China recycling ban

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


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.