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:

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.

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.


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


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.


Understanding China’s Recyclables Bans: A Timeline

By Liz Skolnick

In July of last year, China filed notification with the WTO that by the end of 2017, it would ban the import of 24 different kinds of solid waste, including various types of plastics, textiles and waste paper. This announcement sent exporters to China - including the US, UK and Canada - reeling. But it’s only the latest in a series of waste import crackdowns that have played out over the past few years. As China continues to aggressively phase out waste imports, what does this mean for the global flow of materials? Well, it’s generally agreed that this has thrown a major wrench in the process. Countless articles have documented the pile up of paper, plastic and other materials at processing facilities. Left with little choice of where to send them, some facilities have opted to send recyclables to landfill. To understand how we got to this state, let’s take a look at the history of China’s recent policies and bans.

Operation Green Fence

February, 2013 —  In a move that sent shockwaves throughout the world of waste management, China unveiled “Operation Green Fence,” an aggressive campaign to strictly enforce regulations enacted in 2011 but not generally adhered to by customs officers. All of a sudden, shipments of materials were subject to rigorous inspection where before there had been little oversight; any container with more than a 1.5% rate of contamination (non-recyclable material) was rejected.   

Despite the relatively small number of containers that were turned away, recycling exporters read the message loud and clear, as they contemplated the increased costs and effort needed to get their materials up to China’s “impossible” standards. Some of them opted to export to southeast asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand, though with much less capacity, these could hardly fill the void left by China.

The Green Fence inspections lasted from February to November of 2017 and sent a message that China would no longer be the world’s dumping ground, accepting low quality waste while profit loss associated with contamination was passed to its manufacturers. As a result of Operation Green Fence, market prices for recyclables took a nosedive while the costs to exporters of reducing contamination stacked up. 247 companies lost their import licenses, and 800,000 tons of recyclables were rejected. Despite these negative effects, individuals on the inside and outside of the industry have been keen to point out a possible silver lining. As one former industry professional points out, Operation Green Fence has “presented western recycling businesses and municipalities with an opportunity to evaluate their existing business processes and policies and find alternatives to an export based recycling system.” (Rick LeBlanc, “Impact of Operation Green Fence on the Global Recycling Industry”

National Sword

February, 2017 — The campaign “National Sword” was announced by China. National Sword was a massive effort to crack down on illegal smuggling of various types of materials and goods (from agricultural products to illegal drugs and firearms) into China. This included investigating the illegal smuggling of “foreign waste,” which meant more scrutiny of all incoming containers by Chinese officials, and sluggishness at customs, adding up to higher costs for exporters of even legal waste materials. Low grade plastic bales and dirty paper bales were increasingly targeted for inspection as “National Sword” played out. As spring came in, import fees for material exporters doubled.

2017 WTO Filings

July, 2017 — China served up notice of its stringent new ban on 24 different types of scrap materials, including many types of commonly used plastic, paper and textiles. Now, not only would contamination be an issue, but the country simply would not accept whole categories of materials from its usual importers by the end of 2017, affecting much of the US, Europe and beyond. Here in the US, we’ve already begun to feel the effects in a big way: recyclables pile up at processing facilities like E.L. Harvey & Sons in Westborough, MA with nowhere to go. Some curbside recycling programs and drop-off centers have even stopped receiving commonly recycled materials like plastics.

Blue Sky 2018

March 2018 — Cut to the present. China has launched “Blue Sky 2018.” Set to run from March to December of this year, the policy is a continuation of the ban on materials that originated with “National Sword,” with the aim of both stopping smuggling, and preventing the import of recyclables deemed too dirty. So, what does this mean? With the loss of the globe’s number one recycler, we have seen and will see more recyclables end up in landfills or incinerated, while others are exported to Southeast Asian countries, which still currently cannot handle the volume of recyclables processed by China. If a solution for properly handling these materials is not found, curbside collection of many materials may simply be abandoned.

On the flipside, this does create the opportunity for dealing with our waste here in the US. This could mean the creation of new jobs and markets here, while also raising the standards for the materials’ cleanliness, which would certainly be a good thing! But this process won’t happen overnight. Meanwhile, market prices for materials continue to fall (most recently, cardboard has been particularly hard hit), and more and more reusable items are thrown into a cradle-to-grave cycle.

Though “growing pains” are certainly being felt, a larger question emerges: Could this represent a paradigm shift? Could forcing producers upstream to clean up their act extend to other points in the chain of waste generation? China has shifted the financial and the sorting burden upstream. Could this have a domino effect, paving the way for more product stewardship? For better sorting education for participants in recycling programs? For ingenuity in manufacturing packaging that can be more easily handled? While the full ramifications of China’s bans remain to be seen, one thing is sure — we’re in for some changes.


Click here for a detailed breakdown of how China’s bans have affected each state: