WasteWise Forum Reveals Folly of Complex New Jersey Recycling Rules
Turning trash into treasure may seem to be an illogical business proposition, but those who know the recycling industry well point out that it has been an important part of the U.S. and N.J. economies for decades, and we are constantly looking for innovative ways to dispose of the volumes of waste that we generate every day.
“I get many questions about plastics” confided Steve Rinaldi, Chair of the NJ WasteWise Business Network, a group that convenes a couple of times a year to compare notes. Rinaldi, who is with the NJDEP Bureau of Energy and Sustainability, noted the record attendance at this latest meeting, on May 9 in Hamilton NJ, where the audience was diverse, and the discussion about recycling challenges was very frank. Among the challenges this past year: recycling markets are weak, recyclable commodity prices are down, and collection program costs are up.
To a lay person, the problem seems counterintuitive: it comes down to the need to generate higher-quality recyclables. John Stanton and Fred Petrone of Atlantic Coast Recycling clearly showed, through a series of photos of piles of plastic recycling taken on a single November day last year, that the task of sorting out “good” from “bad” plastic is daunting. Picture after picture showed a jumble of un-recyclable bags, diapers, building materials, polystyrene - junk that this meeting’s trained audience immediately spotted among the plastic collected off typical neighborhood curbsides. The problem is, if the recycling is too contaminated with junk, it joins the rest of our trash in a landfill, defeating the whole purpose of a recycling program in the first place. “We need your help cleaning this up,” Stanton and Petrone appealed to the recyclers and municipal service representatives in the audience. “That’s the only way this is sustainable.”
“Help”, in this case, means better educating the public. But that’s a hard thing to do, as strikingly demonstrated by Wayne DeFeo, the Essex County Recycling Coordinator, and a recycling consultant. Walking around the room with a plastic bag of trash, DeFeo delivered a rapid-fire rundown of what people can and cannot recycle, and drove home the point that plastic recycling has become so complicated, even the experts in the room ended up scratching their heads. “The triangle code is a manufacturer’s code and has nothing to do with whether it’s recyclable or not,” DeFeo said. “It depends on where you are in NJ whether or not recycling will take it. How are you as a consumer supposed to decide what to do with all this plastic? It’s not possible. It’s completely confusing.”
America’s garbage problem started to explode a half a century ago, with the growth in material consumption and household waste. Replacing became cheaper than fixing. “Throw-away” packaging became more convenient than recycling. At first, Americans could easily ignore the consequences, because the disposables disappeared from view: trash went to landfills and incinerators, and recyclables were shipped to poorer countries who made a business out of sifting through it to retrieve usable materials. Then last year China - where the U.S. used to send most of its recycling - decided it would only accept high-quality recyclable materials: no plastic with greater than half a percent contamination, and no mixed paper at all. The average resident may not have noticed, because curbside pickup continued as usual. But for the recycling industry, times are indeed tough.
There are some bright spots on the horizon, though. Recyclable scrap iron and steel exports to China have risen. Norway is leading by example in plastic bottle recycling, having reached a laudable 97% recycling rate of plastic bottles generated in that country. And on a philosophical level, Rinaldi says, “Going green is becoming increasingly attractive as a business strategy and has been shown to give companies a competitive edge.”
It’s not just plastic. A portion of the recycling meeting was turned over to innovative solutions, including one company, CORe, that turns food waste into green energy. This is particularly pertinent in NJ, with very few commercially-scaled composting options. “If you can eat it, we can take it”, said Arielle Bernard, CORe’s sales support manager, as she outlined the process: CORe’s new plant in Elizabeth was purposely situated near a wastewater treatment site (Rahway Valley Sewage Authority) with a digester on site. CORe takes food scraps, separates them from residual trash, turns them into a “bioslurry” which is then taken to the digester to generate methane gas, which can be captured as renewable energy.
Other solutions that were proposed at the WasteWise meeting: recycling toys at the community level; investing in “the circular economy” through startups including robotic trash sorting, apps to facilitate collection of recyclables, small-scale Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) suited for smaller communities, and companies that approach waste as a commodity, such as the recycler in New York City who turns discarded paper into pizza boxes -- all ways, according to Closed Loop Partners CEO Ron Gonen, to “flip” the garbage.
Some other solutions offered up by Wayne DeFeo: not buying plastic (hard to do, but we must buy less); writing to manufacturers (so they can’t ignore it); buying only from companies that commit to using only recyclable PET (polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic resin type that is easiest to recycle), and ultimately, said DeFeo, “SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE”.