This is a problem that won’t go away

HUDSON—News flash: What you put into the blue recycling bin doesn’t necessarily get recycled, and it hasn’t for a long time.

A talk Tuesday with Jolene Race, director of the Columbia County Solid Waste Department, confirmed what many have suspected. Ms. Race, a Columbia County native, is something of a county recycling historian, having joined the Solid Waste Department in 1990, when recycling first started in the county.

“It just grew and grew,” she said of the recycling effort over the last 28 years. “‘We can add this!’ we said. ‘We can add that!’ But we never really had a stable market to take it to. I knew that at some point it would explode.”

When recycling is “shipped out” to other countries, she said, the problem feels solved, “but no one is monitoring where it’s going to. It pollutes the ocean, it pollutes other countries.

“Recycling is a feel-good behavior,” said Ms. Race, who recycles, “and we got carried away. With anything excessive, that’s what happens.”

Today, she said, Columbia County is “going back to the basics,” curtailing recycling to what the processors will actually accept.

For containers, she said, it’s “bottle, jug, tub, jar.”

That’s it.

As for those little numbers at the bottom of plastic containers, “back in the day, when the number system started, manufacturers created a system of seven numbers,” said Ms. Race. “They wanted to look like they were taking responsibility.”

Today the county is trying to get away from the number system, but acceptable plastics are numbers 1, 2 and 5. As long as they are at the bottom of a bottle, jug, tub or jar.

As for paper, the fine difference is between glossy—magazines and mailers, which are recyclable—and waxed—found on take-out coffee cups (even paper ones) and bowls; that’s garbage.

If in doubt, throw it out. “We’re getting 80% garbage anyway,” said Ms. Race.

As if learning that the days of “aspiration” recycling are over (“It’s plastic, put it in the recycling bin”) weren’t bad enough, county residents face paying for recycling.

“The county is exploring options to help offset the cost of recycling,” said Ms. Race. “Nothing is for free, and the county is paying a lot for recycling. There’s no market, and costs for transportation and processing are high.”

The county Board of Supervisors Public Works Committee would start the discussion on recycling fees.

“Down the road, when the market changes, we may not have to charge,” said Ms. Race. In the meantime, “if you’re not willing to pay, put it in the garbage. A lot of people will disagree with me. They want to save the environment. But recyclers are going to have to help offset the cost of recycling.”

The charge cannot be added to the tax base, she said, because not everyone uses the transfer stations. Some people pay a private hauler that also takes their recyclables. Increasing the tipping fee–the charge for dumping–for garbage does not seem like a solution either. “You’re not teaching people anything, you’re not solving the problem and contractors that dispose only of garbage should not have to pay for other people’s recycling.”

The county has agreements with the City of Hudson and the Town of Greenport, in which the municipalities are charged a flat rate based on their tonnage. “It’s a large quantity,” Ms. Race said about the tonnage. “If the price goes up, they can look for another, cheaper option.”

If county recycling sounds confused, “New York State is in turmoil,” said Ms. Race. She recently attended a state-sponsored meeting of more than 100 stakeholders, on the future of recycling. “A lot of counties feel that New York should establish a statewide protocol,” she said. “We’re waiting to see what the state would do to help, but they’re not moving fast. They’re overwhelmed.”

In general, she said, recycling is “overwhelming. People recycle everything or nothing. Manufacturers will have to start making products that are truly recyclable.”

And that mountain of refrigerators at the Greenport transfer station? “A number of different markets scrap them and extract the Freon,” said Ms. Race. “They’re harder to handle—we can’t crush them because of the Freon—so we have to hold onto them until we can deliver them somewhere.”

The mountain is partly re result of today’s disposable economy. “People used to keep a refrigerator for 20 years,” said Ms. Race. “Now it’s more like five.”

The whole waste stream is changing she noted, adding, “in solid waste, you never know what will happen. It’s frustrating, but also stimulating—every day is an adventure. It keeps my job interesting.”

Editor’s note: The Columbia County Recycling Protocol chart published here last week is available online at columbiapaper.com and at columbiacountyny.com.

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