Lots of things end up in recycling bins that should not be there: carpet, wood, hoses, tarps, textiles, Venetian blinds. So many plastic bags. A subwoofer. The carcass of a striped bass. These are just some of the items Ernest Kuhlwein Jr., director of the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management, and John Pallen, supervisor of recycling operations, have seen dumped from recycling trucks at the Southern Recycling Center in Manahawkin. Those things, needless to say – or, it seems, necessary to say – should not be in there.
Since the county adopted single-stream recycling around 2011, the list of acceptable items has remained the same: plastic bottles, with necks smaller than the base; glass bottles and jars; metal cans, both aluminum and tin; cardboard; office paper; junk mail; newspapers, magazines and catalogs. All caps, lids and plugs should be removed, and containers should be empty and clean of all liquids and food.
“It’s always been this way,” said Kuhlwein.
That leaves many, many items that are not acceptable, including the number one enemy of the single-stream recycling machinery at the facility in Lakewood: plastic bags.
“Plastic bags are probably the worst contaminant since they affect the sorting capability of the machinery,” said Kuhlwein, who explained how the bags wrap around the mechanicals and therefore cause items to end up in the wrong place, such as paper in with the glass, which then contaminates the glass.
“The mantra,” said Angela Andersen, sustainability coordinator for Long Beach Township, “is don’t put bags in recycling and don’t put recycling in bags! All the literature from the county and the towns says no bags. People need to read the words put out by the towns and not come in with preconceived notions.
“We have reached out to the companies that sell the bags that say recycling bags, like Hefty, to tell them not to sell them here,” she added.
Plastic wrap, shrink wrap and stretch film also do not belong in the recycling. (Neither does aluminum foil, by the way.)
As Kuhlwein remarked, “All the garden hoses, bowling balls, brake rotors, shoes, brush, leaves and grass rank right up there, too.
“The other major problem is moisture,” he stated. “When the material is set out at the curb, it should be in an enclosed container to keep it dry. The paper markets have really tightened up on the allowable moisture content of bales of paper. Additionally, it is virtually impossible to sort wet paper through a sorting system that relies on the paper staying in one piece.”
And shredded paper doesn’t belong in the single-stream recycling; residents can bring this to the Southern Recycling Center, on Haywood Road, and dump it into a bin specific to this material. Otherwise, the small bits of paper also taint the other substances.
Joseph J. Caldeira Jr., vice president of Meadowbrook Industries LLC – which picks up recycling in Long Beach Township, Barnegat Light, Harvey Cedars and Barnegat, among other towns in the county – concurred about the plastic bags. “Under no circumstances should you put plastic bags in the recycling,” he emphasized.
Another problem material, said Caldeira, is rigid plastic, like that comprising certain children’s toys and lawn chairs. Unclean food containers are also an issue. And sometimes, people will throw full, expired cans of vegetables right into the recycling, Caldeira marveled.
The Meadowbrook haulers don’t utilize robotic pickup, as the haulers do in Stafford and Little Egg Harbor townships, so the Meadowbrook crews can actually look into the recycling cans on the curb and see if they’re contaminated. That’s obviously not the case with robotic collection, where the truck does the work. “It’s not the fault of the people collecting” if the recycling is contaminated, said Caldeira, “because they can’t see it.”
These auto-collected loads end up with more non-acceptable items in among the acceptable material.
On Tuesday, around noon, trucks started to arrive at the Haywood Road facility from throughout Stafford Township. There, the material is pre-sorted before heading to Lakewood. After dumping the recyclables, the drivers looked through the contents, pulling out such things as styrofoam, a hose, a soccer ball and other items of trash, which they tossed back into the truck.
Near the entryway, a full carousel spilled old photo slides onto the ground.
As Kuhlwein explained, it now costs $100,000 a month for the residue – all the things that shouldn’t be in the recycling – that has to be taken to the landfill. The cost used to be closer to $50,000 a month. “The county facility has always operated in the black,” for 30 years, said Kuhlwein, “but this is the first year we’re going to lose money.”
An added problem, as he pointed out, is that other countries, particularly China, have “set a new standard for clean material at a ½ percent contamination level. Other markets have followed suit.”
He added, “The value of the recyclables is now less than operating the facility. If it gets to the point where we have to turn trucks around,” to the landfill, “it’s going to affect their efficiency,” which may lead to missed pickups and, eventually, to a cost that could filter down to the taxpayer.
“We’re running out of things to do,” said Caldeira.
And while year-round residents seem to be more diligent about recycling, the situation worsens in the summer months, with the influx of visitors to the area.
So what is the solution? Caldeira said schools should start educating students about recycling, its rules and its importance. Lacey Township, he noted, does this now. “We need to begin to educate and to erase the apathy,” he remarked.
“The more residents and businesses know, the better recyclers and consumers they can be,” Andersen stated.
And, in January 2019, as per the county, bins with contaminated recycling will be stickered and left, Caldeira pointed out.
Meadowbrook also hauls from Point Pleasant Borough, which “drew a line in the sand last January,” and would not pick up cans with plastic bags, rigid plastic or other unacceptable materials. “They stuck to it, and got maybe eight weeks of irate calls.”
But eventually, the calls died down, and now Point Pleasant has the cleanest recycling in the county, according to Caldeira.
Stafford’s Department of Public Works recently installed signs throughout the township with the county’s material specifications, and a notice that trucks carrying recyclable loads contaminated with trash could be completely turned away from the recycling center and sent to the Ocean County Landfill in Manchester, N.J. (a private, not county, entity).
“We have stepped up our inspection efforts at both facilities in an effort to clean up the incoming loads,” said Kuhlwein. “That has resulted in haulers taking back their trash and in some cases whole trucks being rejected. When a truck is rejected the hauler should be taking that load back and sorting through it to separate the recyclables from the trash.
“If they were to take the unsorted load to the landfill they risk being rejected there for having recyclables in the load. Remember: recycling is not voluntary, it is required by law.”
For more information on recycling, including lists of acceptable and non-acceptable materials, visit the county’s Department of Solid Waste Management website, at co.ocean.nj.us/OC/SolidWaste, or check out individual municipalities’ websites.
— Juliet Kaszas-Hoch