Officials across state struggle with loss of recycling markets

The borough of Chatham, with a population of just under 9,000, is struggling with a problem that’s become common across the country: how to get rid of recyclables.

In a matter of years, towns have gone from getting paid for the bottles, cans, newsprint and other recyclables left at the curb by their residents — about $10 a ton — to paying $70 a ton or more to have it taken away.

“It is definitely a shock to the system,” said Jocelyn Mathiasen, the council president in the Morris County community. “We ended up having to raise the prices that we charge for garbage collection.”

“Over the past 10 years New Jersey has really hit a recycling crisis,” said Randall Solomon, executive director of Sustainable Jersey. “I’d say we as a state and as a country — even the world — are at a critical juncture.”

A decade ago, most towns required residents to separate their recyclables into multiple bins. But in an effort to boost recycling participation, many municipalities switched to a single-stream system, where everything is commingled in one bin, to be sorted later at recycling facilities.

But experts say residents have become more lax about what they put in the recycling bin, and the wet paper, greasy pizza boxes, dirty jars and other contaminants that get mixed in can turn a batch of recyclable materials into worthless garbage.

In hindsight, it’s turned out to be a significant problem, says Gary Sondermeyer, vice president of operations for Bayshore Recycling, one of the largest recycling companies operating in the Northeast, selling clean, sorted material for use in new products.

“It’s really the floor of the New York Stock Exchange,” Sondermeyer said. “Recycling is, in fact, a commodities exchange.”

Recycling companies have relied on international markets like China, which once took in nearly half the world’s recyclable waste but eventually balked at the flood of contaminated material.

“China finally took a position ‘enough is enough of that,’ and then other countries have followed suit,” Sondermeyer said. “So, in a nutshell, there’s been a collapse of international markets and we’re all competing to use the domestic markets that exist.”

In response, some local officials are taking steps to force residents to clean up their recycling act.

Hoboken made the switch back to a dual recycling system last year to try to decrease contamination.

“In January we stopped collecting any material that was put at the curb incorrectly,” said Jennifer Gonzalez, chief sustainability officer for the Hudson County city. “The material we’re sending is much more profitable – it’s clean, it’s dry and it’s separate. We estimate we could save up to $200,000 per year.”

Chatham has gone a different route, although it too is looking to change the behavior of residents.

“The entity that currently collects our recyclables has invested a lot of money in sorting facilities and everything that’s required,” said Mathiasen. “So it would actually be very costly for them to go back to dual stream and I’m not sure that would solve the problem.”

The next step for the borough is instituting a “tag and leave” program, which means that workers will leave contaminated loads at the curb and tag them with an explanation for the homeowner.

“If they can see plastic bags or Styrofoam or something else not allowed in your recycling, they’ll just leave it with a note explaining why they’re not picking it up,” Mathiasen added. “There’s a lot of studies that shows that’s the only thing that changes behavior.”

Potential fixes are also in the works at higher levels of government. In Trenton, lawmakers have passed a bill aimed at identifying new recycling markets.

The federal government is working on solutions, too.

“Really for about the first time in memory — 40 years of doing this — the federal government is looking at a number of significant recycling bills that could be game changers to jump start the whole industry,” he added.

The measures would help rebuild the recycling infrastructure by building more processing plants, paper mills and glass facilities to offset the loss that’s caused the crisis.