New rules mean less plastic recycling at transfer stations

New Paltz Recycling Coordinator Laura Petit sorts out unacceptable plastics from the bins at the recycling center last week. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Market-driven recycling programs are facing challenges locally, as the quality of materials gathered is proving unappealing to many potential buyers. Town of New Paltz residents who bring recycling to the reuse center were among the first to notice some changes in what’s accepted and what isn’t, and in the coming year more limits could be imposed, possibly including an end to the accepting of glass for recycling.

Laura Petit, Recycling Coordinator for the Town of New Paltz, oversees initiatives to help achieve a zero-waste status for the community. She explained the new limits imposed in 2018, and is worried about what the future might bring. As of August, she said, “no black plastic, tupperware or clam shells” are being accepted through the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. “That eliminates about a third of what we were recycling,” she said. “I think it’s a big deal.” (The new limits don’t affect residents who contract with private haulers for waste and recycling removal.)

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Plastic items are sorted into various grades by use of optical scanners. Those grades are marked on the bottom of containers using a number system; the lower the number, the higher the quality of the material. Plastic recycling results in materials of a lower quality every single time, with items such as film plastic bags and polystyrene containers being near the bottom of the list.

The clam shell containers tend to be marked a five or six, and must be pulled out by hand during processing. Used for produce items such as arugula and especially for take-out food, their use has been on the rise since polystyrene was banned at the county level, something Petit — who is also a legislator — calls an “unintended consequence” of that legislation. At the time the law was passed, legislators were unaware that the likely replacement would be deemed unacceptable for recycling.

The issue with black plastic containers is that since they don’t reflect light, the scanners cannot distinguish between recyclable material and items such as microwave food trays, which are made of lower-quality material; this can result in contamination when good material is mixed with bad. There is a processing center near Buffalo where black plastic is accepted, but in a county where garbage is already hauled hundreds of miles to a landfill, the carbon footprint of bringing plastic that far is an issue.

“We’re looking for options,” said Petit.

It’s the overall quality of what’s filling those giant metal containers at the reuse center which makes it marketable, and if the quality is deemed poor, it becomes more difficult to find buyers. According to Petit, that’s also why the recycling of glass is at risk. “A lot of markets are failing due to the quality,” she said. Saleable glass is unbroken, clean and free of items like light bulbs and glass cookware. “It’s basically garbage,” Petit explained, and her concern is that RRA board members may soon decide not to accept glass at all. “We accept 40 tons of glass a year here, and if customers have to start throwing it in the garbage, we’ll have to raise fees,” she said. “It’s hard for people to do the right thing” if the fees go up.

There are options for individuals, Petit said, but “they take more work.” They include bringing reusable mesh bags for produce shopping, growing greens at home and getting fresh produce at a farm stand or through membership in a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA. Bringing one’s own containers to restaurants for take-out food is also an alternative.

As for glass, Petit said that an expanded bottle bill — which would include far more beverage containers in the list of what carries a deposit — would be a big step toward ensuring glass is of a quality for recycling. She expects it might prove unpopular with consumers, however. On a commercial scale, there is now technology for grinding glass down to use as a substrate layer for roads, such as gravel is now, but nothing like that has yet been purchased for use in the town.

“It boils down to being responsible for what you’re creating,” Petit said. “With care, you can end up with almost no garbage.”

Changes affect those who bring their recycling to town transfer stations and who live in the city of Kingston, the only place in Ulster County with municipal garbage/recycling pickup. There, residents and businesses are being asked to sort their recycling starting next month.

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