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Smithtown considers recycling changes as global market shifts

The Town of Brookhaven recycling facility in Yaphank

The Town of Brookhaven recycling facility in Yaphank was over flowing with recycled material on Sept. 13. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

An upheaval in the global recycling trade could send Smithtown officials scrambling to find a new destination for 230 tons of plastic, paper and other materials town residents generate every week, they said.

The town now sends those recyclables to Brookhaven, which processes recyclables through a vendor for Southold, Huntington and six smaller communities. For years, much of that material found its way to China, where manufacturers repurposed it for new products, in an arrangement that benefited all the Long Island parties: Green Stream, the vendor, earned money off its Chinese sales, and paid a per-ton fee to Brookhaven; Brookhaven paid a fee to its municipal partners.

Smithtown earns $15 per ton of unsorted or single-stream recyclables, about $180,000 annually, an amount that partially offsets the millions the town pays to dispose of its solid waste. To address that cost, each single-family home in the town is assessed a $350 solid waste fee.

But China, a recycling giant, has stopped accepting some used plastic and fiber and increased standards for the material it does take. Now Smithtown officials say that if Green Stream can’t find buyers or can only find them at drastically lower prices, the town may have to look past its agreement with Brookhaven, due to expire at the end of 2019.

“It has the potential to be a crisis,” said Smithtown Supervisor Edward Wehrheim in an interview, after he showed an aerial photograph from August of Brookhaven’s overflowing facility to startled town council members at a recent work session. Mountains of material sat outside because Green Stream hadn’t been able to find buyers, though Brookhaven officials said the situation has since improved.   

Christopher Andrade, Brookhaven’s commissioner for recycling and sustainable materials management, said that the town had anticipated market instability when it signed a 25-year contract with Green Stream in 2014. “We expect them to honor it and we plan on honoring our contract with Smithtown.” A Brookhaven spokesman said he could not comment on possible subsequent contracts with Smithtown.  

Will Flower, vice president of Winters Bros. Waste Systems, part owner of Green Stream, said Brookhaven’s agreements with other municipalities and Green Stream’s own contract with Brookhaven would need to change. “This is a true 'force majeure' situation,” he said. “It no longer makes sense to recycle at current levels. There needs to be changes that take place to pay for recycling.”

Winter Bros. in July announced it would renegotiate its single-stream contract with Oyster Bay. The town will go out to bid for 2019 and beyond, a town spokesman said. 

Russell Barnett, Smithtown’s top environmental official, said the roughly 18 Long Island municipal waste managers he’s spoken with have concluded that “we’ve got to make this material more desirable to end users.” That could mean identifying new markets, focusing on high-value plastics or public education about what can and can't be recycled.

Barnett and Wehrheim said they hope to continue to partner with Brookhaven but are exploring options including reopening Smithtown’s mothballed dual-stream processing plant.

This would be expensive. But under the new economics of recycling, so might every other alternative, so much so that recyclables, once a municipal revenue item, turn into an expense. Whether that forces an increase to Smithtown’s solid waste fee is too soon to tell, Barnett said. “We have to see what happens with the markets.”

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