Explainer: Separating Rubbish from Reality for NJ’s Recycling

Meir Rinde | June 21, 2016 | Explainer
Politics and economics combine to make it hard to keep waste out of the environment

recycling paper
New Jersey passed the nation’s first mandatory recycling law in 1987, and though it is no longer a national leader, it continues to have a relatively high recycling rate. Yet the success of the program to keep waste out of the environment remains under debate.

While Gov. Chris Christie’s administration touts the millions of dollars given out annually in recycling grants to towns and counties, environmentalists accuse the state of continually raiding its recycling fund and not enforcing recycling mandates more vigorously.

The recycling program is also under pressure for economic reasons: It is expensive for local governments to comply with recycling mandates while garbage disposal remains cheap and commodity prices for recyclable materials fluctuate. Legislators are trying to boost the program through measures that would encourage collection of used electronics and beverage bottles, discourage use of plastic bags, and more tightly regulate recycling companies.

What the law says: Under the Recycling Enhancement Act of 2008, local recycling programs are funded by a $3 per ton tax on solid waste — i.e., garbage — accepted at waste facilities. The law requires 60 percent of the recycling fund to go toward grants to support municipal recycling programs, 30 percent to counties, and the rest to promotional efforts and the state Department of Environmental Protection. The municipal grants amounted to $14 million last year. In 2012, the figure was $18 million.

Towns and counties must have certified recycling coordinators (often the public works supervisor) and file annual reports on the amount of materials collected and sent to recyclers.

How much is recycled? Tonnage has varied considerably since 1987, when recycling and reporting were made mandatory and the state set a goal of recycling 50 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW). Recycling totals peaked at 45 percent of MSW in 1995, and at 61 percent of total solid waste in 1997, according to the Association of NJ Recyclers (ANJR).

In 1996, the state’s old recycling fund was allowed to expire. In addition, a federal court ruling ended state restrictions on where trash could be disposed, which cut the cost of waste disposal and made recycling less attractive. By 2003, New Jersey recycled only 33 percent of MSW and 52 percent of total solid waste, according to the ANJR. However, the tax and grants instituted in 2008 appear to have rejuvenated recycling somewhat.

The DEP says that in 2013 the state generated 10 million tons of MSW and recycled 43 percent, compared to 34 percent for the U.S. as a whole. The state’s rate for all solid waste, which includes large amounts of construction debris, was 58 percent.

How much is really recycled? Some critics say the official rates are inflated and recycling levels are much lower than they could be. New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel says the municipal numbers sometimes include construction debris that should not be counted as MSW, and many towns’ true rates are 30 percent or lower.

What can be recycled? Municipal recycling consists mostly of fiber materials like cardboard, newspapers, and magazines; steel and aluminum cans; glass; and plastic containers. Commercial recyclers can also process wood, asphalt, concrete, steel, and electronics.

Many other materials can be recycled; for example, some supermarkets have collection bins for polyethylene plastic bags. But in most towns these are not part of curbside collection programs.

In a few towns, including Princeton and Hoboken, recyclers pick up food waste for a monthly fee and haul it away — often out of state — to be turned into compost. A bill (S-771/A-2417) has been introduced in the Senate that would require generators of large amounts of food waste to send it for recycling, if there is an appropriate facility within 35 miles. New Jersey currently doesn’t have any such facilities, but the new law would encourage their construction by guaranteeing them customers, said ANJR’s president Dominick D’Altilio, a recycling consultant.

What materials are really recycled? Some municipal programs recycle all labeled plastics, from No. 1 to No. 7, but many can only handle No. 1 and No. 2; the other plastics, like yogurt containers and fast-food drink cups, end up in landfills. Window glass is theoretically recyclable. However, because it consists of a variety of different materials, depending on the window, municipal programs can’t handle it. Processors also don’t want residue, like oil on a pizza box, and some will throw out a whole load of materials if they find one contaminated piece.

Electronic waste: A 2010 state law requires manufacturers of TVs and computers to provide “free and convenient” recycling options for their products. However, due to rising costs, some companies have stopped complying and some cash-strapped municipalities have opted out of paying recyclers to haul away electronics.

A bill passed last year sought to boost e-waste recycling by changing the ways manufacturers’ recycling obligations are calculated, adding printers and fax machines to the list of covered electronics, and making other changes to the program. Christie pocket-vetoed the bill, along with some 100 others, and it has been reintroduced.

Bottle and bag recycling proposals: Earlier this year, lawmakers proposed adding a 10-cent deposit to plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans. The measure’s goal was to raise money for lead-abatement efforts, and to encourage recycling by refunding 10 cents to consumers who returned bottles to retailers and redemption centers.

The bottle bill faced opposition and appears unlikely to pass. Another bill would impose a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper carryout bags, with 3 cents going toward lead testing and abatement. The measure would not increase recycling, but would keep plastic bags out of the environment and waste stream. The bill’s prospects are unclear.

How to boost recycling: D’Altilio said residents need to be educated about what can go into curbside bins, and enforcement is necessary if the rules still aren’t being followed. For example, people sometimes put plastic bags in recycling bins even though they clog up materials processing centers and raise recycling costs. Tittel said many residents also still put recyclables in the garbage, despite the laws requiring separation. If waste haulers started refusing to pick up trash that contains recyclables, people would quickly get the message, he said.

Barriers to recycling: Advocates criticize the Christie administration for diverting recycling taxes to balance the state budget, saying the money should go toward education and recycling subsidies. In 2012 and 2013, the administration reportedly transferred a total of $41 million, though the DEP says the diversions did not affect recycling grants to towns and counties.

Plastics are made of petroleum, and low international oil prices have recently made it cheaper to manufacture new plastic than to use recycled materials. At the same time, China’s huge demand for recycled materials has dropped as its economy has slowed.

As a result, prices for recyclables have dropped, putting financial pressure on municipalities that had previously earned revenue from recycling. The ANJR notes that they are still legally obliged to recycle, however, even if they must pay for the service.

A licensing proposal: Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union) has proposed requiring recycling companies to obtain the same license that waste disposal companies have to get. Currently, recyclers have no licensing requirement. Lesniak made the proposal in response to findings by the State Commission of Investigation that criminal “dirt brokers” have been dumping contaminated debris in residential areas and on environmentally sensitive land.

D’Altilio said the dirt brokers are not classic recyclers and not members of ANJR. He said licensing helped clean up the solid waste industry, but his organization hasn’t taken a position on Lesniak’s bill. Tittel said the Sierra Club has supported a broader licensing requirement since at least 1989, when a recycling facility operating illegally under I-78 in Newark caught fire, damaging the highway.