Stony Brook University is using a grant to study recycling programs on Long Island and upstate. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A half-dozen Stony Brook University students and professors gathered around a table covered by a blue tarp at a Westbury trash incinerator last month and ripped open a plastic bag.

Out of the bag fell a slimy glob of food, paper, bottles, cups, cans and other household debris. Dressed head-to-toe in goggles, helmets, masks, rubber gloves and nylon safety vests, the researchers quickly sorted through the pile, depositing each piece of stale toast or discarded wire in one of three dozen containers: white laundry baskets for recyclables and black garbage cans for trash. The trash cans filled up. So did the recycling baskets.

The group was taking part in a state-funded, $4.25 million study of trash and recycling.

“It’s a little bit messy,” said sampling supervisor Yiyi Wang, 34, when she took a break from sifting through the food scraps, juice boxes and soiled magazine paper. Wang, who holds a doctoral degree in technology policy from Stony Brook, said she often is surprised by what she finds.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Stony Brook University is in the middle of a $4.25 million state-funded study looking at how much New York and Long Island trash is recycled.
  • The goal is to improve recycling programs and make them more economical, Stony Brook and state officials said.
  • A leader of the study estimated that 25% to 30% of Long Island trash is recycled, and that much more recyclable material is instead sent to landfills and incinerators.

"People don’t know what’s recyclable and what’s not,” she said. “They always throw out clothes [that could be donated]. I don’t know why. They dump it with the garbage.”

Stony Brook launched the statewide study in 2019, taking a deep dive into Long Island and New York waste bins as state and local officials seek better and more economical ways to recycle. They aim to learn how much of the 14.6 million tons of trash dumped annually by New York communities in landfills, incinerators and out of state could get recycled instead.

People don’t know what’s recyclable and what’s not.

Yiyi Wang, Stony Brook University researcher

Improving Long Island's recycling system

David Tonjes, a Stony Brook research professor who is leading the study, said based on data collected so far, about 25% to 30% of Long Island's trash gets recycled — slightly below the national average of 32%.

Improving Long Island's lagging recycling system is seen by many officials as crucial to combating a looming waste crisis as Brookhaven readies to start closing its town landfill a year from now. Local officials fear the landfill's closure will force more trash off Long Island, raising costs for towns and taxpayers.

The "waste characterization" study includes more than a dozen communities statewide, including Brookhaven, Smithtown, Southold and Islip towns, and waste facilities such as the Covanta Hempstead waste-to-energy incinerator, where Wang was interviewed on Nov. 27.

14.6 million tons

Trash dumped annually by New York communities in landfills, incinerators and out of state.

The study is slated to end in August but could be extended by a year using funds that weren't spent during a one-year pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tonjes said. 

Confusion about which materials can be recycled and which can't remains a persistent problem, leading many residents to recycle poorly or not at all, despite efforts by municipalities to educate residents by disseminating recycling calendars and detailed instructions, Tonjes said. He hasn't seen much change since he began studying Long Island recycling and waste programs about a decade ago, he added.

"It’s a mixed bag," he said. "What we’ve seen is that there’s a fair amount of material in solid waste [collections] that can be recycled."

It’s a mixed bag. What we’ve seen is that there’s a fair amount of material in solid waste [collections] that can be recycled.

David Tonjes, Stony Brook research professor leading a state-funded study

He estimated about 50% of cardboard is recycled, adding newspapers also have a high recycling rate — “but there just isn’t any of it anymore,” he said, referring to changes in reading habits. 

Plastic, which includes a wide range of products, including water bottles, milk jugs, toys, detergent containers and food packaging, has a recycling rate of only about 30%, he said.

“That either means we’re doing a lot better than nothing or that there’s much room for improvement,” he said.

Long Islanders recycle approximately

50% of cardboard and 30% of plastic

according to preliminary data from a state-funded study.

Paper products are recycled correctly 90% to 95% of the time in four towns that were part of the study, Tonjes said.

Containers such as bottles were less successful, getting correctly sorted 60% of the time in Smithtown and Southold, 70% in Brookhaven and 90% in Islip, he said.

Exploring 'state of recycling'

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which funded the study, said in a statement the project's goal "is to explore the current state of solid waste and recycling in New York State and develop recommendations for how it can be improved to achieve a more environmentally sustainable New York." 

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale nonprofit that advocates for improved recycling, said the study should help local governments find better ways to collect recyclables.

But she questioned whether it would reveal anything that isn't already known.

“Overall, this will provide more data and more data can lead to better policies," Esposito said. "However, some of the challenges still remain. We need to be able to recycle glass in an easy and meaningful way. We need a way to recycle paper and plastic [from private businesses exempt from municipal recycling requirements]. ... I’m not sure if this is going to uncover any key secrets. Rather, it will just add more information on the waste stream.”

Sorting trash, culling data

The Stony Brook team took samples at 19 locations statewide this year, including landfills, recycling centers and incinerators, Tonjes said.

At each location, samples are weighed and recorded for separate reports on findings from each site, breaking down the samples into more than 40 categories, such as boxboard, pizza boxes, food, wood and clamshell containers. 

Stony Brook launched the project following the collapse of worldwide recycling markets after China severely curtailed purchases of American recyclables such as cardboard and plastics.

The decision reverberated all the way to Long Island, where Brookhaven officials briefly shut down the town's massive Yaphank recycling plant and overhauled its recycling collection system. 

Brookhaven, which previously had a curbside glass collection program, now asks residents to bring glass to deposit centers at parks, firehouses and Brookhaven Town Hall — hoping the material will be cleaner and more marketable.

Tonjes said part of the study's purpose is to estimate how much more trash could be recycled instead of winding up in incinerators and landfills. 

Plastic appears to flummox many residents, Tonjes said. That's because plastics are broken into different categories — from No. 1 polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, to No. 6 polystyrene — and different towns collect different types of plastic, he said. 

'It all starts with education'

Will Flower, vice president of Winters Bros. Waste Systems in West Babylon, which operates Brookhaven Town's recycling plant, said the study should help officials develop better programs for encouraging residents to recycle.

"It all starts with education," Flower said. "We’ll be able to look at the results of this study to find out if people are putting the wrong material into the recycling bin.”

He said Brookhaven's plant, known as a materials recovery facility, or MRF, struggles with large amounts of non-recyclable material that is mistakenly sent to the facility. He estimated that about 15% of material entering the Brookhaven plant is not recyclable.

Known as "contamination," the unwanted items include garden hoses, lithium-ion batteries and heavy plastic objects such as motorcycle helmets that can clog machines, leading to costly repairs and daily facility shutdowns, he said.

“People have good intentions, but they’re really doing some potential harm to the system,” Flower said. “It’s amazing sometimes the things I’ve seen that come into that MRF.”

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