As housekeeping goes, trash is easy — you place it in a plastic bag and inside a plastic carton and a truck arrives and takes it away. But where those trucks end up is vital to the health of the Highlands, and to the planet. The hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage produced by residents each year that can’t be recycled (or can be, but isn’t) must be buried or burned, which contributes to global warming and air pollution. In the final part of our series, we examine what it would take to break through the “plastic ceiling” that’s limiting the effectiveness of recycling.

Recycling is considered one of the few national environmental success stories and has become part of the fabric of our everyday lives.

Also: You’re doing it wrong.

“When in doubt, throw it out,” not into the green bin, says Audie Holt of Republic Services, a fourth-generation trash processor, as we donned hard hats and safety vests and headed into the deafening, cavernous Republic Services recycling center in Beacon.

Holt’s great-grandfather came to the U.S. from Italy in 1898 and made a living by collecting discarded copper in his horse-drawn wagon. Every generation in her family since has been in the trash business. She resisted at first, getting an accounting degree and working on Wall Street, until the pace and excess became too much. “It was the ’80s,” she explains.

Republic processes about 5,000 tons of recyclables from the Hudson Valley each month; the material is sorted, packed and sent to the processors that will break it down. But its staff also spends an excessive amount of time pulling items from the conveyor belt that should not be in the stream.

conveyor
Workers at Republic Services in Beacon pull non-recyclable material from trash as it passes by on a conveyor. (Photo by B. Cronin)

Some of those materials can have serious consequences. The day I visited, the plant had just reopened after being closed for a few days to install technology that puts out fires caused by exploding lithium batteries. Because people keep throwing stuff away even when the plant shuts down, the staff was working its way through a backlog.

Having never thrown a lithium battery into my recycling bin, I felt pretty confident talking with Holt and Dave Kahn, who has managed the plant since it opened 10 years ago. I know they also would appreciate that I had spent time browsing the company website at recyclingsimplied.com. It was there I learned that rinsing my tomato paste cans and peanut butter jars does make a difference.

However, as Holt and Kahn riffed on the common items that can’t be recycled but still end up on the conveyor, my smugness vanished.

Those blue-and-white mailers from Amazon with the big recycling logo on them? Not recyclable. (Oops.)

Shredded paper in a clear plastic bag? Not recyclable. Holt explained that if one of those bags makes it past the pickers, it will explode when it hits the machinery and rain shredded paper. (Oops.)

The paper coffee cups with the plastic lids from chain coffee shops? Because of the coating on the inside of the cups, they’re not recyclable. They go in the trash, although the lids go into the recycling. (I thought the lids were too small to be recycled and had been throwing them away and putting the cups in the recycling. Double oops.)

But there were depths of depravity to which even my recycling habits did not sink.

There were the diapers. Soiled diapers.

“And not just baby ones,” says Kahn as he points out an enormous pile of wet plastic next to one of the conveyor belts.

Holt says that she once spoke to someone who believed the diapers were recyclable because the box had the universal recycle triangle on it (indicating the box can be recycled, not its contents). She also casually mentioned that Republic knows when deer-hunting season has started because carcasses start showing up.

Recycling plant
The Republic Services plant in Beacon processes 5,000 tons of recyclable trash each month. (Photo by B. Cronin)

Thankfully, those stories are outliers. Kahn says that most of what comes into the plant is recycled. He can even find a buyer for the “higher-numbered” plastic containers, although the plastic in those has been recycled several times already and isn’t worth as much. Plastic containers with a 1 or a 2 on them, such as milk jugs, are worth the most.

The efforts at Republic are a key part of New York State’s recently updated solid-waste management plan, which aspires to create a “circular economy” within 25 years that produces little waste. But recycling rates across the state have stagnated. Dutchess’ recycling rate is at 35 percent, in line with the state rate. Putnam’s is 11 percent.

Who pays?

Recycling has become a harder equation in recent years for municipalities. It used to be that the cost of recycling was lower per ton than what they paid for trash pickup. But that began to shift around 2018, when China stopped buying and recycling the world’s discarded plastic and other materials, such as cardboard, and prices dropped. Now it costs as much or more to separate and process recyclables than just to burn or bury everything.

In September, the Beacon City Council added $61,000 to the recycling budget because of those rising costs. Is there a point at which, from a financial perspective, recycling no longer makes sense?

“The market fluctuates, but I haven’t seen the prices go so high that we’d consider suspending recycling,” says Chris White, the city administrator. “People generally do a good job of sorting their recyclables, so we would be hesitant to upset the system. Once you stop or suspend, it would be tough to restart.”

With plastics, there is also a question of whether separating them makes any difference. Less than 10 percent of plastic gets recycled. This week, the Center for Climate Integrity released a report, “The Fraud of Plastic Recycling,” that accuses fossil-fuel companies of pushing plastics despite knowing that 90 percent will have one life. It called on states to take legal action over this “decades-long campaign to deceive the public about plastic recycling.”

At least one attorney general has heeded the call: In November, Letitia James sued PepsiCo for clogging the waterways of Buffalo with single-use plastics.

Who’s responsible?

We are fighting a losing battle with stuff. A chart in New York State’s solid-waste management plan explains that the average American consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. That statistic becomes even more disheartening in the fine print, which indicates the “current” numbers are from 2000 and so don’t reflect 24 years of “fast” (disposable) fashion, online commerce and single-use plastics.

There is an optimistic way of interpreting that data, however.

Our consumption patterns are learned behaviors that can be changed, notes Sintana Vergara, an engineering professor at Cal Poly Humboldt who studies waste management. “Our grandparents didn’t produce a lot of waste; when something broke, they fixed it.”

Trash pile
No system is perfect; Andie Holt of Republic points to a plastic sandwich bag, which can not be recycled, that has ended up being bundled with metal cans. (Photo by B. Cronin)

There are signs that younger generations are embracing that traditional approach, such as the resurgence of thrifting clothes as a trendy alternative and stores such as Cold Spring’s Understory Market and Beacon’s REfill REstore that sell goods in bulk to customers who bring containers. But there needs to be systematic change.

“I could kill myself trying to not throw stuff away, but I would not accomplish as much as I accomplish with advocacy,” says Courtney Williams, a cancer researcher who is a member of the Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions. “It is not a personal moral failing to make garbage. Dedicating your time to changing the system is a much better use of that time than fretting and bending over backward to stop making garbage.”

Last year, Williams was featured in an ABC News documentary, Trashed; the producers placed 46 tracking devices in plastic bags that were discarded in recycling bins around the country. Only a few bags ended up at recycling plants.

In Kingston, a bag dropped in a bin at Target ended up in a landfill. Another bag placed in a bin at Walmart there turned up weeks later in Indonesia, one of the few countries still taking U.S. plastic. A bag left in a recycling bin at Target in Newburgh was burned in the Peekskill incinerator that Williams can see from her porch. “There’s no reason that recyclables should be getting burned,” she says.

State Sen. Pete Harckham, whose district includes parts of Putnam and Westchester counties, notes that, by one estimate, only 14 percent of plastics in New York are being recycled. “It’s not because people aren’t separating it and putting it in the bins,” he says. “It’s because the plastics and the chemicals in them can’t be recycled. We all have our roles to play, but we don’t control the amount and types of packaging that our products come in.”

Harckham is among the sponsors of a bill that would require packaging to be reusable or recyclable and not contain 15 chemicals, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC), PFAS, formaldehyde and mercury. Companies that use packaging that can’t be recycled would be on the hook for the costs of disposal.

“Producers aren’t going to change on their own,” says Alexis Goldsmith of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. “This is why we have emission standards for vehicles and energy-efficiency standards for appliances. We need environmental standards for packaging.”

Where Most Plastics Go

If plastics aren’t recycled locally, and they don’t end up in a body of water such as the Hudson River or the Atlantic Ocean, they make their way to a landfill or an incinerator in Poughkeepsie or Peekskill.

As we explained in Part I of this series, despite the pollution these incinerators create, Dutchess’ recently updated solid-waste management plan says that the county is leaning toward replacing its aging structure with a new one. However, there have been signs the county is reconsidering. In December, just days before his term as county executive ended, William F.X. O’Neil told the Mid Hudson News he planned to stay on until March 31 to advise incoming County Executive Sue Serino on waste management, including, perhaps, “an exit strategy” for the incinerator. (The county declined to make O’Neil available for an interview.)

As for landfills, New York has not created a new one since 2006 and has no plans for more. Ulster County conducted studies for several years to determine if and where it could start one, although any suggestion has been met with fierce public opposition from the residents of any town that gets mentioned as a potential site. That prompted the Ulster County Legislature to attempt to pass a resolution to discourage the county from conducting any more studies, but the vote failed along party lines, with the Democrats voting no. Three months later, the county announced another study.

The closest landfill to the Highlands still in operation, and the largest in the state, is Seneca Meadows, 240 miles away in the Finger Lakes. It’s scheduled to close next year, although its owners are fighting to keep it open, arguing that there’s nowhere else for the trash.

Even if it were to remain open for a while longer, burying trash is not a long-term solution, says state Sen. Pete Harckham, who chairs the Committee on Environmental Conservation. “We need to figure out a better way to deal with our waste.”

California has a law that says whatever is produced must include recycled material, without any chemical bans, which is not as tough as what’s being proposed for New York, Goldsmith says. Even when it contains recycled material, the packaging in California is “still going to the landfill or incinerator once it’s done with. The goal is to keep recycling, keep those materials in circulation.”

The New York proposal has been making the rounds for a few years, but Harckham says it’s in a stronger position during this legislative session because, for the first time, the Senate and Assembly versions are identical. Another piece of legislation, the Bigger Better Bottle Bill, would expand the types of bottles that have deposits and increase the deposit from 5 to 10 cents.

“When I was growing up, if you went to the grocery store and you bought Coca-Cola, you saved those bottles and you took them back to the grocery store the next time you went,” Harckham says. “Coca-Cola picked those bottles up and refilled them. So we’ve already had a circular economy. The goal is to start getting back to that, start using higher recycled content in packaging, and to use less packaging.”

If New York joins California in regulating the content of packaging, it’s likely to have a national impact. “It would certainly get the attention of packaging companies, so that they’d have one standard to comply with,” says Harckham. Goldsmith says several other states are contemplating similar legislation but are watching to see if it can pass in New York.

Such laws could make it easier for counties to come aboard. When I asked Dave Vitale, who directs the Division of Materials Management for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, about the inconsistencies between the state’s waste plan (build a circular economy through 175 concrete action steps) and the plans in Dutchess (keep using the incinerator) and Putnam (last updated in 2010), he noted the difficulties counties and municipalities face to enact sweeping changes, such as making producers change their manufacturing methods.

But if the state passes these laws, creating a “disposal disincentive surcharge,” it means less trash at local incinerators and landfills. “That changes how the counties manage, it changes their funding and what they use their funding for,” he says. “Our big moves will help them make big moves.”

Part 1: What We Burn
Part 2: Can Composting Save Us?
Recycling Guide

Behind The Story

Type: Investigative / Enterprise

Investigative / Enterprise: In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

The Skidmore College graduate has reported for The Current since 2014 and writes the "Out There" column. Location: Beacon. Languages: English. Areas of Expertise: Environment, outdoors

Join the Conversation

3 Comments

  1. Everyone knows the way to effect behavioral shifts: financial impact. Residents must pay monthly or annually per pound or bag or bin of landfill and recycling, as with commercial carting services in most locales. I’m not interested in subsidizing the habits of others, yet the city forces me to do so. My family puts out our bins maybe once a month, and rarely are they full. I’m open to a rebate, I suppose.

  2. Thank you for the three-part recycling series. Where are the composting bins pictured in part two located in Beacon?

    1. The ones pictured are in Memorial Park. There’s also drop-off bins at the Recreation Department (23 W. Center St.), and the Churchill Street parking lot near Hudson Valley Brewery.

Leave a comment

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. All online comments are moderated, must include your full name and may appear in print. See our guidelines here.