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single-stream recycling

Brookhaven’s single-stream recycling facility in Yaphank. File photo by Clayton Collier

By Alex Petroski & Sara-Megan Walsh

Recyclable materials have been building up at the Brookhaven Town recycling plant in Yaphank ever since China stopped accepting imports from American facilities in January, but the future of the facility is even more up in the air now.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said contractor Green Stream Recycling terminated its 25-year contract to operate the Yaphank facility effective Oct. 29 citing financial woes due to market changes. The company signed the agreement with the town in 2013.

“We’re a regional facility — for them to do that it certainly isn’t going to speak well of the future of their waste management business on Long Island,” Romaine said.

The town plans to pursue legal action against the contractor for breach of contract, according to the supervisor.

Green Stream Recycling, owned by principals Joe Winters and Anthony Core, also of Hudson Baylor Brookhaven LLC, did not return a phone call requesting comment.

An aerial view of Town of Brookhaven’s Green Stream Recycling plant in Yaphank is surrounded by recyclables in August. Photo from Town of Smithtown

Romaine said the town will be putting the contract out for an emergency bid Nov. 1 for a new facility operator, and the town board will select a replacement at a Nov. 2 special meeting.

“They had three years of very good profits, and then as you know more recently there have been changes obviously in the recycling market where most of our recycling goods went,” Romaine said. 

The terms of contract with Green Stream Recycling yielded $20 per ton of processed recyclables, a quarter of which went back to Brookhaven with the remaining 75 percent
redistributed to neighboring municipalities that had agreements with Brookhaven to send their recyclables to the Yaphank facility, Romaine said. The supervisor said the town hadn’t received any money from Green Stream since May, though Brookhaven has continued making payments to other municipalities.

“The Town of Brookhaven believes very strongly in the benefits that a municipal recycling program brings to our respective communities and hence the reason we continued acceptance and payment for the material received from the Town of Huntington,” Romaine wrote in an Oct. 23 letter to Huntington Supervisor Chad
Lupinacci (R).

Similar letters were also sent to Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) and the other municipalities that have single-stream recycling agreements with Brookhaven.

John Clark, director of Environmental Waste Management for the Town of Huntington, said the town was previously informed Aug. 23 Brookhaven would not renew the intermunicipal agreement to accept Huntington’s collected recyclables set to expire at the end of this year. Under the terms of the agreement, Huntington received up to $15 per ton of recyclable material delivered to the Yaphank facility.

In 2017, Huntington collected and delivered more than 14,000 tons of material to the single-stream recycling plant that was processed through the intermunicipal agreement. This resulted in more than $152,000 in net revenue, according to town spokeswoman Lauren Lembo.

The town had already issued a request for proposals Oct. 18 in an attempt to find an alternative solution to start Jan. 1, 2019, which may include converting back to dual-stream recycling where residents may be held responsible for sorting their trash again.

The news of Green Stream Recycling ending its contract with Brookhaven will pose only a temporary issue for Huntington, Lembo noted.

“The Town of Brookhaven believes very strongly in the benefits that a municipal recycling program brings to our respective communities and hence the reason we continued acceptance and payment for the material received from the Town of Huntington.”

— Ed Romaine

“We are already in the process of reaching out to potential recycling vendors and other municipalities to execute a two-month agreement that would get us through the end of the year under our single-stream recycling mode,” Lembo said.

Russ Barnett, Smithtown’s environmental protection director, said the town had received a telephone call from Brookhaven Oct. 19 to immediately cease sending recyclables to Brookhaven’s Yaphank facility. Smithtown’s town board plans to issue an emergency request for proposals at its Oct. 25 meeting seeking a new contractor to cart and process its residents’ recyclables, according to spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo. It’s unclear what if any impact this may have on Smithtown’s tentative 2019 budget.

“Residents should continue doing what they are doing right now,” Barnett said. “We’re not asking residents to make any changes.”

Smithtown Town plans to temporarily store all collected materials at its Municipal Services Facility on Old Northport Road in Kings Park until a new carter is found. A new recyclable operator could mean a move back to dual-stream recycling.

“We’ve got a broad solicitation out there to identify what our options might be,” Barnett said. “Whether we will be offered services as an unsorted single-stream recyclables for sorting and purification elsewhere, or whether or not people might propose that prior sorting [by residents] needs to be done.”

A spokesperson for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said in a statement the agency is working with Brookhaven and the other towns impacted to develop solutions that will allow for processing of existing materials at the site and long-term solutions to continue recycling in the region, as well as working with industry stakeholders to solve the problem of drying up markets for the recycled material.

An aerial view of Town of Brookhaven’s Green Stream Recycling plant in Yaphank is surrounded by recyclables in August 2018. Brookhaven has since returned to dual stream recycling. Photo from Town of Smithtown

It’s a rubbish time to be involved in the recycling industry.

The Town of Brookhaven’s recycling plant is grappling with unprecedented mounds of bottles, used paper goods and trash. Ever since China implemented its “National Sword” policy in January banning the import of various nonindustrial plastics, paper and other solid wastes, Brookhaven’s had a hard time selling off collected recyclable materials. As China was one of the top buyers of U.S. recyclables according to NPR, this move has left many Suffolk townships unsure what to do with their residents’ recycled garbage.

To recycle or not: Tips  on handling your trash

By Kyle Barr

Operators of the Brookhaven recycling plant deal with a lot of junk. Not the good kind of junk, however, as many household items that residents assume can be recycled can cause havoc in the machinery.

In the four years since the town invested in single-stream recycling,  Erich Weltsek, a recycling coordination aid for Brookhaven, said there has been increased resident participation in the recycling program. But it has also led to some residents chucking in items that have no business being recycled.

We’ve gotten chunks of concrete, and you even get sports balls — like soccer balls, footballs — constantly,” he said. “A lot of what we call ‘wish cycling,’ where people think they’re doing the right thing and when in doubt they throw it in a recycle bin instead of the right receptacle.”

Weltsek said people have tried to recycle Coleman outdoor stoves and propane tanks, which is extremely dangerous and could result in an explosion at the facility.

The most pervasively disruptive items are plastic bags and other items that Weltsek called “tanglers,” such as Christmas tree lights, pool liners and garden hoses. The recycling facility operates on a number of conveyor belts that first feed into a device called a star screen, a number of rotating cylinders with feet that separate recyclable fibers from other items. These items either wrap around the wheels on the conveyor belt or star screen, either letting fibers through the wrong end or stopping the machine entirely.

Suffolk residents should clean out any plastic bottles or cans before putting them in the recycling. Any low-quality paper products or grease-stained cardboard such as used pizza boxes, should not be recycled because they affect the sellable quality of the entire recycling bundle.

Andrade said all plastic bags should be recycled at a local supermarket, which are mandated by New York State law to have a receptacle for all shopping bags.

The plant often has to turn away other nonrecyclable material, such as plastic utensils, bottle caps and Styrofoam. All of these are considered contaminants, either because they cannot be recycled properly, or they
dilute the quality of the material.

“While it hasn’t stopped it, China’s new policies have significantly slowed down the ability of recyclers to move material to market,” said  Christopher Andrade, commissioner of Brookhaven Town’s waste management department. “There are domestic mills and domestic markets [but] the thing is just finding them, negotiating them and moving the material.”

That is easier said than done, according to Andrade, as many recycling plants across the nation now have fewer options of where to sell their collected goods. China has publicly claimed the decision has to do with the quality of the materials, as low-quality newspaper print or thin PVC plastics are not considered valuable enough for reuse. There’s also the problem of recyclables being mixed with other, nonreusable garbage.

In 2014, Brookhaven moved from dual-stream to single-stream recycling, a system that allows residents to put out all their recyclables in a single can to be sorted out at the town’s facilities instead of bringing out a different material — plastic, papers or metal — every other week. This increased overall participation in the recycling program, Andrade said, but has led to some confusion.

The loss of the Chinese market has severely interrupted the Brookhaven-owned Green Stream Recycling facility’s outflow. Green Stream Recycling LLC, a company that contracts with the town and operates the town’s facility in Yaphank, made good use of China’s market. While the facility continues to operate without a definitive answer to where else the company can move its materials, some of it is now going back into the landfill, according to Andrade.

This crisis is not only affecting the Town of Brookhaven, but other municipalities on Long Island which sell their collected recyclables to Suffolk County’s largest township. In 2014, the Town of Smithtown formed a five-year contract with Brookhaven to send 12,000 tons of garbage to the Green Stream facility,  in return for $180,000 per year. While Brookhaven continues to honor the agreements with its partnered municipalities, the lack of market availability for recyclables has some members of Smithtown Town Board concerned.

At a Sept. 4 work session, Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) showed board members a photo taken by a drone in May showing recyclables piled in heaps just outside Brookhaven’s facility. The picture made Wehrheim and other board members question what might become of the town’s current recycling agreement.

“At one point, we’re going to come to some decision what to do with [Brookhaven Town,] Wehrheim said. “It could be a potential problem … in the short term.”

Andrade said that excess dumping on the facility’s land came from the “shock” of China’s National Sword policy being implemented earlier this year, though he said the situation has since been brought under control. Despite these international issues, Andrade said Brookhaven remains committed to recycling.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) “and the board believe very strongly in recycling, and we’ll bounce back from this,” he said.

The markets are being overwhelmed; the people taking the material can be picky on what they accept. We’re going to have to respond by being better at only putting out the things that people can actually reuse.”

— Russell Barnett

Russell Barnett, Smithtown’s environmental protection director in the Department of Environment and Waterways, said he is working on a solution with Brookhaven, including a regional approach comprising Smithtown, Huntington, Southold and several other communities that are partnered with Brookhaven.

Smithtown had its own dual-stream facility that was closed before it started sending its materials to Brookhaven in 2014, though reopening it could be costly.

“We’re assessing our equipment — seeing what’s operational, what’s not, what repairs need to be made and what upgrades need to be made if the occasion comes up that we want to go that route,” Barnett said.

In the meantime, he said residents need to be more discriminating when it comes to deciding what items to recycle. Otherwise, it will be much harder in the future to find a buyer for the world’s recyclable garbage.

“When they talk about the standard, they’re not just talking about nonrecyclable material
but the right kind of recyclable material.” Barnett said. “The markets are being overwhelmed; the people taking the material can be picky on what they accept. We’re going to have to respond by being better at only putting out the things that people can actually reuse.”

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