When Southold Town switched to single-stream recycling in 2014, the benefits outlined were multi-fold: A projected increase of 20 percent in recycling, decreased costs on the overall cost of garbage disposal and added convenience for residents.
Four years later, while recycling has increased, according to solid waste coordinator Jim Bunchuck, unintended consequences and changes in the global market may force Southold Town to reconsider how it approaches recycling.
Mr. Bunchuck met with the Southold Town Board earlier this month at a work session and expressed the need to look deeper into how recycling is handled in Southold. Part of the concern stems from changes overseas. In January, China began a ban on imports of various types of plastic and paper as part of an anti-pollution campaign. China used to take a large amount of contaminants, or non-recyclables, which encouraged municipalities to switch to single-stream recycling, but since it is trying to develop its own recycling market, the U.S. is left with unsold materials.
“It used to be ‘when in doubt, throw it out,’ and now it’s ‘when it doubt put it in the recycling bin,’ ” Mr. Bunchuck said. “Now that we’re relying on domestic markets, they’re much more picky and they don’t want that waste, so it’s costly.”
Although single-stream recycling increased the amount of recyclables received, it also increased the amount of unrecyclable materials that ended up in the mix. In 2012, before single stream was implemented, Southold measured about 2,829 tons of cardboard, cans, glass, plastic, and paper. In 2015, that number went up to 3,127 tons, according to Solid Waste District annual reports.
He said in an interview that residents should be aware changes may come soon.
A consequence of single stream is that glass breaks very easily as it passes through the system and it gets caught up in the paper and cardboard sections.
In 2008, an estimated 600 tons of glass were taken in at the Southold Transfer Station, and that number has likely increased due to the boom of the wine industry. The town does not have exact numbers since single-stream recycling was introduced because glass has not been measured separately.
In the first full year of single-stream recycling, the town had a net savings of approximately $30,000, according to a Southold Town Solid Waste District annual report from 2015.
“I think initially there might be an effort to separate glass from the single stream, but we haven’t been told to do that yet,” Mr. Bunchuck said. “What they’re really asking people to do is to clean up the recycling stream, and the phrase they’re using is ‘recycle right.’ ”
“Recycle right” is something residents can expect to hear as part of a public awareness campaign aimed at encouraging people to avoid putting materials in the recycling bin that aren’t on the official list. When they do, it slows down the sorting process and jams up equipment.
Mr. Bunchuck has joined the recycling subcommittee of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Long Island Solid Waste Management Council. Its goal is to report findings about recycling in municipalities by the end of October. After that, the town and state will decide if new guidelines should be set.
Southold has an inter-municipal agreement with the Town of Brookhaven, which has agreed to pay $15 per ton of recyclables until 2024. That generates about $43,000 of revenue annually for Southold.
“We haven’t been told that’s in jeopardy yet, but I think, given what we see happening, I don’t want to automatically count on that again next year,” Mr. Bunchuck said. “We’re probably going to change that revenue line in the budget.”
Mr. Bunchuck said it’s conceivable that at some point in the future there will be more sorting, and that perhaps a dual-stream system, as was used in years past, would work better.
“In a sense you can see why that is helpful, because everything is all sorted; but on the other hand, a lot of people don’t want to go to that effort,” he said. “Recyclables will get thrown in the garbage because people don’t have the space or the time to do all that sorting.”
Photo caption: The Southold Transfer Station, where residents dump trash and recyclables, clearly states ‘No Plastic Bags.’ However, that is one of the most common contaminants in the recycling stream.