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Riverhead discusses ripple effects of a recycling ‘crisis’

As neighboring towns grapple with changes to their recycling programs in the wake of a Chinese ban on certain imports, officials in Riverhead are relieved they never opted into a single-stream system.

But at a work session Thursday, they agreed on this: residents could use a refresher on how — and what — to recycle.

“I said no [to single stream,]” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said at the work session. “I think it’s important that our kids learn the importance of recycling and exactly what containers their food is going into or their drink is going into and how to be responsible with it.”

Though Riverhead residents will not experience a change in their recycling routine, the town could see changes to its garbage contract as recyclables become less profitable.

“Recycling is becoming an expense to get rid of now, whereas they were a commodity,” Ms. Giglio said. 

Costs associated with disposing of solid household waste could go up to $90 per ton, she said.

According to Ms. Giglio, the town has amassed a $300,000 fund that the garbage carters had been paying for recycled materials, some of which could be used to offset cost increases.

She met Nov. 27 with the Suffolk County recycling task force, formed in response to China setting more restrictive guidelines for purchasing recycled material earlier this year.

China once purchased a third of U.S. recycling, but banned the purchasing in January 2018 due to contamination concerns.

The task force’s goal is to pool resources to educate Suffolk County residents on the do’s and don’ts of recycling, which became convoluted in the single-stream era, and eventually push for a countywide recycling system.

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said there was a big push to educate residents when the recycling program first began. “[Residents] are recycling, but the stuff is contaminated and not useful, so all of their effort that they’re putting in is not working,” she said.

Clean recyclables must be free of food contaminants and rinsed clean. 

Greasy pizza boxes, takeout coffee cups, plastic bags, broken glass bottles: all not recyclable, officials said.

“We need to be more cognizant about what is recyclable, and be more aware of what we’re throwing out,” Ms. Giglio said in an interview Thursday.

Single-stream programs, which encouraged residents to recycle by co-mingling household products, have led to contamination rates of up to 30 percent, county officials said.

As a result, towns like Brookhaven and Southold are abandoning that method and ending curbside glass pickup, since there is no market. Southold has introduced a three-stream method that goes into effect Feb. 1.

Ms. Giglio said Riverhead residents may still recycle glass under the town’s current contract, which does not expire for another four years.

“Glass is becoming a big problem, and will be a big problem in our next garbage contract,” she said, calling for innovative thinking when it comes to pulverized, recycled glass. “They’re using it for drainage in East Hampton, they’re using it for road beds. They’re using it for a lot of things. You have to create new markets.”

The county hopes that a new campaign, “Suffolk Recycles,” can promote one uniform message about how to recycle correctly while encouraging towns to enforce restrictions when it comes to contamination.

During Thursday’s work session, board members discussed how that education effort could take shape locally, using Channel 22 or presenting in Riverhead schools.

Board member Tim Hubbard said the restrictive guidelines, such as washing out containers and ensuring glass is unbroken, was not conducive to getting more residents to participate. “There are a lot of people who are not recycling,” he said, wondering if people will actually follow the rules.

Ms. Jens-Smith has a more positive outlook. “The people who are recycling, they want to do it properly,” she said.

Town engineer Drew Dillingham agreed. “If it comes to the point where the recycling is stacking up in the streets in front of their houses, they’re gonna do it. And it’s getting close to that,” he said, referring to the situation as a “crisis.”

The supervisor added: “When a crisis like this arrives, you realize you can’t keep doing business the same way you’re doing business.”

Ms. Giglio asked board members to look at a potential design of a sticker created by the county task force that could be affixed to recycling bins to spread awareness.

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