WOODBINE — Inside Cape May County’s recycling facility is a constant clatter of crinkling aluminum, breaking glass and moving machinery that sorts tons of waste each day.
Linda Crumbock shouts over the noise to explain plans to improve this system so all recyclables can be thrown into one curbside container, a process called single-stream recycling that she expects to boost collection rates and save taxpayers money.
“The biggest incentive for towns to do this is that the more people there are recycling, the less they’re going to put in their trash and the less they’re going to spend on disposal fees,” said Crumbock, the county’s recycling coordinator.
When Crumbock and other officials talk about the importance of recycling today, they do so more from an economic rather than environmental perspective. They mention how recycling generates money, and how disposing garbage into landfills costs money.
New Jersey became the first state in the nation to make recycling mandatory 25 years ago, but people here actually recycle a lower percentage of their waste today than they did in the mid-1990s.
In 1995, about 45 percent of all municipal solid waste in New Jersey was recycled. In 2010, the latest year of statewide data available, that number was 40 percent.
Over that time, the rate dropped as low as 33 percent, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Those rates are different than the total recycling rate, which often includes the recycled waste from road projects and agricultural waste that can make the percentage much higher.
Single-stream recycling has been shown as an effective way to boost those rates. Both Atlantic and Ocean counties already have single-stream programs, with Ocean making the switch in 2010.
“If you compare the last full year we were dual-stream to the first year we were single-stream, there was an overall increase of 24 percent in the tons that were brought to the facility,” said Ernie Kuhlwein, director of solid waste management in the county.
The numbers behind recycling rates are far from perfect, though. Waste that’s technically collected in one town or county can be assigned to the wrong place when it’s dumped, and much of it may be underreported.
“To get a recycling rate, you have to have how much trash was collected and how much recycling was collected, but the system is self-reported,” said Rick Dovey, president of the Atlantic County Utilities Authority. “In the trash business, that’s a lot of trust, and there are a whole lot of reasons that people wouldn’t report accurately.”
Dovey said that since the state charges tax on trash that’s collected — a $3-per-ton fee that helps to pay for recycling programs — private haulers have an incentive not to declare everything they are collecting.
It is also incumbent upon municipalities hiring recycling coordinators to find out how much waste is being trashed and recycled from both homes and businesses, something Dovey said is done with varying degrees of diligence.
“Few make it their top priority,” he said. “There is not uniform reporting.”
Aside from those issues, volatile commodity markets can affect how much money is made with governments and contractors trying to resell the recyclables they collect.
In 2009, prices dropped so low because of a nationwide slump in construction and worldwide economic turmoil that many recyclers chose to store their recyclables rather than sell them at such low values.
Those problems were exacerbated for single-stream collectors. Since all materials are combined in one container, they inevitably leave residues on each other, leading to a less pure product in the end.
A major problem in this process, for instance, is crushed glass getting embedded in paper. The more of it there is, the harder it is for a buyer to turn that paper into a new product, and the less they would be willing to pay for it.
Newer technology has made the sorting of these materials more efficient, and Crumbock described how she expects Cape May County’s new system would likely work.
First, workers would sort out the heavy metals and rigid plastics, like toys and five-gallon buckets, that cannot pass through the machines. They also remove lower grade plastics — the types with numbers three through seven stamped on their bottoms.
Then the materials go through a series of rotating screens where cardboard travels overtop while plastics, metals and glass drop underneath. A second set of screens further separates paper from the mix.
At the end of the line, there is an optical screener that detects pigment in plastics and divides them further from the glass and metals. There are still employees on hand to physically sort anything that’s not filtered by the machines.
All this would be more than a year away. The county is currently polling all 16 of its towns to see if they would be willing to transition to the new system, and if a majority consent, then the county will go ahead with the plan.
The project is expected to cost about $4 million to overhaul the facility off Route 610 in Woodbine, but officials plan to make up those costs through the sale of a higher quantity of recyclables.
For the past decade, the county’s rates have been on par with the state average, but Crumbock said there is much room for improvement, particularly considering the huge amount of visitors Cape May sees each year.
“Everyone now is visiting us from single-stream communities, and they say, ‘Woah, I don’t do it this way,’“ she said.
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