Recycling in Ocean County: We Can Do Better, Make It Easier

By GREG MOORES | Sep 25, 2019

The following is an open letter regarding our recycling program, sent to Freeholder Director Gerry P. Little and Ernest J. Kuhlwein Jr., director of the Ocean County Department of Solid Waste Management.

Dear Mr. Little and Mr. Kuhlwein Jr.:

I have been a dedicated recycler since 1973. When I first began recycling in Vancouver, B.C., we had to sort out cans and bottles, newspapers, cardboard and plastic. Newspapers had to be tied in bundles that could only be so big. We kept everything in bins in our front hallway. When our home bins were full, I would put them in the car and drive 20 miles to the nearest recycling depot, which was monitored. We weren’t allowed to make any mistakes and gum up the system. That was a lot of work, and a 40-mile round trip. But I felt good about it because I was doing my part to help protect the environment.

Since then, I have experienced recycling systems in various parts of the U.S. I recycle everything I can, and practice home re-use recycling whenever possible.

Unfortunately, we do not have nationwide or even statewide recycling systems. In some states it seems that different counties have different recycling systems and rules. This has meant that upon relocating to a new area, I have had to educate myself about the local recycling rules. Some places are much easier for recycling than others.

Ocean County recently has been having problems with its single-stream recycling program because so many things that are not recyclable are ending up in the recycling system instead of being sent to the landfill. The recycling system is disrupted when non-recyclables end up in the system, especially plastic bags. But there’s plenty of other stuff that gets thrown in that shouldn’t be there.

I know this from firsthand observation because as a resident of Barnegat, I am a regular visitor to the Southern Recycling Center on Haywood Road in Manahawkin. What I see in the Dumpster-style recycling bins there is discouraging to me, to say the least. It is obvious that despite the signs and notices that the area is electronically monitored, many people use these recycling bins as trash containers. And, unfortunately, the bins are rarely monitored in person.

Recently, the county has begun to try to address this problem. But the way this is being done is by exhorting residents to become smarter and more diligent recyclers, and issuing a dire warning that almost amounts to a threat, saying that trucks containing non-recyclable materials will not be accepted and will be instead diverted to the landfill. Such signs have appeared along local roads. Not stated, leaving residents to guess, is what they mean by “trucks”? Do they mean the trucks that come by once a week and pick up our recyclables? How would anyone know what’s on one of those trucks? Or do they mean private trucks? They don’t say.

Of course, over on Haywood Road, it’s mostly folks in cars and pickup trucks, and nobody is paying any attention to what these people leave. If the area is electronically monitored, it doesn’t seem to be working. Neither the electronic surveillance system nor the occasional live person prevents people from throwing all kinds of trash in the recycling bins. And, in the absence of any controls or consequences, some people will do all sorts of things they shouldn’t do.

But this isn’t the core of the problem. Such abuse could easily be stopped if the will to do so existed by making use of either real electronic surveillance (that captures license plates) or in-person monitoring. It’s what people put into their curbside roll-carts that is the real problem.

A large number of county residents, even perhaps a majority, are confused about what is supposed to go into the roll-cart and what can’t go in. There’s a reason why they are confused. First, confusion arises simply because it isn’t clear exactly what is recyclable and what isn’t, and second, there is a real lack of consumer education as far as recycling goes in this county.

Take cardboard, for instance. My experience over the years is assuming that cereal boxes, tissue boxes, toilet paper rolls and the like are “cardboard.” They are not. They are paperboard, and in Ocean County, paperboard is not recyclable. Only corrugated cardboard is recyclable, and, it turns out, not even all of that is recyclable. Paperboard is not cardboard, but most people think it is. Take my word for it; I speak from direct experience.

Then there’s the big bugaboo these days: plastic. We are told that plastic bottles with a neck smaller than the base are recyclable. But what are we to do with containers that are obviously made of the same plastic but the neck isn’t smaller than the base? Like, perhaps, a mayonnaise container. Does it have to have a neck?

My guess is that plenty of paperboard gets put into recycling by residents who truly believe this stuff is cardboard. And plenty of plastic containers gets thrown out that could be recycled simply because they are not the right shape. This should not be happening, and it is a communications problem between the county and its residents. It is not the fault of the residents themselves. We recyclers are doing our best to work within the system, but we are not being given enough information and guidance to be sure we are doing it right. I myself, with my 45-plus years of experience and dedication, am not always sure if I am doing the right thing. It is easy to make mistakes. It shouldn’t be this way.

On a recent run to Haywood Road, I picked up a copy of the Ocean County 2018 Recycling Guide. It is eight pages of information, but most of it is about recycling items most average folks don’t deal with, such as paint and hazardous waste, bulk waste, refrigerators, needles and syringes, and other items that are not everyday household recycling concerns. One whole page is devoted to composting, as if this is a common practice. On page two, along with a nice-sized photo of the freeholders, is a small item, taking up no more than one-eighth of the page, describing the entire single-stream recycling program. One could easily miss it. Yet, this is the information we need. The county should produce a similar paper of at least six pages devoted entirely to single-stream recycling. This paper should be sent to every household in the county.

We simply need much clearer guidelines for home recycling. We need detailed information on how to recycle cardboard and what types are acceptable. And plastics need an actual system that residents can use to determine which types of plastics are acceptable and which types are not. In that regard, I would suggest the following:

1. Plastics are the biggest problem, and we need to learn how to properly recycle them. The easiest system I have ever used, in several locations, is the numbering system. Almost every plastic item has a number inside a triangle on the bottom. If the county would simply determine which types (numbers) of plastic they are able to accept, and publish those numbers, it would end the confusion. This is a much more effective, precise and easier to understand system than our current one of looking at the item and trying to decide, based upon its shape, whether it is recyclable.

2. The rules for cardboard need to be much clearer. Why paperboard is not cardboard needs to be clearly explained. We need to know if wine boxes with a glossy outside are recyclable. And, how clean must a pizza box be?

3. We need much more straightforward, clear information on how to properly do single-stream recycling. We need to make this information available, directly, to every household in Ocean County. I’ll bet there are people who are not currently recycling because they are intimidated by the rules and their lack of understanding about them. If given accurate, easy to understand information about how to recycle in Ocean County, not only will more people recycle, but those who are doing it now will make fewer mistakes. A better outcome for all.

To sum up, we need a publication similar to the Ocean County (2018) Recycling Guide. It should be six pages, at least, probably eight. There should be a page dedicated to each category of recycling: paper, plastic, cardboard and metals. There should be at least one page of pictures of various types of recyclables, to make it as clear as possible to county residents what is and isn’t recyclable. Two other pages of general information would be welcome, including locations and hours.

We need a much simpler and clearer approach to recycling in Ocean County. If we can find a way to adopt such an approach, we will have fewer problems with our recycling program, less frustration among those residents who, like me, are trying to do the right thing, to the best of our ability. And we will have more folks recycling.

These are all desirable goals. To achieve them, we need the help of our elected freeholders and those directly involved in the Solid Waste Management Department. We residents cannot be solely responsible for achieving the desired outcome. We all need to work together to make the system work the way it should, and the way we want it to.

Greg Moores lives in Barnegat.











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