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NY orders Town of Tonawanda to resume recycling halted over Covid-19

State environmental officials have ordered the Town of Tonawanda to stop allowing sanitation workers to dump trash and recycling materials into the same trucks, authorities told The Buffalo News on Friday.

Concerns over worker safety and Covid-19 led town officials to temporarily suspend its recycling program two weeks ago, Town Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger said. Materials that residents left in their recycling totes were mixed with the garbage.

But after some town residents who strongly support recycling complained to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the town agreed to stop the practice, Emminger said.

“At the direction of the DEC, we’ll go back to our old ways on Monday,” Emminger said. “We made the change because we were making worker safety our top priority, and I still feel we did the right thing. But the DEC has their job to do, to protect the environment. ... I’m not going to fault them.”

A spokesman for the DEC said the agency has "been in contact with multiple municipalities where collection of wastes and recyclables has been impacted" by Covid-19 issues.

"DEC communicated with Tonawanda officials who were unaware the reductions made to their waste management schedule were not required under New York on PAUSE. Tonawanda expects to resume their regular recycling schedule on Monday," the stage agency said.

PAUSE is a program announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month. The PAUSE program required nonessential businesses in the state to shut down, but state officials said the collection of trash and recycling is deemed essential.

It is not known whether any other communities in Western New York have taken similar actions, but dozens of communities throughout the United States have recently suspended recycling programs to lessen the chances that sanitation workers will become exposed to the Covid-19 virus.

More than 50 municipalities, including Miami, Fla., Birmingham, Ala., and Savannah, Ga., suspended their recycling programs because of the pandemic, according to Waste Dive, a national newsletter for the waste and recycling industry.

In New York City, more than 350 sanitation workers have tested positive for Covid-19 and one of those workers died, according to the industry newsletter.

Tonawanda’s highway superintendent, Thomas C. Jones, said he was trying to protect employees last month when he suggested a temporary suspension of recycling.

“It is a safety issue. I wanted to minimize the amount of times that our workers actually have to touch garbage or recycling materials,” Jones said.

During a typical week, workers pick up trash and recycling totes from about 25,000 homes or businesses, Jones said. On average, he said, workers pick up 450 tons of trash and 55 tons of recycling each week.

Most of that material is automatically loaded into trucks after workers connect garbage or recycling totes to the rear of the truck. Usually, separate trucks are used for garbage pickups and recycling pickups. Garbage and recycling materials are then sent to different facilities, Jones said.

Workers who pick up recycling are required to examine items as they are deposited from each tote into the rear of the truck.

“If the worker sees any item that is not recyclable, he has to reach into the hopper of the truck and pull it out,” Jones said.

Those items removed from the trucks are then put into a customer’s garbage tote or left lying on the ground next to the customer's tote, Jones said.

“What we are trying to minimize is the number of times our workers have to reach into the hopper and pull these items out by hand,” Jones said. He said that happens “hundreds” of times each day.

About 42 workers a day – including drivers – work on garbage or recycling pickups each day, Jones said.

Jones and Emminger said they do not know of any other municipalities in the Buffalo area that have temporarily suspended recycling programs.

By far the region’s largest trash and recycling operation is in the City of Buffalo. City officials said they have continued normal trash and recycling pickups but have temporarily stopped large bulk trash pickups.

So far, officials are not aware of any Buffalo sanitation worker who has been diagnosed with Covid-19, city spokesman Michael DeGeorge said on Friday.

According to Jones, dozens of town residents complained after seeing town workers dumping trash and recycling materials into the same trucks.

He and Emminger said they understand the concerns.

“We support recycling. It is important. We love our recycling program,” Emminger said.

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