During the 2019 holiday season the United States Postal Service shipped an estimated one billion cardboard boxes full of electronics, polystyrene foam, and miles of plastic.
Now add that piece of information from a recent New York Times study to other articles and reports and alarm bells go off.
For example, the United States Environmental Protection Agency figures Americans generate 25 percent more waste in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than at any other time of year.
That adds up to an additional one million tons per week that contributes to the latest EPA total municipal solid waste estimate: 267.8 million tons or 4.51 pounds per person daily.
Now figure in what the EPA says is a rapidly growing segment of municipal solid waste: plastic containers and packaging. They weigh in at over 14 million tons a year.
And since that is only what the EPA can measure, it’s clear that plastics are becoming an increasing environmental concern for the 21st century.
That argument is supported by a National Geographic document that says some 18 billion pounds of plastic waste escape the dump site and flow into the oceans from coastal regions every year.
Some results of plastics in our water systems are already known: miles of plastic islands in our oceans and animals strangling on plastic carriers or dying because of ingesting pounds of plastic bags.
But others are not. As National Geographic notes, over time, waterborne plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, called micro plastics, and have started to turn the world’s oceans into what scientists call a “plastic soup.”
The soup in turn is eaten by fish, shrimp, and mussels that will ultimately be consumed by humans.
The result? Who knows.
Contributing to the situation is the reality that less than one-fifth of the world’s plastic gets recycled. And in the United States, it’s only 9 percent.
And as bad as the above is, the problem is expected to get worse.
Since January, 2018, China, formerly the major importer of the world’s plastic waste, has instituted a ban on it. This has left municipalities all over the United States in a bind.
According to Dan Napoleon, director of Mercer County Improvement Authority’s environmental program, there is a cyclical element that affects recycling. “Recycling is market-driven. So there’s a market for the materials. There’s a lot of material out there that is not recyclable. So there’s no market for that, and it’s not being recycled.”
So how is recycling in our region working now?
Napoleon points to the New Jersey Statewide Mandatory Source Separation and Recycling Act of 1987, which made municipal recycling a state law.
It requires the state’s 21 counties to develop recycling plans that mandate the recycling of at least three designated recyclable materials, in addition to leaves.
County recycling plans were also required to designate the strategy to be utilized for the collection, marketing, and disposition of designated recyclable materials. It’s up to each county to decide how they want to implement these requirements, and they have various approaches.
In Mercer County, the recycling pickup is contracted to the private waste removal company, Solterra Recycling Solutions.
Mercer County Improvement Authority contracts the service on behalf of nine towns: Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell Borough, Hopewell Township, Princeton, Lawrence Township, Pennington, Trenton, and West Windsor.
In the other towns, the recycling is directly controlled by the municipality, but they also contract with Solterra.
As a private for-profit company, Solterra keeps whatever revenue it generates from the sale of the recyclable products. But since the Chinese ban, it is getting harder to make a profit from recycling.
Municipalities all over the United States and the companies they contract have responded to this by getting more selective about what items they will and won’t take and the quality of the items. Some municipalities in other states stopped taking certain items all together.
Mercer County, fortunately, hasn’t had to do that, but it has to double down on efforts to educate residents about what can and can’t go in the bins.
This is because contamination has become a much bigger issue since the Chinese ban. China has additionally adopted much more stringent purity standards for the materials it does still accept.
Residents need to make sure the bottles and cans are clean before they put them out and never put them into plastic bags. Pizza boxes are another especially big issue. Though the county does accept cardboard, pizza boxes are not acceptable because the cheese and grease makes them unusable.
Plastics bags — recently in the news because several New Jersey municipalities and one county have banned them — are a problem because they jam the sorting equipment in the recycling facilities. Solterra and many other recycling companies avoid them all together.
“A lot of residents put their material in a plastic bag for various reasons. But when it’s collected and goes to the recycling processing facility, it’s not opened. It could have 100 percent clean recycling in it, but the processing plant bypasses that and that material goes to the landfill,” Napoleon says.
He urges residents to take the bags to one of the various grocery stores in the area that collect them.
According Napoleon and county information, Mercer County takes paper, cardboard, glass containers, aluminum, and certain types of plastic.
County officials also encourage residents to download an app called Recycle Coach. The app, used by municipalities throughout New Jersey, tells users what can and can’t be recycled in their town. It also displays a calendar with pickup dates and alerts users about special collection events.
All recyclable plastic containers are marked on the bottom with numbers 1 through 7 to indicate the type of plastic it is and what it can be turned into.
Mercer County, along with some other municipalities, will only accept numbers one and two plastics, the type used in most drink bottles, milk jugs, and shampoo and conditioner bottles.
While other plastic types are equally recyclable, municipal recycling programs shy away from those because they aren’t as profitable.
Even before the Chinese ban, the scope of government-mandated recycling has always been limited. The law doesn’t require municipalities to recycle the full range of items that actually can and need to be recycled. So the municipalities (and the waste removal companies they contract) only deal with the most popular and profitable items.
But what about other options?
Several private companies and nonprofit organizations are picking up the slack.
Perhaps the best known of these is fast-growing recycling focused business TerraCycle.
Located in Trenton, the company got its start in 2001 making fertilizer from leftover food and became well known for its collection brigades that took waste products such as Capri Sun drink pouches and Target bags and made them into reusable tote bags.
The publicly traded company is now a global leader in developing and manufacturing products made from traditionally difficult-to-recycle materials.
It has also launched initiatives to collect non-recyclable waste for reuse. One is its Points Program, where members select a specific product or brand, forward the reusable materials related to the product, and gain points that translate to income for charitable organizations.
Another is the Zero Waste Box Program that the company says “provides solutions for difficult-to-recycle waste that cannot be recycled through one of our free programs or through regular municipal recycling.” The program requires a member to purchase a specific type of waste box that, once, filled can be forwarded to TerraCycle. Some of the accepted materials listed on the website include batteries, gum, plastic cups, power cords, sandwich bags, shoes and flip-flops, and various toys, including stuffed animals.
In 2019 TerraCycle also launched The Loop, a program that eliminates the trash component associated with everyday consumer products (U.S. 1, January 30, 2019).
Based on the old idea of a milk or bread delivery, The Loop delivers products like toothpaste, detergent, and mayonnaise to consumers’ homes via UPS. But instead of being in their usual disposable packaging, Loop products are in reusable containers. And the deliveries come not in a cardboard shipping box, but in a re-usable tote. When customers are done with the product, they put the empty container back in the tote and leave it on their doorstep for shipment back to TerraCycle, which sends the customer a replacement product right away. In some cases, customers can take empties back to a store instead of shipping.
The consumer also pays a small deposit for the sturdy container, which they get back if they choose not to have it refilled. TerraCycle is partnering in the experimental program with brands like Tide, Crest, Pantene, Axe, Dove, and others. Major manufacturers of consumer products, such as Unilever, are looking at the Loop as an experiment to see whether consumers will buy into the idea.
TerraCycle also provides information on how individuals and families can deal with waste through publications such as “Make Garbage Great: The TerraCycle Guide to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle,” “Outsmart Waster: The Modern Idea of Garbage and How to Think Our Way Out of it,” and “Revolution in a Bottle: How TerraCycle is Eliminating the Idea of Waste.”
Preserve, a plastics company in upstate New York, also lets residents recycle plastic items that would otherwise go to landfills through its Gimme 5 program. The name refers to number five plastics, not accepted by Mercer County and many other municipalities. It’s the more rigid type of plastic that most yogurt cups and food containers, such as dip tubs and prepared meal containers, are typically made of.
The company makes kitchenware and personal care items like toothbrushes and razors out of 100 percent recycled plastic.
Residents can bring number five plastic items to the Whole Foods on Route 1 in West Windsor to be collected as part of the Gimme 5 program. Residents can also drop off number five plastics for this program at the Pennington Farmers’ Market, held the last Saturday of the month from June to October in front of Rosedale Mills on Route 31.
The company also accepts number five plastics by mail and has a toothbrush take-back program where you get a $6 coupon if you send back six of their used toothbrushes.
In Hopewell Borough a boutique called Seeds to Sew sells an assortment of gift items, clothing, and tote bags made out of recycled materials by women in Kenya. The nonprofit organization teaches them basic sewing and business skills. They are especially known for their Kitenge gift wrap bags, which are a reusable alternative to wrapping paper.
A conglomerate of local nonprofit organizations, coalitions, commissions, and volunteer groups is also taking up the call for sustainability. Founded 10 years ago, Sustainable Jersey facilitates collaboration between all of these, and also the formation of many new ones. The Ewing-based organization offers voluntary certifications and awards for New Jersey municipalities to develop programs to encourage sustainability.
Sustainable Jersey also provides grant money and training programs for municipalities and schools to start programs to encourage sustainability. Its goals are reducing waste, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and improving environmental equity. Funding comes from private foundations and corporate sponsors.
According to Sustainable Jersey’s website, 452 New Jersey municipalities are currently participating in its programs with 216 having received a certification. Municipalities receive either a bronze or silver-level certification by earning varying amounts of points for specific environmentally friendly actions.
Through its certificate program, Sustainable Jersey rewards municipalities for action over rhetoric. As the organization notes, “certification must be accompanied by documentary evidence and will be reviewed by the project partners. Only efforts that meet the standards described in the actions will be accepted and counted toward certification.”
Municipalities can choose from 150 actions that include ordinances, programs, policies and procedures, and facility improvements. To assist municipalities in their efforts toward certification, each action has detailed resources and step-by-step “how to” directions for completing the action
Sustainable Jersey’s website also provides community actions that include setting up programs to recycle items above and beyond what the law requires, installing solar panels on public buildings, or setting up a community gardens.
One requirement for certification is the formation of something called a green team responsible for implementing the actions. Each municipality appoints two to four unpaid volunteer members, typically people who have previously served on its governing body.
Joann Held is the chair of the Hopewell Valley Green Team — with members from Hopewell Township and Borough and Pennington Borough — and the only Hopewell Valley representative involved with the Mercer County Sustainability Coalition, an organization separate from Sustainable Jersey.
According to Held, “Even among the Mercer County Sustainability Coalition, most people are representing their green team, but some are also on their environmental commission, or there’s also a
n organization called Sustainable Lawrence and then there’s Sustainable Princeton, which are both nonprofits.”
The volunteers have a variety of backgrounds and experience, and she appreciates that. “It’s actually is really helpful to us because we get lots of different input and insight from lots of different kind of work.”
Held worked in air pollution control for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection for 26 years. After retiring the Pennington resident became a member of the Pennington Environmental Commission. When the municipality decided to form its green team, she was appointed to serve as chair by the Pennington Borough council.
A main focus of the Hopewell Valley green team is recycling education. “The county puts out one little chart. It’s a nice little chart, but not everyone has it, and they know that they can call us any time or look at our website and get more details about what should go into the bin and what shouldn’t,” Held says. The also team compiles a list of places where you can take recyclable items that are not accepted by the county, and they hold collection events for those items throughout the year.
There are many recyclable items the green team wants people to know about. A very important one is Styrofoam, the brand name for polystyrene foam. It can be costly to recycle because small amounts of it take up a lot of truck space because of its high volume-to-weight ratio. But there are places in New Jersey that will take Styrofoam and turn it into either fresh Styrofoam containers or picture frames. Packing peanuts are accepted at UPS stores for reuse. Places that accept polystyrene foam are Princeton Molding in Somerville, FoamPack industries in Springfield, and Raybob Packaging in Bristol, Pennsylvania.
Another issue is electronic waste. “When you get gifts you probably have stuff you are going to get rid of, like electronics,” Held says. The Mercer County Improvement Authority runs an electronic waste collection event several times a year. This year collection days are scheduled for Saturdays, March 28, June 6, and September 19, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Dempster Fire School in Lawrence.
Toys are another item that can be recycled. “If your children are getting a ton of new toys, and you have old toys that you want to get rid of that are pretty good, there are places that will take those toys and collect them and give them to kids who could use them,” Held says. One such organization, called Second Chance Toys, has collection locations throughout central New Jersey.
The Hopewell Valley Green Team also collects wine bottle corks and CD/DVD discs. They send the corks to a company called Cork Club, which provides free shipping. The corks are then turned into useful objects, such as exercise blocks.
Held says she personally delivers the discs to another company in north Jersey that shreds and extracts useful materials from them. “I have 200 pounds of CDs and DVDs in my garage waiting to be delivered to them next time I go up north. It’s too expensive to mail. People brought them to the collection, so we have to get them up there. But at least we know they won’t go into the trash, so something useful will come out of that,” she says.
Another goal of the team is to focus more on the “reduce, reuse” part of the recycling pyramid.
“We’ve been telling people, ‘you have to start thinking about reduce, reuse. You can’t just be relying on recycling,’” Held says. She also urges people to make less garbage by buying fewer items in the first place and to use reusable containers as much as possible. One obvious example is water bottles. “There’s so many things you can do in your kitchen, where you can reuse things,” she said. “Like today I was just trying to prepare a platter to take to a holiday party and I needed a way to cover it,” she says. She reused a container with a lid.
“We’ve been trying to foster that sort of conversation about the thought process of reduce reuse, so that when you get to the recycle stage, you have less that has to go into your recycling bin to begin with. I think that’s a really important part of the whole process,” Held says.
Community members wanting to be involved in the conversation about difficult-to-recycle products can download the publication, “Beyond the Bucket: A Resource Guide to Recycling Uncommon Objects for the Residents of Mercer County, New Jersey.”
Launched in September, 2019, by the Mercer County Planning Department, the 30-page document lists uncommon or non-curbside pickup items and how and where to dispose of them — and decrease the tonnage of materials that seem to be heading nowhere.
Other topics include county-wide programs, tips on composting, and an overview of the various plastic products, including those that cannot be recycled and are finding their way into our waterways, our lives, and perhaps even our very selves.
“Beyond the Bucket,” www.mercercounty.org
Foam Pack Industries, 72 Fadem Road, Springfield. 973-376-0376. www.foampackindustries.com
Hopewell Valley Green Team. www.hopewellvalleygreenteam.org
Mercer County Improvement Authority. www.mcianj.org
Mercer County Sustainability Coalition. www.mercersustainabilitycoalition.org
Princeton Moulding, 76 Fourth Street, Somerville. 908-291-1180
Raybob Packaging, 6 River Road, Building PP-6, Bristol, Pennsylvania. 215-943-4799. www.raybobpackaging.com
Recycle Coach App. Download from the Google Play Store.
Seeds to Sew International, 16 Seminary Avenue, Hopewell. 609-466-3728. www.seedstosew.org
Sustainable Jersey, Forcina Hall, 3rd Floor, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. www.sustainablejersey.com
Second Chance Toys. www.secondchancetoys.org
TerraCycle, 1 TerraCycle Way, Trenton. 877-787-7017. www.terracycle.com