In general, mandatory recycling in New Jersey has been a success story since it began 30 years ago.

A large reason is because it has become routine. There’s room for improvement, but for many residents, it has become second nature to separate items that can be reused, resold or repurposed from their trash. Single-stream recycling has made the routine even easier.

Sometimes, however, that routine can become a hindrance to progress. Recent news out of China, which has been the world’s dominant importer of recycled materials for years, is one example.

The Chinese have told the World Trade Organization they will become more strict in the quality of recycled materials they accept. As the growing Chinese economy has increased the amount of home-generated recyclable materials, the government says it will cut the level of contaminants in foreign plastics, paper and other materials it will accept come January.

For New Jersey to continue its recycling success story and achieve the state-mandated goals of recycling 50 percent of municipal solid waste and 60 percent of total solid waste by 2019, New Jersey residents need to be flexible enough in their routines to make sure there is still a market for its reusable goods. The alternatives are more landfills or paying higher and higher rates to ship trash out of state, neither of which is a wise, practical or affordable option.

Most of the plastic the Atlantic County Utilities Authority collects goes to U.S. recycling plants. Its paper and cardboard still go to China, but fortunately, the authority already sorts, by hand or machine, the materials so they meet China’s new contamination standards. Still, the changing marketplace for recyclables puts pressure on even the most well-run facilities to look for ways to improve.

“The future is going to be cleaning up inbound tonnage,” says ACUA Vice President of Solid Waste Brian Lefke. “We are doing pretty well, but we can always do better. It’s a matter of continuing and stepping up education efforts.”

A couple of routines those education efforts will focus on should be easy for residents to adopt:

Breaking the habit of throwing plastic bags in curbside recycling bins should be a fairly easy adjustment. The tons of bags the ACUA gets each month can damage the authority’s machinery or contaminate both plastic and paper bales, causing problems for buyers of the materials. The bags are technically recyclable — supermarkets generally accept old ones. Just get out of the habit of including them with your water bottles, cans and old newspapers.

Even simpler, before tossing a water or soda bottle into the recycling bin, remove the hard plastic cap and trash it. They can cause problems with the recycling process.

New Jersey has developed many good habits when it comes to recycling. Sorting out a few of the habits that are no longer worthwhile will be an important part of maintaining that success, for reasons both economic and environmental.

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