Interactive Map: Who Does the Best Job Recycling Municipal Waste?

Waste not, want not isn’t the watchword for these communities, but they’ve definitely got the first part down

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Thirty years after New Jersey became the first state in the nation to mandate recycling, it still has not reached the goal of throwing away no more than half the waste generated by residents and businesses.

In fact, after getting off to a good start, and achieving a 45 percent recycling rate in 1995, eight years into the new law, the percentage of recycled municipal solid waste began dropping. The rate bottomed out in 2003 at 33 percent of paper, glass, plastic, batteries, tires, motor oil, food waste, grass, leaves, and some other items generated by homes, schools, and businesses. After remaining low for years, the rate has begun creeping back up this decade, reaching a level of 43 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Still, New Jersey’s recycling rate exceeds that of the nation as a whole — 41 percent of municipal waste recycled in the state in 2014, compared with 35 percent nationally that year (2015 U.S. data are not yet available).

Critics say Gov. Chris Christie’s nearly annual diversion of funds from the state’s Clean Energy Fund to plug holes in the budget is at least partly to blame for New Jersey’s inability to reach its 50 percent recycling goal.

“Christie is stealing the recycling money,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “That money could be used for education.”

The governor, with legislative approval, diverted $236 million from the fund — about 60 percent of its total — to subsidize other spending in last year’s budget. During Christie’s tenure, more than $1.5 billion has been diverted from the fund, which is financed by a surcharge on customers’ gas and electric bills.

New Jersey became the first state to mandate recycling in 1987, back in the days when landfills were closing, waste disposal had become expensive, and an infamous garbage barge filled with trash from Long Island sailed the waters off the East Coast for seven months looking for a home. The Statewide Mandatory Source Separation and Recycling Act set a goal of recycling 50 percent of municipal solid waste and an overall rate of 60 percent, including industries. It also required counties to develop recycling plans including at least three designated materials, as well as leaves.

The state has met its overall goal, recycling 63 percent of all waste in 2015. Of the total 14.9 million tons of material recycled that year, 4.3 million was municipal. The state generated a total of 23.8 million tons of waste, which works out to about 2.7 tons per person. About one-half ton per person represented recycled municipal solid waste.

At one time, the state was generous in giving money to localities to promote and enforce recycling. There was a time when trash collectors refused to take a bag left at curbside if it obviously contained items required to be recycled — early on, these were typically glass, cans, and newspapers. But when those funds were cut, and as trash disposal costs dropped, enforcement efforts lessened or disappeared altogether, contributing to the drop in recycling rates even as communities began recycling more and more materials.

DEP officials are confident of reaching the 50 percent recycling goal for municipal solid waste and continue to fund local recycling efforts. Earlier this month, they announced $14.3 million in grants to nearly every municipality in the state. The grant program is funded by a $3 per-ton surcharge on trash disposed at solid-waste facilities and the amount of money a community receives is based on the materials it collects and recycles. Money can be used to pay for recycling coordinators, education outreach, and curbside pickup programs.

“We are very proud of the many cities and towns across the state that continue to increase their recycling rates,” DEP Commissioner Bob Martin said in a statement announcing the grants.

A majority of municipalities boosted the amount of municipal waste they recycled last year, with 35 communities at least doubling their recycling tonnage.

Some municipalities are more aggressive recyclers than others. Teterboro in Bergen County registered the largest amount of recycled tons per capita of any municipality in the state — 59.3 tons. Six other communities recycled at least 10 tons per person: Cranbury, Pine Valley, Woodbridge, Mantoloking, South Hackensack, and Oldmans Township. Some of these rates may be high because of significant business recycling added compared with a relatively small population. Twenty-six communities of various size and type throughout the state recycled less than one-half pound of municipal solid waste per person.

Four counties — Cumberland, Gloucester, Morris, and Salem — already have met the 50 percent goal for recycling municipal solid waste, with Cumberland leading all counties in disposing of just 41 percent of trash. Passaic and Somerset tied for the worst rates — 31 percent of trash. Middlesex County recycled by far the largest total proportion of waste — 81 percent of both municipal and industrial and construction waste or a total of 3.3 million tons recycled. It also generated the most waste — nearly 4.1 million tons. Warren County created the least waste, 181,535 tons, and recycled a total of 56 percent of that, with a municipal waste recycling rate of 35 percent.

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