Mercer County Improvement Authority hopes to reduce costs by educating residents on what can actually be recycled. (Graphic by Stacey Micallef.)

Since 1987, New Jersey state law has mandated recycling, but Mercer County residents can’t seem to figure out what is recyclable and what isn’t. The result has been increasingly contaminated containers and huge increases in recycling costs.

The issue is statewide, and local towns are no exception. According to Chris Rupp, director of public works for Robbinsville Township, the town’s recycling costs “have doubled from $125,000 per year to $250,000 per year.” Dan Napoleon, director of environmental programs at the Mercer County Improvement Authority, says that the cost per household per year now averages around $29, which generates large bills in populous towns.

The major change on the recycling scene, says Frank Fiumefreddo of Solterra Recycling Solutions, is that “the quality of the material we were shipping overseas had gotten to a point that it was unacceptable.” As a result, in 2018, China lowered the minimum allowable percentage of contamination in recycling, throwing the entire recycling industry into crisis. Solterra is the contracted hauler for curbside recycling in Robbinsville and towns served by the Mercer County Improvement Authority.

“They went from maybe five percent, and the new standard was they would not accept any material with greater than one-half of one percent contamination,” Napoleon says. “We saw a 40 percent increase in collection costs as a result.”

Because the biggest contributors to contamination of the recycling stream are plastic bags and pizza boxes, Robbinsville and the Mercer County Improvement Authority are focusing on them in campaigns to reeducate consumers on the how-to’s of recycling.

Plastic bags and any items inside them go directly into the trash at the processing plant.

“It could be 100 percent clean recycling, but it is not opened at the facility,” Napoleon says. Plastic bags that make their way to the sorting line can jam up the sorting machinery and must be removed by hand, which increases costs. Pizza boxes are rejected because any oil that has seeped into the cardboard will remain part of the paper fibers when they get to the pulping process.

Misconceptions abound, and they often come with justifications.

“Some residents think they are doing the right thing by putting the recycling in a bag to contain it from blowing around,” says Napoleon. Or they may not realize that recycled No. 1 and No. 2 plastic needs to be cleaned before being tossed in the bin. Or perhaps people get confused because plastic bags are recyclable through collection programs in area supermarkets.

Some of the mistakes are fairly extreme, but perhaps people are extrapolating from allowed items like glass jars, metal cans, and No. 1 and No. 2 plastics when they put items like plastic toys, broken window glass, coat hangers, bowling balls and frying pans in their recycling cans. “A lot of people think because it has some kind of plastic in it or has a plastic handle, it is recyclable,” says Rupp.

So residents should take heed of important advice from recycling professionals: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Fiumefreddo is convinced that education works and cites a recent New Jersey success story.

“Marlboro Township decided it was not allowing any residents to put plastic bags at the curb, and the quality of the material got tremendously better,” Fiumefreddo says. The absence of plastic bags in Marlboro come with an additional benefit: Solterra haulers can see exactly what is in a recycling container, enabling them to reject a bucket that is contaminated much more easily.

“If we don’t keep educating and letting residents know what can and can’t go in there, it is not going to get better,” says Fiumefreddo.

Robbinsville’s educational outreach on correct recycling has been multifaceted and far-reaching: they have included the recycling changes for plastic bags with everyone’s tax bill; contacted homeowners association representatives; advertised in myriad venues—on the Robbinsville website, at National Night Out, and at the Robbinsville Farmers Market; and put fliers at the Senior Center and Robbinsville Mobile Homes Park.

“We’ve gotten it out to everybody, letting them know the changes, and we have been fielding phone calls every day since,” Rupp says.

On Sept. 1, Robbinsville will begin to enforce the ban on plastic bags. They have designed tags for Solterrra to leave on rejected containers indicating why they have not been emptied. People will then have to wait for the next scheduled recycling day.

“We’re hoping that everyone decides to work with us,” Rupp says. “Once your stuff is not picked up for a couple of weeks and you have no place to dump it, you’ll learn to put it out the correct way.”

The Mercer County Improvement Authority is planning a reeducation campaign that will also culminate in increased enforcement. It will include a one-page piece to residents and will use print and social media and radio.

The campaign will continue over several months so that residents have time to start changing their recycling behavior. “Our ultimate goal is to say, after maybe Jan. 1, ‘Your bucket won’t be collected if you have plastic bags and pizza boxes.’”

The road to learning new recycling behaviors can be rocky, and townships can expect lots of phone calls during the transition. Rupp refers callers to videos on the Robbinsville website that illustrate how plastic bags get tangled up in the machinery, and closed bags get thrown directly in the trash. “It’s not getting recycled so you’re defeating the purpose,” he says.

Although Rupp says he understands people’s frustration and aversion to change, he adds, “If we can clean up our recycling, maybe we can reduce spending and still help the environment … We don’t want to raise taxes to do recycling; now it is almost as expensive as regular trash.”

The Mercer County Improvement Authority does have an enforcement team, but assessing responsibility if a bucket is missed is difficult. It may not be clear whether the hauler was at fault, or they were legitimately skipping a recycling container that contained, say, fluorescent bulbs. And multiple trips by haulers to the same address are expensive.

Fiumefreddo would like to see towns provide their own enforcers who accompany the truck and inspect the cans. “As long as the towns stand behind us, it will be a big success for recycling,” he says.

Unlike most towns in Mercer County, Robbinsville no longer does its recycling through the Mercer County Improvement Authority. When the prior director of public works, Dino Colarocco, made that decision, the motivation was to give Robbinsville officials more control, enabling them to call Solterra directly to determine why stops had been missed.

But Rupp says, “I think that in the long run it might be cheaper to go with a group.” He plans to speak to Napoleon about their options for working with MCIA, but he thinks they are full for the upcoming year.

With China limiting drastically the amount of contamination, Fiumefreddo says, “facilities had to put in more pickers or more technology to clean up the product more, and all that does is drive up the cost for processing.” Furthermore, the decreasing amounts of recycled goods that China is accepting has required diverting them to domestic mills, which pay less than the international ones.

Two years ago, Fiumefreddo says, recycling cost Solterra $55 to $60 a ton to process and today costs are $85 or $90.

“Ultimately, we want to reduce the cost of recycling to our towns, so we have to start somewhere,” Napoleon says. “If we can reduce the amount of contamination, ultimately we can reverse the increase in costs. This didn’t happen overnight, so the correction is not going to happen overnight.”