Long Island struggles to cope with collapsing recyclables market

Cities across the country are struggling to adjust to a major shift in the global recyclables market.

Recycling on Long Island hit a crisis point last year. Now a number of municipalities are trying to adapt to the new market reality.

For decades, the U.S. sold the bulk of its recyclables to China. But in January 2018, China implemented a new policy called "National Sword," which banned the import of most recyclables. Suddenly, municipalities across the U.S. didn't know what to do with all of the plastics and other materials they were collecting.

"We had 800 tons of material on this floor," said Neal Sheehan, the sanitation supervisor for the town of Smithtown.

"It was packed all the way to the other end of the floor, all the way to the rafters," he said of the town's waste transfer center. "We had no place to go with it."

Smithtown is among the local towns stuck with masses of used plastics and papers, and no place to take them. The town previously shipped recyclables to a facility in Brookhaven, but the operator of that facility ceased operations late last year because of the impact of China's ban on the marketplace.

"We were in crisis and we needed to find our way out," said Russ Barnett, Smithtown's Environmental Protection Director. The crisis he says, continues, but is improving.

Many on Long Island switched from single-stream recycling, in which paper, plastic and glass could all be mixed together, back to dual stream, which requires residents to sort paper and cardboard separately from plastic and other materials. Pickups for each category alternate week to week.

Another big change: many towns have stopped picking up glass.

"Glass has been a known problem for the facilities," Sheehan said. "It gets in other recyclables and contaminates other recyclables especially paper and cardboard."

Instead of picking up the glass, Smithtown now has several drop-off locations where residents can bring their glass. The glass is eventually ground down and used as a substitute for gravel to pack an area landfill.

Many towns have also restricted the types of plastic they will collect. Smithtown and a number of others will only recycle numbers 1 and 2 (the numbers found on the bottom of plastic containers).

A big challenge is getting residents to follow the rules and not just throw anything they think is recyclable into their bins, a phenomenon known as "wish-cycling"

"By putting in the things we haven't asked for, often times that ruins the other things that could have been recycled and then all of it needs to be thrown away," Barnett said. Some of the most problematic items are plastic bags, which aren't recyclable and gum up machines.

The changes can be a lot to keep track of for residents, said Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

"If the government wants people to change their behavior, you have to educate people and incentivize them, and we've seen none of that," she said.

For its part, municipalities like Smithtown say they are working to get the word out, and plan to do another round of public education soon. 

But the changes to the way we recycle aren't over. Experts say the market will continue to be volatile until the U.S. comes up with more sustainable ways to repurpose its own used goods.