By Stephen Acquario and Julie Tighe
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli last week warned of the increasing waste management costs facing municipalities and taxpayers. The comptroller’s report brings added light to an issue that local governments and the state Department of Environmental Conservation have been talking about for some time.
Our landfills are nearing their capacity, and China, our major market for recycled material, has stopped accepting our shipments. The combination of these factors requires us to take collective action before it is too late. The health of our environment and pocketbooks depend on us being more vigilant about what we recycle.
Between 15 to 30 percent of what we put in our recycling bins does not belong there. Under a new set of policies, collectively known as National Sword, China will not accept shipments that are more than 0.5 percent impure. This is a standard we cannot meet without changing our recycling habits.
Contamination is the industry term used to describe items that do not belong in the recycling bin or are disposed of in the wrong way. We are contaminating the recycling stream when we leave food residue in containers, place recyclables in plastic bags, or try to recycle items like plastic foam, batteries and coffee pods, none of which are recyclable.
Another factor contributing to the rising cost of recycling is that our facilities are getting older and out of date. Most of the materials recovery facilities in the state are over 20 years old and require investments in new equipment.
So what can we do? First, the state, municipalities, waste management industry and environmental groups need to develop a “cradle to grave” education campaign designed to help residents understand what happens when waste and recycling leaves the curb.
Second, the state should support the capital improvements necessary to bring our recycling infrastructure up to modern standards and capabilities. New York could finance these upgrades that would allow more materials to be diverted from landfills.
Third, companies that put products in the marketplace need to be more responsible for reducing the environmental impact of their products and packaging materials.
Fourth, we need to incentivize market development to reduce our dependency on international recycling markets. With China out of the picture, New York should work with neighboring states to develop markets that will bolster our regional economy and insulate municipalities from future market downturns.
While we cannot stop waste production entirely, we can all be more mindful about our contribution to the waste stream.
Stephen Acquario is executive director of the New York State Association of Counties; Julie Tighe is president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.