC “Plastic Bag Bill” was set to take effect, the State Senate approved a bill that overrode it, and killed the bag fee. This new bill, introduced by Senator Felder of South Brooklyn, prohibited bag taxes in cities larger than 1 million people (NYC being the only city of this size in the state). The bill found support in Governor Cuomo, who argued that the fee, as it stood, was “deeply flawed” because it allowed merchandisers to keep the majority of the earnings, thus adding up to a “$100 million bonus to private companies.” Cuomo did, however, set up a Plastic Bag Task Force to investigate the bag ban and fee models in other states and communities.

Winter of 2018 saw a resurgence of interest in bag bans among state lawmakers and NYC officials, starting with new legislation introduced by two state Senators following on the recommendations of the Task Force, which looked to the “California model” as a beacon of success. In March, Mayor De Blasio tweeted his support for such a ban though he did not make specific mention of the new legislation. One day later, Gov. Cuomo chimed in to let the public know that he was considering a state-wide ban. The new bill, S7760, proposed by Senators Liz Kreuger and Brad Holyman, would ban plastic carryout bags and impose a fee for paper bags (10-cent minimum, to 25-cent maximum). Twenty percent of the fee would go to the retailer, while eighty percent would be set aside for the state Environmental Protection Fund. Because the fees would help support a state fund, rather than being collected by the city, it may be able to skirt the restrictions of Senator Felder’s bill.

This new bill, S7760 has been referred to the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, where hearings may be held and comments on its merit prepared for government agencies before the committee votes. Meanwhile in NYC, retailers and shoppers have chimed in voicing their dissent or support. Some feel banning plastic bags and charging for paper ones will cause confusion, anger and longer checkout lines, while others see this as a necessary step towards protecting the environment, and one that won’t unduly inconvenience anyone.


While NYC hangs in the balance, 14 municipalities in other parts of the state, frustrated with Albany’s back-and-forth, have taken matters into their own hands and enacted local bans and fees. Long Island towns are a standout — as of January 1st, Suffolk county stores have charged a nickel for a bag, paper or plastic; the village of Patchogue had already banned plastic bags in 2016. Southampton, East Hampton, and other towns have also enacted bans. In Nassau County, Long Beach has led the way.

While the door is open for a statewide plastic bag ban, given the erratic history of the debate in Albany, it’s almost certain to need a push from state residents in support of the measure. You can participate by supporting this legislation in a few different ways, such as calling or writing to your representatives, and participating during public commenting periods.