Connections: Talking Trash

How garbage is handled is not a sexy topic, but it isn’t always boring, either

   A story in The Star last week about recycling left me, and perhaps many readers, with an uncomfortable awareness that the state law requiring that all refuse be separated at its source is honored more in the breach than in the observance.
    A spokesman for one of the largest carters on Long Island told The Star that even though separation at the source is the law, nothing requires carters to do anything about what their customers throw out or how they do so. The only requirement is that carters dump what they collect at facilities approved by the state, some of which are reported to actually sort refuse, while others accept specific kinds of waste. He estimated that only 10 to 12 percent of what the company collects is recycled.
    How garbage is handled is not a sexy topic, but it isn’t always boring, either. When Tony Bullock stepped down at the end of 1995, after eight years as town supervisor, he thought he had left the town with a state-of-the-art recycling and composting program following a state mandate that all Long Island landfills be closed. Men were hired to stand at a conveyor belt or picking station, where they sorted everything into the defined categories (a sorting that was also required of those who took their own garbage to the dump). Educational campaigns were undertaken, licenses for carters established, and those who didn’t comply with the regulations were fined. But things did not pan out quite like that.
    By 1996, the town had a $500,000 recycling deficit because sales of recyclable goods were not large enough to cover the sorting expense and having other waste picked up and whisked elsewhere (perhaps to incinerators) was costly. Taxes went up. At the same time, out-of-town carters with alleged Mafia connections were starting to compete with local businesses, too. What had seemed a noble effort was having unsavory consequences.
    In 1997 and ’98, Len Bernard and Pete Hammerle, Republican and Demo­cratic town board members, respectively, worked together to straighten out the mess. They alternated writing a column for The Star called “Divide and Conquer.” Amid tales of employees forced to deal with unhealthy and unmentionable waste, the sorting facility, eventually, was scrapped. The workers were no longer needed, and the recycling center became a transfer station.
    Costs to run the waste-management system are now so low — there isn’t  even a facility manager anymore — that the town reports it makes money on garbage. But I’m not sure that means we are doing an environmentally decent job.
    It’s hard to pin down exactly what percentage of the town’s waste is being recycled today, and I think this is an issue that we residents should get more passionate about. It’s easy to feel good about how Earth-friendly we are when we buy organic vegetables and carry them home in chic cloth shopping bags, but if the bottles for all that mineral water we drink are just ending up in a landfill, how green are we really?