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ON THE SCENE: Town of Keene abandons zero-sort recycling

Joe Pete Wilson Jr., Keene town supervisor at the Keene transfer station (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Recycling has gone from a boon to a bust in Keene. The town recently abandoned its popular Casella Waste Systems zero-sort recycling and has gone back to its earlier approach of requiring people to sort their recyclables. Zero-sort recycling had gone from a largely self-sustaining income stream to an expense.

“There are multiple factors leading into changes at the transfer station,” said Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr. “When I became supervisor, I never would have expected that decisions the Chinese government made would have a direct effect on local governments in small towns like Keene. When the Chinese government said no more sending us recyclable materials, no more trash, our transfer station revenue dropped over 70%. We used to fund the operation by selling recycled cardboard, papers, metal and glass. When that foreign market went away, the revenue went away; it fell back on taxpayer dollars to fund the system.”

Keene took a quintuple hit. Income from the sale of recycled goods went down, as did garbage tipping fees as more people tossed their trash in the zero-sort bin. Casella fees went up as a higher percent of Keene’s waste was contaminated. China stopped accepting American recyclables, and then COVID hit, cutting tax revenue and increasing costs of local government.

The town first tried reducing transfer station operations one day a week to trim expenses, but that generated strong community pushback. The town recently shifted to a single sort requiring anything placed in a bin be cleaned, which includes any plastic tape, films and labels removed from boxboard and cardboard. All the while, income for recyclables is going down as few U.S. firms will take them, even if they are clean.

Currently, only 10% of plastic is recycled, a percentage that shrinks each year as the oil industry dramatically increases its production of plastic and plastic-coated products as a means of developing a new revenue stream as the demand for oil shrinks. The need for oil is shrinking as more power generating plants shift to natural gas, the use of solar-generated electricity increases, and more people turn to driving hybrids and electric cars.

Like tobacco companies knowing smoking caused cancer, oil producers have known for decades that plastics by in large can’t be recycled, and the few that could only once or twice, such plastic bottles for polar fleece. The oil producer’s initial strategy in the 1940s through the 1960s was to promote the growing array of plastic product’s practical benefits.

The emerging environmental movement exemplified by Earth Day’s founding in 1970 resulted in a shift in tactics. In the documentary “Plastic Wars” (available on PBS and YouTube), Lew Liesemer, former vice president of the Council of Solid Waste Solutions, said that the oil industry decided to promote the idea that all plastic could be recycled. He said they knew full well that wasn’t true. Their idea was to assign numbers to different plastics and require them to be stamped on products within a triangle formed with three small arrows. The imaged implied that people could recycle the product, that it had received some seal of approval, which was far from the case.

The reality is most plastics can’t be recycled, or not affordably. Yes, plastic bottles are recycled into fleece sweaters and the like; but of course, those new products end up in the trash as they can’t be recycled any further.

If it were cheap and practical to recycle plastic, the oil industry would see that as a threat to their business model of selling oil and oil-based products. From their standpoint — that plastic can’t be recycled– it is good for their business, as that enables them to make more plastic-based products. The industry’s goal was to motivate people to attempt to recycle the unrecyclable plastic as a means of shifting the blame for the growing amount of trash clogging the oceans away from themselves to individuals.

A small but growing threat to the oil industry’s business model is the increasing number of states banning plastic straws and one-use plastic bags. The oil industry’s biggest fear is that California, which by itself represents the fifth-largest economy in the world, will pass a law to reduce by 75% the use of all one-use plastic products from tape to plastic containers by 2032. As the oil industry narrowly defeated a carbon tax then being considered by President H.W. Bush, so too they are mounting a no less aggressive campaign against the law California is considering. Their big fear? If California passes its law, other states like New York will follow suit.

Back in Keene, residents have lit up Nextdoor Keene, the community’s online bulletin board. They are sharing news, options such as taking some of their plastic to Lake Placid, and some accepting blame for being lax on how they “recycled.” Others shared frustrations first with the town for reducing days of operation of the transfer station and then shifting to the previously used customer sorting approach, a more modest version of the process at the North Elba transfer station.

“Going back to separating our recyclables is difficult,” said Martha LeClair. “I understand it, but it’s a shame. I don’t think it had to end up as it is. We’ve gone elsewhere. We now have a company that takes our trash. Otherwise, we’d have to reorganize our garage to make space for extra bins — start all over again. I don’t have the patience or time for that. I realize that people throwing their garbage into recycling didn’t help, nor when the town closed the landfill one day a week. It’s all problematic in my mind.”

Some have taken out their frustrations on Laura Holbrook, who often single-handily manages the transfer station.

“People have been tossing the garbage into the recycling because they don’t want to put it on the scale,” said Holbrook on Sunday, Oct. 11, as she fished out plastic refuse from the cardboard bin. “Some bring bags filled with what they think should be recycled and toss it into the recycling bins.”

“I’ve spoken with many people in the recycling industry,” said Jery Huntley. “They agree that co-mingling (zero-sort) was a major mistake. We should have stayed with individual sorting. Now we are trying to fix our mistakes as Keene is doing reestablishing individual sorting. First, we should follow the federal regulations of using less, then reuse, and recycle, and then landfill what’s left. That’s what the federal law on the disposal of solid waste says, but it’s pretty much been ignored for decades.”

Wilson agrees. “The disposable culture isn’t sustainable,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of stuff we use once and throw away. We have an aspirational culture. People think plastic should be recyclable, so they toss in, but it’s not. We’ve got a day of reckoning coming that we’re going to have to face.”

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)