Amid Crisis, Lawmakers Take Fresh Look At NJ’s Recycling System

Tom Johnson | August 16, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Some environmental advocates say focus should be on reducing the amount of waste that’s generated

recycling paper
The state Legislature on Thursday looked to examine ways to fix the state’s recycling system, now in such a crisis that some communities pay more to recycle than to dispose of their garbage.

The collapse of the recycling market — not just here in New Jersey, but across the country — was triggered by the collapse of markets in China and elsewhere in Asia to accept recycled materials. The net result is the erosion of the entire sector, increasing costs to local governments and counties and straining already tight budgets.

Industry experts, officials, and environmentalists called on the state not to abandon three decades of recycling mandates but rather to take a new and comprehensive look at how to redevelop recycling markets and create new incentives to revive a sector that employs 27,000 people and adds nearly $6 billion to New Jersey’s economy.

The hearing, before the Legislature’s top environmental committees, is likely to lead to new bills to ban throw-away plastic bags, straws and polystyrene foam containers, a measure vetoed by Gov. Phil Murphy last year, and to recycle food waste, a bill currently on his desk.

Plenty of recommendations

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, said he hopes to pass a stronger plastics ban in the lame-duck Legislature this fall. He also would like to see the improved food-waste bill, which he has sponsored, win passage this year.

“Part of the hearing was to find out how do we reinvigorate our recycling markets. We just don’t have the end markets for recycled materials,’’ Smith said, a perspective repeatedly voiced during the two-hour hearing in Toms River.

To that end, there were plenty of recommendations, primarily revolving around improving practices involving the collection of recyclables and eliminating — or at the very least, reducing — contamination of materials recycled at the curbs. Others suggested more uniform standards of what is recycled and how it is collected.

Others, like Debbie Mans, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said more data needs to be collected on where recycled materials end up and to identify key elements of developing recycling markets.

“Certainly, it is not time to panic,’’ said Gary Sondermeyer, a vice president of a recycling company and former longtime recycling official at the DEP. New Jersey can once again revive its recycling efforts, he said, noting the state built up a nationally recognized recycling program 32 years ago. “We can do it again.’’

New Jersey recycles about 44 percent of the municipal waste collected at curbside, a number above the national average. Still, the collapse of overseas markets in recycled materials has forced towns to scramble to cover unanticipated costs to maintain recycling services to residents, experts said.

Focus on reducing waste

It is going to take a lot of effort, however, according to those working on trying to meet recycling mandates in New Jersey today. New economic incentives may be needed to attract new end markets for recyclables, said Allen Weston, legislative director of the New Jersey Association of Counties.

In the meantime, some municipalities are paying more to recycle than to get rid of their garbage. Colts Neck pays $86 per ton to dispose of garbage, compared to $135 per ton for recyclables, according to Louis Bader, director of public works for the township.

“Why are we paying so much more per ton for recycling than for garbage,’’ Bader said. “I just don’t understand it.’’

But some environmentalists argued the focus should shift beyond recycling to reducing waste.

‘’Ninety-one percent of plastics never get recycled,’’ said Amy Goldmith, state director of Clean Water Action. “We need to make less waste. By creating less waste and more recyclables, municipalities and taxpayers can also save hauling and disposable costs.’’

Dennis Hart, executive director of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, cautioned against imposing new mandates on businesses, particularly in light of signs the economy is contracting. Additional costs to New Jersey businesses will be harmful, Hart said, discouraging investment by their parent companies.