Credit: TMS illustration/Mark Weber

Krista Greene is a graduate student in the Department of Technology and Society, Stony Brook University. where David J. Tonjes is an assistant professor. R. Lawrence Swanson is the director of the university's Waste Reduction and Management Institute.


It's been said that more Americans recycle than vote. While that may be true, on Long Island recycling has experienced a large decline over the past decade. Indeed, our new study, representing a complete accounting of town-based recycling, measured as a percentage of the weight of all refuse discarded, found that from 1998 to 2009, recycling on Long Island decreased from 29 percent to 24 percent. Suffolk's overall rate was 27 percent, while Nassau's was only 20 percent.

Across the country today, people are participating in environmental stewardship activities for Earth Day, and often those activities are related to managing litter and other waste. Here on Long Island it's no different. But, while we once exceeded recycling rates published by the Environmental Protection Agency, now we recycle less. How can that be?

For one thing, local programs are more precise in accounting for waste and recycling. Earlier statistics were probably overestimates, but these programs also may not be as effective as they once were. Educational programs and public outreach are limited, even though all municipalities have very informative websites. So if public participation in recycling is decreasing, it may be due to lack of reinforcement -- we are not reminded often enough to do so.

At the same time, there have been changes in the usage of materials. Plastics have been substituted for heavier materials. Packaging has been made thinner and lighter. Sheet plastics have replaced more massive materials, such as paper and cardboard.

The Bigger Better Bottle Bill passed last year means more containers are returned for a nickel rather than being recycled curbside. Newspaper is another big factor: Some papers are no longer published, and those that remain use thinner newsprint, contain fewer sheets and sell fewer copies.

There's also a wide range in local recycling programs. In 2009, recycling rates for municipal programs varied from 10 percent in Riverhead to 85 percent in Southampton. The municipalities with curbside programs all recycled 30 percent or less. Those that charge for garbage disposal but offer free recycling have much higher rates. East End Towns also have robust composting efforts. In fact, the municipalities with the lowest per capita recycling rates also have the smallest composting programs: Riverhead, Long Beach and Oyster Bay.

Comparing municipal rates that measure solid waste and recyclables is inexact, and processes differ. Still, we think, the overall decline measured in recycling is real, and it should be reversed.

Towns need to increase their efforts. Only the Town of Islip and the Town of Oyster Bay have recycling educators; if other towns did, too, that would help. Improved recycling rates can also result from incentive programs. RecycleBank -- where rewards are donated by merchants and redeemed by meeting recycling goals -- is one way to do this. Enforcement can remind nonparticipants that recycling is not only good to do, but is also legally required of everyone everywhere on Long Island. Certain efforts that seek universal participation, like tax collection, seat-belt use, or Quit Smoking programs, use similar inventive tactics to refresh and maintain public awareness.

Recycling is often how we declare our commitment to environmental goals. Today should be the day for our municipal officials to rededicate themselves to the cause, with reinvigorated efforts; not just in observance of Earth Day, but as a small part of our long journey toward a sustainable future.