EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A milk carton sits at the end of a conveyor belt at the Atlantic County Utilities Authority’s recycling plant.
“Please, drink more milk,” Safety Coordinator Areli Fierros-Gomez tells a crowd of visitors to some chuckles.
That’s because the containers can easily and efficiently be converted into new material, unlike a myriad of other items that are no longer accepted for recycling in Atlantic County, thanks to China. She rounded off a list of items that, for the past decade, may have been taken but were recently removed from the list: greasy pizza boxes, aerosol cans and paint containers, to name a few.
Processors in China have for 25 years been the cheap place to send unwanted plastics, but the government last year started rejecting most of America’s recycling and imposing stricter contamination rules. What’s happening to all the leftover waste is different in every city.
In Philadelphia, at least half of the city’s recycling is going to incinerators.
The global shift is impacting Atlantic County, too. About 33,000 tons of material pass through the facility annually, but the ACUA stopped taking some recyclables this year and is sending them to the Egg Harbor Township landfill instead.
“So what do we do? Should we stop collecting some materials?” asked Gary Sondermeyer, vice president of Woodbridge-based Bayshore Recycling and a speaker at Wednesday night’s Sustainable Jersey Hub meeting at the plant.
“We should be talking about it,” he said.
Up until last year, about 45 percent of recyclables went to Chinese processors. That number is close to zero now, said ACUA President Rick Dovey. Cardboard and paper still go abroad, but to places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and India — called the Asian Six.
In December, the authority cut down on items it will take in an effort to reduce contamination and ensure its materials are bought by recycling mills. Contamination refers to any non-recyclable items that end up on the conveyor belts, including plastic and cardboard containers lined with food residue.
“If pizza boxes never had pizza in them, they’d be great,” Dovey said.
Only plastics #1 and #2 that have necks smaller than their bases will be accepted now because they have a chemical makeup manufacturers desire and are sold to domestic mills.
The remaining five types of plastics go to the ACUA’s landfill, which is projected to run out of space in 2026.
Dovey said those extra items aren’t overwhelming the landfill. Fewer than 660 tons of plastic that would otherwise be recycled will be buried in the landfill each year, he said. That’s equal to 2 percent of the total weight of recyclables the ACUA collects annually.
“Our landfill is not going to fill up tremendous amounts all of a sudden,” Dovey said.
The slight increase can be offset by getting people to recycle who currently don’t, Dovey said, through educational programs and stricter enforcement of the rules. Since 1987, New Jersey has had mandatory recycling, but 16 percent of what people throw in the trash is plastics, Sondermeyer said.
Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has different procedures for what can and can’t be recycled.
Making those rules easy to understand is key, especially in shore towns, said Joseph Rizzuto, executive director of the Cape May County Municipal Utilities Authority.
In the summer, Cape May County sees vacationers from other states and countries who may not understand the local recycling program.
“We’re trying to get back to basics. ... We have #1s, #2, #7s, but what are we actually recycling?” he said. “Bottles, jugs, jars and containers. No caps. We want it empty, we want it clean and we want it dry. No plastic bags.”