New Jersey has been at the forefront of recycling since 1987 when Gov. Tom Kean signed the Mandatory Recycling Act into law.
According to industry experts, the recycling business is growing and expanding while, at the same time, facing unprecedented legislative pressure.
“We presently are in the most dynamic period in recycling since those early days with unprecedented legislative attention both on the state and national level,” says Valerie Montecalvo, president and CEO of Bayshore Family of Companies (which operates Bayshore Recycling). “The societal focus on more sustainable living is a major factor in this movement. The industry is clearly growing and expanding to meet higher expectations for both waste reduction and recycling.”
Jim Van Woert, Waste Management’s (WM) regional recycling director, says that the desire to recycle will continue to grow with the public’s desire to protect the environment and climate.
However, the operational side of the industry continues to face challenges. Van Woert notes that his company is addressing those challenges through its recycling investments. “The combination of market demand and labor shortage challenges has led to a growing investment in automation technology to increase efficiency and improve material quality,” Van Woert says.
He adds that WM is investing more than $800 million in recycling infrastructure across North America, a move he says is designed to improve both the quality and volume of materials the company produces.
“More and more companies are increasing their sustainability goals to use more recycled material in the products they produce every day,” Van Woert comments.
Meanwhile, he says that there are several states passing “minimum-content” legislation requiring recycled materials to be included in certain products and packaging. “We see this trend continuing, which will require unlocking more recycling material that is currently destined for the landfill,” Van Woert explains.
He says that WM helps its commercial and industrial customers improve their recycling rates in many ways, from suggesting things as basic as where recycling containers should be placed in the workplace, to providing ways to recycle materials that may not have been recycled in the past, including food waste.
Bayshore’s Montecalvo says that the global pandemic resulted in temporary, and perhaps long-lasting changes in materials produced for recycling; most notably, the home shopping and “Amazon.com” societal shift has resulted in unprecedented quantities of cardboard in the recycling stream.
“Work from home and our ever-increasing dependency on digital media has also reduced the amount of paper available for recycling,” Montecalvo says.
When it comes to municipalities and homeowners, Van Woert says that the desire to recycle at home remains high, but this can lead to “aspirational” recycling which leads to contamination. (See info box on right.)
According to Marie Krusan, executive director, Association of New Jersey Recyclers, “The critical criteria for selling recycled materials to an end market is quality, free and clear of contaminants.”
There has been myriad legislation that has impacted the recycling industry over the past several years.
Disposal ban legislation (A2371/S865), passed last year, requires large food waste generators to separate and recycle food waste and amends definition of “Class I renewable energy.”
Then there is the “Food Waste Reduction Act,” which calls for a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030.
Meanwhile, with S3945/A5884, the state created its first-ever executive government position of “Food Recovery Advocate” to help coordinate and improve food recovery and distribution systems in New Jersey.
In November of 2021, Gov. Phil Murphy signed S864, commonly called the “plastic bag ban bill” which prohibits the provision or sale of single-use plastic bags, single-use paper bags, polystyrene foam food service products, and single-use plastic straws.
In January 2022, the landmark “Recycled Content Legislation” S2515/A4676, established postconsumer recycled content requirements for rigid plastic containers, glass containers, paper and plastic carryout bags, and plastic trash bags; and prohibits the sale of polystyrene loose fill packaging.
What is being called potentially game changing legislation, S426, the “Packaging Product Stewardship Act,” generally referred to as “Extended Producer Responsibility” (EPR), requires producers of packaging products sold in New Jersey to adopt and implement packaging product stewardship plans.
Finally, S2145, the “Truth in Labeling Bill,” prohibits sale, distribution, and import of certain products marketed as recyclable, unless DEP determines that products are widely recycled.
“While contamination in the recycling stream is a major issue as many residents and businesses place many unacceptable materials at the curb, this legislation is also very complex and will require considerable discussion and refinement over the next year or more,” Montecalvo says.
New Jersey recyclers are supportive of the state’s ban on plastic and paper bags.
“In a nutshell, single use plastics are bad for our environment, difficult to process and recover, and of very little economic or reuse value in manufacturing,” Montecalvo says. “For all these reasons, New Jersey’s bag ban legislation is sound public policy and an important first step toward more sustainable materials management.”
“The plastic bag ban has benefitted our business with a slight improvement in the quality of inbound material at our MRFs where these laws have been adopted,” Van Woert adds. “However, even in these markets, there is plenty of room for improvement when it comes to contamination in inbound material.”
Krusan says that the plastic bag ban has made a difference. “There are fewer plastic bags. It makes for cleaner oceans, and cleaner material coming into processing facilities. Recent clean numbers have shown fewer plastic bags found.”
WM is in the process of investing $800 million in advanced technology that will be operated in the company’s new and existing MRFs. WM has invested $4 million in upgrading its Newark MRF in the last few years and is planning another $40 million in upgrades in the future.
More advanced technology is constantly being developed and, to remain competitive, processors need to regularly invest new capital in equipment and separation systems, says Bayshore’s Montecalvo. “Bayshore’s newest advancement is the installation of robotics to greatly improve the efficiency of separation to advance our ability to place the highest quality recovered materials into the marketplace.”
Among the challenges New Jersey recycling companies face include contamination rates, unpredictable fluctuating commodity values, and personnel shortages, Van Woert says.
Montecalvo asserts that lithium-ion batteries, often found in greeting cards, continue to be a concern to recyclers.
According to Montecalvo, single-use and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries should be managed through an evolving national network of convenient drop-off locations and should not be thrown in the trash or the recycling bucket due to their highly flammable and combustible properties.
“Recyclers face challenges with the changing face of new packaging material. Packaging manufacturers are not always considering recyclability in the design process,” Krusan says. “There is work being done by Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) and the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) with manufacturers on Design for Recyclability.”
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