“Our solid waste, our source separation and recycling law was written as dual stream. Everything’s supposed to be separated. It’s not supposed to come in one happy container. Part of the problem with single-stream, wish-cycling, dream-cycling, whatever you want to call it, you’re getting in anything plastic …. Single-stream works only if it’s clean. If it’s contaminated, then there are no markets for it. That’s what it boils down to.”
— Charles Landi, UCRRA board member
Solid waste, source separation and recycling were the topics of the day when the Ulster County Recycling Oversight Committee met last week to talk trash and discuss options for dealing with the county’s waste problems. Chaired by Esopus legislator Laura Petit, the committee exercises an advisory role as to how the business of recycling is conducted for Ulster County. And a business it is. The county recycling operation generates more than $16 million annually.
According to Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA) treasurer Charles Landi, the agency handles 133,000 tons of waste a year.
“We spend nine million dollars a year in hauling and disposal up to Seneca Meadows,” says Landi, “and that’s a number that long ago that should have been eradicated.” Seneca Meadows is a 400-acre landfill near Cayuga Lake about four hours northwest of Ulster County. It is the largest active landfill in the state.
The EPA estimates that glass, paper, metal and plastics together add up to about 53 percent of the waste stream. Yard trimmings and wood account for another 20 percent. Food, to our great American shame, constitutes almost 15 percent.
The oversight committee’s goal to deprive this landfill of as much solid waste as possible. Cardboard and newspapers, aluminum beer and soda cans, once separated from the solid-waste stream and each other, can be consolidated into solid bales of product. Through the efforts of operations managers like Charlie Whittaker at the UCRRA, it is sold by the ton on the open market.
Finding a market
But not all recycling is created equal.
To begin with, there are seven different grades of plastic. D and the triangle-shaped “chasing arrow” symbol stamped on all, most will end up as garbage. The molded plastic used to make single-use water bottles, the sort of plastic of which shampoo and detergent bottles are made, is currently the most popular recyclable material. more popular than PVCs, the plastic used in garden hoses.
“Not all plastic is recyclable,” explains Whittaker. “Theoretically, if you had enough of something, like garden hoses, if you can guarantee me 44,000 pounds of garden hoses once a month, we can probably find a market. But if you’re not gonna have at least one load a month, don’t bother. People aren’t gonna call you back.”
The polystyrene of which “clamshells” are constituted are the Dalits of the plastic caste system. Many are made, but they are unwanted.
And then there is glass.
“I can’t find market for glass,” says Whittaker. “I can’t. Glass is an expense. Do I think it’s a good product? I really do. I love glass. Every bottle or jar I can keep at home to keep something in I do, not the plastic. I get rid of the plastic. You know, I tried to actually live my life without plastic and it’s impossible. Everything has plastic in it. Everything.” Turning an easy profit from newspapers and cardboard is complicated.
“Keeping all fiber separate,” continues Whittaker. “It says it in the law, all cardboard needs to be separate from all other fibers. And the same thing with newsprint. And it can’t be getting wet …. Take a good product, everything dripping, broken glass .… You can’t make that fiber good again. It’s already ruined. It’s trash now.”
While the law governing recycling in Ulster County was written so that the system is dual-stream — that is, glass, plastic and aluminum to be separated from fiber materials like cardboard and magazines — the reality of what arrives at the facility, Whittaker explains, is often far different. “When it comes in, it’s screened, there’s somebody there screening all the time, and if it’s supposed to be single-stream, it’s looked at and if it’s found to be not single-stream, if it’s contaminated single- stream, it goes to Seneca Meadows.”
The challenge for the committee is to reconcile the everyday reality: how recycling falls short of the laws which have been written.
“You can’t unscramble an egg”
Many of the 13 private trash-hauling companies presently permitted to operate in Ulster County are not legally obligated to collect trash in a dual-stream-compliant method. That is, they can pick up glass, plastic, fiber and aluminum all together in what is called single-stream.
“Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s gonna be done right. I’ll say it over and I’ll say it again, you can’t unscramble an egg.”
After facilities and pickup, the third and most important issue is that of source separation, wherein the consumers and businesses of Ulster County, having consumed, separate the various recyclables upstream before they go into the trash.
“[Separation] is not done at our place,” says Whittaker. “We don’t have blowers, we don’t have screens, we don’t have optical eyes, and truthfully machines don’t do a better job than the people who take care and have a concern for how they recycle.”
In the grand scheme of things great leaps become possible when they are built on incremental changes. To his credit, mayor Steve Noble has brought the City of Kingston forward by championing and adopting the dual-stream system. Residents separate the fibers and the troika of glass, aluminum and plastic from the rest of the waste stream before the trucks pick it up.
Berlin, Germany utilizes a five-bin system of color-coded receptacles that citizens have learned to navigate, along with further divisions of their glass into clear, brown and green.
Educating the public
The committee’s talk about educational outreach to increase public awareness, though well-meaning, is regarded as the sort of government outreach efforts often mistaken for condescension. Adding to the list of things people now suddenly must embrace is one guaranteed way to summon that contrariness of the American spirit.
Perhaps every citizen ought to be provided red, white and blue receptacles, and another with an eagle on it. A spirit of lighthearted patriotism might bless these additional chores.
Ten years ago the UCRRA launched a small-scale composting pilot programming its organics recovery facility. Food waste and organic matter produces a high-quality compost which can be sold to farmers, landscapers, home gardeners, and the general public. The program has been so successful that Ulster County in 2021 joined the company of New York City, Nashville and Cleveland in receiving the National Compost Manufacturer of the Year award.
Something as common sense as recycling need not be political. Only those with business models dependent on the past have any incentive to divide us. Everyone else is already making money and making the planet look good doing it.
That only leaves laziness to overcome. To quote Charlie Whittaker:
“And listen, I don’t care how safe the plastic is! You could tell me it’s a Number Four and you can put it in the microwave, but everything leeches into your food. Plastic is the worst thing. Listen, we knew about plastics in the 1960s in the ocean. We did nothing about it. It was one long holiday. We knew about climate change in the 1960s. We did nothing about it. It was one long holiday. The truth of the matter is, is that we’re doing things in the name of recycling, but we’re not recycling. We can do better.”