Recycling is piling up at LI facilities, as China puts limits on buying
Declining prices caused by restrictions imposed this year by China could lead to changes in the way many Long Islanders dispose of paper and other material.
BY DAVID M. SCHWARTZ AND CARL MACGOWAN
Posted: October 30, 2018
Originally Published: October 29, 2018
Thousands more tons of Long Island recyclables are ending up as trash compared to prior years because of plummeting prices caused by restrictions imposed this year by China, the world's largest importer of recycled cardboard and plastics, recycling operators said.
The restrictions have upended Long Island's already struggling recycling efforts, and could lead to changes in the way many Long Islanders dispose of paper and other material — particularly in towns that switched to once-heralded "single stream" recycling programs that allowed residents to combine paper, plastic, aluminum and glass in one container, officials said.
In some cases, towns that have made money in past years from selling recycled cardboard and paper have now had to pay to get rid of it because China will no longer buy it. China is seeking to stimulate its domestic recycling market and be more environmentally responsible.
The problem reached a flash point last week when Green Stream Recycling told Brookhaven officials it could no longer run the town's recycling facility. Green Stream is expected to fold, and Brookhaven on Thursday expects to name a new operator to temporarily run the recycling system while town officials weigh their long-term options. Brookhaven plans to continue the single stream program.
Haulers such as West Babylon-based Winters Bros. Waste Systems, a Green Stream co-owner and one of the Island's largest single-stream recyclers, say the declining recyclables market makes it nearly impossible for them to make a living.
“I’ve never seen it this bad, and I’ve been in this business for 35 years,” said Will Flower, vice president of Winters Bros. “In some cases, the material no longer has a home. It’s no longer recyclable.”
Though fluctuating commodities prices are considered normal in the waste industry, Brookhaven and Green Stream previously had touted the town's single-stream program since it began in 2014.
In its first year using single stream, the town saw a 25 percent increase in the number of homes that recycled. Similar increases were reported by towns such as Smithtown, Huntington and Southold that agreed to transfer their recyclables to the Brookhaven plant.
But this year, nearly 22 percent of recyclable paper, plastic, cardboard and aluminum brought to the Brookhaven facility has gone to incinerators or landfills, double the rates of 2016 and 2017, according to figures provided by Green Stream. The Brookhaven plant also processes collections from single-stream programs in several villages and school districts.
The additional material thrown away is on pace to be more than 7,000 tons by the end of the year — and doesn’t include glass, which hasn't been recycled from curbside bins for years. Instead, glass is crushed up and used as cover and drainage at Brookhaven's landfill, town and company officials said.
The increased rate is one result of a recycling market roiled across the country since Jan. 1, when China implemented policies — known as "National Sword" — aimed at boosting the country's environment and stimulating its domestic recyclables market. Those policies banned the import of some recyclable materials and required higher quality for other items like cardboard, national and local experts say.
Among the recent effects from the changing market:
Recyclables spilled out of the Brookhaven facility this summer as space ran out inside and no one would buy the material. Eventually, the newspaper and cardboard left out in the rain was composted in Brookhaven with the permission of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Green Stream, saying it could not afford to operate the Brookhaven plant, pulled out of its deal with the town. Brookhaven officials have said Green Stream owes the town $1.7 million in unpaid fees and bills, which Flower said the company likely will not pay.
Huntington said Brookhaven officials announced they will discontinue an agreement to take Huntington's recyclables at the end of this year. Huntington had been making $8 per ton from shipping paper, plastics and other material to Brookhaven, but capacity shortages at the Brookhaven facility have forced Huntington to pay $10 per ton to take material to a private waste facility, Huntington Director of Environmental Waste Management John Clark said in an email.
Smithtown and Huntington are seeking new recycling vendors. Those towns and Southold and Oyster Bay towns all have said they are reconsidering their single-stream recycling programs.
Recommendations including doubling the bottle and can fee to 10 cents, adding a fee on liquor and wine bottles and removing glass from curbside collections, along with an aggressive public education campaign about how to recycle better, are among proposals from a Long Island recycling advisory committee to the state DEC in October.
China is by far the world's largest consumer of U.S. recyclables, dating to the early 1990s, when the nation's voracious appetite for cardboard and plastic coincided with efforts by American cities and towns to ramp up nascent recycling programs. Both countries benefited from a system in which discarded cardboard was shipped to China, then came back to the United States as recycled boxes containing consumer goods before going back to China to be recycled once again.
Before this year, China consumed as much as 40 percent of the United States’ exported recyclables — more than the next 10 foreign nations combined, said Adina Renee Adler, senior director for government relations and international affairs at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a Washington, D.C., trade group.
“Because China gave us very little time to transition, it gives the recyclers very little time to find other markets,” Adler said.
Total value of waste and scrap exports to China by month
Scrap exports to China have declined since the ban on several types of plastics and mixed paper took effect Jan. 1 and all but halted in May when China temporarily suspended pre-shipment inspections.
China is trying to stamp out "contamination" — the waste industry term for recyclables that contain residue such as moisture and glue from packing tape and labels. Locally, inspectors hired by a Chinese firm now prod bales of paper with moisture detectors and examine piles of cardboard for contaminants such as glass shards before they are loaded into containers destined for overseas markets, local operators said.
Costs have climbed as companies and municipalities have slowed down conveyor belts and added additional staff to better sort streams of recyclables. Islip Town, which runs its own dual-stream recycling facility, last month approved $100,000 in unbudgeted overtime for recycling sorting.
At the same time, prices for recycled material have plummeted. Baled cardboard that could once be sold for $180 a ton is now down to nearly $60 a ton, Flower said.
Winters Bros. says it will have to alter or change some contracts under language usually reserved for natural disasters.
The Town of Oyster Bay has already agreed not to extend their single stream contract with Winters Bros. past Dec. 31, citing litigation fears, and will rebid their recycling contract in the coming weeks.
"Anyone in the recycling business would describe this as a crisis," Flower said.
Not everyone agrees, pointing to the recycling industry's cyclical nature, including frequent price fluctuations.
"I would not characterize it as a crisis. I’d characterize it as challenging times due to changing trends and changing markets," said Martin Brand, deputy commissioner for the state DEC's office of remediation and materials management.
He said he was unaware of additional recyclable material heading to landfills or incinerators, and said no permission has been granted for recyclers to landfill or incinerate recyclables. Some municipalities had requested permission to landfill or incinerate recyclables at a statewide meeting on the recycling changes this summer, but DEC did not give them permission, he said.
The changes in the recycling stream have ignited a debate over the benefits of single-stream recycling and dual-stream, where residents put out paper products one week and then the rest of the recyclables the next week.
Single-stream recycling increases participation in municipal recycling programs, but mixing paper products with cans and bottles leaves cardboard spoiled by rainwater and carbonated soda, or torn by broken glass.
“You can’t unscramble an egg,” Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute of Culver City, California, said in an interview. “Putting all these items in the same cart leads to contamination.”
Some residents also deposit non-recyclables — everything from food and soccer balls to garden hoses — into recycling containers, a phenomenon that waste officials call "wish-cycling."
Some local operators said that single stream, by creating a contaminated stream, has forced China's crackdown on recycling.
As single-stream recycling grew, not just on Long Island but nationally, the product coming out of the United States became more contaminated, said Patricia DiMatteo, owner of Omni Recycling of Babylon, a dual-stream facility. People became less discerning about what they threw into their recycling bins, she said. While Omni Recycling has had to more carefully sort its recycling stream, the amount that it sends to landfills — yard waste, hoses, cheese-stained pizza boxes — has remained about the same, she said.
"In my opinion, it was the advent of single-stream recycling that destroyed the market," DiMatteo said.
When Brookhaven announced its single-stream program in 2014, town officials envisioned the plant becoming a regional processing center that would serve municipalities across Long Island. Green Stream had poured $7 million to upgrade the facility in Brookhaven hamlet.
In 2015, the plant expanded after the DEC imposed a $25,000 fine for violations including the disposing of recyclables as waste.
With Green Stream leaving the facility, Brookhaven officials have said the program's new operator will have the option of continuing with single stream — or switching to a dual-stream system.
Before the recycling game changed
Here are the number of tons of recycled and unrecycled waste reported by each Long Island town in 2016*, the latest year available.
* Islip failed to file a 2016 report, so we used its 2017 report; all other town and city data are from 2016, the most recent year available from all other municipalities.
Towns such as Islip and Southampton that stuck with dual-stream recycling said their operations have fared better than single-stream programs. The amount of material that ends up as garbage has not increased because separated recyclables are less contaminated and therefore more attractive to buyers, they said.
Jim Heil, Islip's former waste commissioner, said the town's decision not to convert to single stream a few years ago is paying off.
"We looked at it when it was all the rage. We stayed the course, decided to do what we were continuing to do," Heil, who co-chairs the recycling committee with Flower, said. "It's to our benefit now, with the blip in the market."
Robert Lange, executive director of North Hempstead's Solid Waste Management Authority, who ran New York City's recycling program for 20 years as the director before that, said residents have to be better educated on what to recycle, and be encouraged to recycle more.
But he warned that some of the concerns are overblown and he has seen contractors in the past try to use bad market conditions to renegotiate contracts.
"I think there’s hype right now and whenever there’s any kind of drama like that, someone’s going to use it as an opportunity to readjust things in their favor," he said.
Some of recycling's issues existed long before China’s new policy, even if they were rarely talked about outside industry circles.
In some cases, materials can't be sold at all. Certain kinds of thin plastic food containers, for example, are incinerated or landfilled, Flower said.
Glass, when crushed and colors are mixed, has rarely been sold on recycling markets. The industry has also struggled with plastic bags and hoses getting caught in recycling machinery.
“A good market hid a lot of sins,” Flower said.
Peter Scully, former regional DEC director and former vice-chair of the New York State Solid Waste Management Board, said the towns should not have rushed into single-stream recycling.
"A better approach might have been to undertake single stream on a pilot basis to make sure it was sustainable over the long-term, and didn’t generate excess amounts of reject material, as a result of cross-contamination of paper products with broken glass," he said.
Some environmentalists agreed that big changes to recycling are needed, including more education for residents on what to recycle and state incentives or investments to encourage local recycling markets.
“Recycling was never free, now we're faced with what the actual costs are going to be,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
"We were misled years ago that single stream would be helpful for recycling. In fact, it’s been extremely harmful," she said. "It contaminates some material. And hasn’t brought any benefit and has only brought contamination of the material. It’s a disaster."
R. Lawrence Swanson, associate dean for Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said contract squabbles between recyclers and municipalities, such as the one between Oyster Bay and Winters Bros., could become more common.
“Probably some of those agreements are going to be in disarray and there’s going to be a need or an attempt to renegotiate,” Swanson said.