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Editorial: How Long Island can do better at recycling

Employees sort paper at the Green Stream recycling

Employees sort paper at the Green Stream recycling facility in Brookhaven. Photo Credit: Newsday / Sam Guzik

Look around your neighborhood on recycling day. How many bins do you see?

Let's face it: As Long Islanders, we do a lousy job recycling. We might believe in it on principle, but we don't do it much in practice. Certainly not as much as our peers around the country -- who themselves aren't all that good.

Combine that lack of commitment with the fact that we are prodigious consumers and we have a serious problem. We produce a lot of garbage -- seven pounds per person per day -- and don't know what to do with it. We recycle 14.6 percent of our garbage on Long Island, compared with 34 percent nationally.

So it comes as good news that new technology being used elsewhere in the country finally has arrived on Long Island. It's called single-stream recycling, and it offers a reason for optimism that we can begin to change one of the worst aspects of our throwaway culture.

Single-stream recycling works off a simple premise. You put all your recyclables into one container, and that's what's hauled away. No more checking calendars or your neighbor's curb to try to figure out whether tomorrow is paper or bottles and cans. Just dump it all together. The sorting takes place at a new kind of recycling plant.

Experience has shown that recycling goes up and governments save money pretty much wherever the technology is introduced. So it's time Long Island rolled out the welcome mat.

Brookhaven already has. The local leader in this new movement, the town switched to single-stream in January and increased its recycled material by nearly 20 percent. More improvement is expected in 2015. Brookhaven saved $424,000 through November and expects to bank up to $700,000 next year.

Brookhaven also has signed agreements with other municipalities -- the towns of Smithtown, Southampton and Southold and some villages and school districts within Brookhaven -- to take their single-stream recyclables. Huntington and Long Beach are going single-steam in January. Others likely will follow. That's welcome progress, and Brookhaven is commended for its leadership. But regional problems are best tackled with regional solutions. One possibility: revamping state regulations on recycling.

Brookhaven's push began when it contracted with a private company to install new technology in the town's recycling center in Yaphank. Green Stream Recycling -- a partnership of solid waste management heavyweights Winters Bros. of Bohemia and Westbury-based Omni Recycling -- invested $5.2 million on a marvelously complex system that separates recyclable materials using conveyor belts, gravity, friction, magnets, screens, wind currents, optical sorters and, yes, manual labor.

One result is a "purer" product at the end -- important because China, a huge purchaser of recyclables, has tightened standards for what it will buy. And better separation means more money: Good plastic such as milk containers, for example, can fetch close to 70 cents per ton; mixed plastic garners a few pennies.

The benefits from single-stream are many. More recycling means less garbage burned in incinerators or trucked to landfills, which eases the region's severe solid waste disposal problem. It reduces costs for municipalities and, hence, taxpayers because garbage collection gets cheaper and recyclables are a revenue stream. Single-stream also allows more materials to be recycled, and the technology continues to improve.

 

If all of Long Island joins in, the region will need a second facility. But to get there, we need an intensive education campaign to tell people about the benefits of recycling in this way and how to do it. That's what Brookhaven has done and continues to do. As Supervisor Ed Romaine says, this isn't going to grow unless we help it grow.

There's much room for progress. For all of Brookhaven's good work, its recycling rate now is a little over 14 percent of its garbage. But the town is just getting started. Time for everyone to join in.

We can do better.

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