If you’re not recycling in NJ, you’re breaking the law
- Recycling can be a powerful tool to reduce the steady stream of plastic waste that ends up in the ocean.
- A cleaner ocean is key to global environmental health and the safety of the seafood that ends up on your dinner table.
- An expert on the recycling business shared some ideas for improving the process with a group of mostly students at Monmouth University.
- Watch the video above to see how you can help with a minor lifestyle change.
Recycling is one of the best choices you can make to protect against the kind of pollution that is choking the world’s oceans, though in New Jersey recycling isn’t supposed to be an option — a 30-year-old law says you have to do it.
Regulation of the 1987 recycling law was kicked down to the local governments, with counties setting standards on what had to be recycled and municipalities — if they dared — instituting enforcement mechanisms.
“One of the first questions I ask an audience is how many people know that recycling is mandatory in the state of New Jersey. If I get 5 or 10 percent to raise their hand, that’s it,” said Gary Sondermeyer, an executive at Bayshore Recyling in Woodbridge, during a speech Thursday night at Monmouth University. “Enforcement is very soft.”
Sondermeyer was in leadership positions at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for 13 years, including the last 10 as the department’s chief of staff. He has been vice president of operations at Bayshore Recyling, the largest recycling center on the East Coast, since leaving the public sector in 2010.
His presentation followed the New Jersey premiere of the documentary “A Plastic Ocean,” which posits that plastic pollution, especially from single-use products, has become a serious environmental threat.
Researchers from the University of Georgia estimated that 8 million tons of plastic waste entered into oceans in 2010. As much as 245,000 metric tons of plastic — bottles, utensils, straws, pellets, and on and on — were floating on or near the surface of oceans in 2014.
The Asbury Park Press reported in 2015 on the presence of microplastics — some 2.2 million pounds of plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters in diameter — suspended in the North Atlantic, just off the Jersey Shore.
These tiny fragments of plastic, which act like sponges for toxic compounds, are mistakenly identified as food by fish. These fish are in turn eaten by bigger fish, which proceed up the food chain until they reach the top of it: Us.
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The science is too young to draw a link between human poisonings and microplastic ingestion, but experts fear that humans cannot avoid the negative effects of something so pervasive in our oceans.
Sondermeyer had some ideas on how to improve recycling. As he noted in the speech, “it starts with us, trying to make a difference.” Here’s five concepts:
1. Enforce mandatory recycling laws
This would no doubt be controversial.
For this to happen, towns would need to pass an ordinance establishing penalties for not separating out recyclables from the trash. Then they would have to support law enforcement through what would be a difficult political test.
Sondermeyer gave this as a hypothetical: “So you’re the mayor and somebody who is a big supporter gives you a call on the phone: ‘Hey John, what’s going on? I just got a ticket because I had too many recyclables in my waste can. Are you serious?'” He added: “That’s real. That’s what happens, so recycling programs have very little enforcement.”
But is something like that even necessary?
Since the law was passed in April 1987, New Jersey is now recycling 62 percent of the total waste stream.
“Frankly, that’s pretty awesome,” Sondermeyer said. “The national recycling rate is 34 percent.”
- 24.8 percent was food waste
- 21.3 percent was paper, which is recyclable
- 16 percent was plastics, also mostly recyclable
2. Improve recycling opportunities outside of the home
We can’t just be recycling at home, Sondermeyer said. Successful recycling requires a more holistic approach.
“Curbside recycling has been enormously successful,” he said. “Where we’ve fallen down is every time you go to a store, look for recycling containers. You’re not going to find them. Go to hospitals, commercial buildings, schools — schools of all places — you won’t see an opportunity to recycle.”
3. Change the economics of recycling for recyclers
Right now, it’s incredibly cheap to just throw items away.
In Europe, it costs $150 to process a ton of trash at their landfills — twice as much as it does in America, he said.
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For certain types of plastics, basically anything that isn’t a “1” or “2,” it’s hard to find a buyer. If it wasn’t a food container in its previous life, Sondermeyer said, it’s generally referred to in the business as “scrap plastic.”
“Recycling — you know those three arrows,” Sondermeyer said, referring to the universal symbol. “They actually do mean something. The first arrow is collection: We all put stuff out by the curb. The second arrow is collection: That’s Bayshore Recycling, we process all this stuff so you can do something with it. And then the third one is marketing: You’ve got to get paid for it because if you don’t you can’t stay in business.”
4. Make it easier for consumers to separate plastics
Flip over the nearest water bottle and you’ll see a “1” locked in a triangle by three arrows — universal symbol of recycling. But there are seven codes for plastic and which containers go with which codes isn’t always consistent.
“Today, I wanted to look at some plastics around our office. I picked up a yogurt container and it was a No. 5. I said, ‘OK, I guess all yogurt containers are number 5s’,” Sondermeyer told the crowd of about 100. “I swear, I’m not kidding, I picked up a Fage (a yogurt brand) … and it was a 6. So you have 5s and 6s. Is it any wonder that the public gets confused?”
5. Quit using single-use disposable plastics
“You want to reduce, before you recycle,” he said. “That’s the objective, don’t produce it in the first place.”
Look at the inventory that Clean Ocean Action, which organized Thursday’s event, collects during its semi-annual beach cleanups. The top items are always plastic bottles, plastic straws, plastic pieces, including eating utensils, and plastic bags.
Sondermeyer said a ban on plastic bags would be a strong first step.
“In the last legislative session, there were no less than five bills that were proposed in the New Jersey Legislature that would either ban plastic grocery bags or charge a surcharge for using them,” he said.
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Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, firstname.lastname@example.org