Melody Kimmel prides herself on being a conscientious recycler.
Not only do she and her husband Dan cart their recycling to the curb twice a month, but she cleans and stores her aluminum foil, pans and trays to bring on visits to family in upstate New York since they’re not recycled here. She was happy when Montclair began taking #5 plastics, so she can “shop without guilt for yogurt, cottage cheese and shampoo,” she said.
But even she could use a refresher on recycling rules.
Recently, Montclair sanitation supervisor Craig Brandon pulled a variety of plastic items from a bin in front of her house.
“Garbage!” he pronounced after extracting several thin plastic “clamshells,” the type bakery goods and berries come in, and a plastic salad spinner.
“Some people think they should recycle everything,” he said. “Actually, the less you recycle the better.”
A lot has changed in the waste business since 2018, when China stopped taking recyclables from the U.S. We’d been shipping them there for years, mixed with our garbage. Now, the task of sorting our recycling has shifted to middlemen called Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs), and the cost to New Jersey towns.
So while municipalities used to get significant revenue from recycling, they now have to pay for the labor-intensive sorting, which can cancel out the value of the materials. Right now, for example, recycling in Montclair costs about the same as trash disposal. That’s why, in some states where recycling isn’t mandatory, towns are simply dumping everything, including recycling, in landfills.
But in New Jersey, where recycling is the law, towns and residents are required to recycle. That’s a good thing environmentally, saving on natural resources and landfill space and reducing the costs of disposal, said Wayne DeFeo, a waste management and sustainability consultant.
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And if recycling is “clean” − meaning not filled with non-recyclable items − towns get more for it, he said. Cardboard, paper, metals, glass and plastic are actually traded on the commodity markets. “Recycling is not garbage, it’s a commodity, and if it’s a clean commodity it has value,” he said.
On the flip side, when non-recyclables end up at the sorting facility, they have to be pulled out and thrown away “along with your money,” he said.
Trying to recycle the wrong items, as Kimmel did, is usually well-intentioned. DeFeo calls it “wish-cycling” − keeping items out of the trash that one hopes will get recycled. It doesn’t help that most towns do a “lousy” job educating residents about the rules, he said.
‘When in doubt, throw it out’
Plastics are the biggest problem. There are dozens of different types, and very few are easily recycled. In Montclair, the only kind that should go in the bin are those marked 1, 2 and 5 (mainly water bottles, milk jugs and yogurt containers). Clear, lightweight plastic “clamshells” have become standard for packaging berries and baked goods, but they are not recyclable − though many people “wish-cycle” them. If it has a recycling symbol, but no number, it should also go in the trash, Brandon said.
Pizza boxes are another item often mistakenly set out for recycling, said Brandon, who has been managing recycling in Montclair since 1992. Even if clean, the local MRF does not want them.
Plastic bags are a real problem, as they get caught in the garbage truck machinery and in the conveyor belts at the MRF. And recycling should never be put in garbage bags. Brandon said he can identify the houses of residents who recently moved from New York City, when he sees recycling in clear blue plastic bags, which are acceptable recycling receptacles there − but not here.
Cardboard boxes should be emptied of plastic bags and packing materials like styrofoam and flattened, so they can fit in the back of the trucks. And they should not be put out if rain is expected. Receptacles containing paper should be covered so it doesn’t get wet or blow away on a windy day.
But those are just the most common mistakes. “You would be amazed and disgusted,” at the type and number of wrong items people toss in their bins, said DeFeo. People seem to think that just because there’s some plastic in an item − like a dirty diaper − it can be recycled, he said. He’s also seen guns, swords and boat anchors in recycling. “When in doubt, throw it out,” he said.
Compared to other parts of the world, Americans are lazy, DeFeo said. In Japan, for instance, they sort materials into 21 different bins, and scofflaws are scolded by the older generation. They are concerned about the lack of landfill space. Here, the attitude is, ” ‘Let someone else take care of it,’ “ he said. “They just want it to go to this magic place called ‘away’.”
The U.S. is running out of landfill space, too, and will do so, by some estimates, in 22 years. In densely populated New Jersey, the problem is especially acute. The state’s largest landfill, in Middlesex County, gets 700,000 tons of trash a year and towers above a tidal estuary vulnerable to rising seas.
Much of Montclair’s garbage gets incinerated in Newark, also at high cost to the environment.
Recycling helps, but it’s not enough, said Lisa Johnson, Montclair’s sustainability officer. “We all grew up with recycling and thought it was going to save us, but it’s not.”
There needs to be more emphasis on reducing and reusing, she said. “Carry your own water bottles, bring your own mug to the coffee shop, your own bag to the store and your own Tupperware to the restaurant.”
A composting initiative with Montclair Community Farms is also a step in the right direction, since 21 percent of municipal waste is food waste, she said. Not only does it take up landfill space, but it emits methane and is a major contributor to climate change.
Rampant consumerism is also a big problem. DeFeo said that the maxim “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” should have a fourth imperative: “Refuse (to buy),” he said. Try to only purchase items you really need.
“The best solution to our waste problem would be that everyone has to keep everything they purchase for a year in their house,” he said. “It would be the best education program in the world.”
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