Long Island

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

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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.

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.








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.