New Jersey households are recycling less of their waste than they did a few years ago because of a decline in market demand for some materials, China’s recent decision to stop recycling plastic and other materials from overseas, and an increase in the contamination of recyclables because of collections that mix different materials.
Now, the decline in recycling of paper, cardboard, glass, plastic, aluminum and other materials has prompted legislation that would set up a statewide council to find markets for recyclables and stop them ending up in landfills.
The Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee this week combined two bills that were designed to analyze the state’s recycling challenges and recommend ways of reusing more recyclable materials.
The resulting bill (S-3939/3-944) released by the committee on Nov. 18, calls for the creation of a Recycling Market Development Council which would report on best practices to reduce the contamination of recyclables, and recommend ways of stimulating demand for the materials.
Committee chairman Sen. Bob Smith (D, Middlesex and Somerset), said he hopes the council will find a solution to the recycling crisis that has deepened since China stopped taking the rest of the world’s materials in January 2018.
“Recycling is in big trouble in New Jersey just like it is all over the world,” Smith said in an interview. “Once the Chinese said, ‘We’re not taking any more of your crapola,’ the whole world was in trouble.”
Recycling of household waste is down
Smith said the evidence on the state’s current recycling rate is anecdotal rather than statistical, noting that the rate varied widely between municipalities. Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said only about 37% of New Jersey’s household waste is now recycled, down from more than 50% in the 1990s. At the Department of Environmental Protection, the most recent data is for 2016, a spokeswoman said.
The council would investigate how to use more recyclables in new products; how to encourage the use of materials with recycled content, and whether there are ways of stimulating demand for products that are made with recycled materials.
It would also recommend ways of reducing the contamination that results in recyclable materials becoming trash, and identify whether laws or regulations need to change to implement the proposals.
If finally approved by lawmakers, the council would consist of the commissioner of the DEP and the state Treasurer, plus six members of the public, three of whom would have recycling expertise. One would be a member of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, a nonprofit advocacy group.
One of the original bills proposed setting up a recycling task force to address “changing market conditions” and examine the challenges faced by local authorities in collecting and processing recyclables.
Some recyclable material is not actually recycled because it gets mixed with trash and so can’t be reprocessed, Tittel said. He cited a food waste program in Lambertville that is being disrupted by people throwing trash or cigarette butts into the food bins after they are left on the street for collection.
Reduce, reuse, repurpose
While the bill’s supporters are eager to find new markets for recyclables, they would prefer fewer of the materials to deal with in the first place, and that would require educating consumers to cut down on items like water bottles or plastic straws.
“We need to first reduce, reuse, repurpose and then recycle,” Tittel said.
Smith said the proposed recycling council reflects the need to revive recycling by stimulating markets for the materials rather than trying to export the problem. China’s action has forced other countries to accept the fact that they must take care of their own recyclables, he said.
In New Jersey, municipalities are facing higher bills for processing recyclables, and end up dumping some of them in swelling landfills, he said. To end that process, the recycling council will focus the state’s best minds on matching the recyclables with markets that can use them but which haven’t yet identified those sources, Smith said.
The bill is now headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Smith rated its chances of approval at 50-50. But even if it fails there, Smith said he will reintroduce it in the next legislative session.
Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer and Middlesex), one of the sponsors, said many municipalities have suffered from a collapse in markets for plastics and other recyclables, and are now having to pay to dispose of them in landfills rather than using them to raise revenue.
The local challenges are made harder, she said, by people’s confusion over what they can recycle, and what must go in the trash.
“I think what’s happening is that people are either not recycling, or they’re not recycling properly,” Greenstein said.
For example, many people are unsure whether they are allowed to recycle certain kinds of plastics, she said. “I think there’s ignorance out there on what to recycle and how to recycle.”