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.