In many Long Island homes, recycling is a routine weekly chore. Some residents bundle cardboard and papers. Others toss away used bottles and jars along with metal and plastic waste. Some wash and separate them carefully, while others toss them dirty and unclean into one large bin.
Usually, these “recyclables” wind up at the curb, waiting to be picked up. And nearly all of us have no idea what happens after they leave our homes.
But in Brookhaven Town, the recycling of glass waste is different. Residents drop off glass recyclables — everything from pickle jars to wine bottles — at 14 collection centers around town that include firehouses, senior centers, libraries and parks.
It’s a more comprehensive approach to one of the nagging questions about solid waste, a first step that other municipalities are just thinking about. Yet, this Brookhaven approach may provide a regional model for dealing with recycled glass.
As a Newsday examination recently showed, Brookhaven is the only large Long Island town currently using designated drop-off sites. The move was prompted in 2018 by an overall drop in commodity prices for recyclables. By carefully separating clean glass waste, Brookhaven says it gets a better return and allows the recovered glass to be used potentially in new products like jars and bottles. This screening approach avoids dirty glass, which is less valuable to manufacturers, or glass mixed with other recyclables that diminish its market value.
Other Long Island municipalities have a more generalized way to collect glass waste. It’s usually mixed together with plastic, metal and other recyclables. This glass often winds up being used to cover landfills or mixed in with asphalt or concrete, which eliminates its possible reuse over and over again.
A LONGTIME PROBLEM
This hodgepodge approach dates back to the 1980s when state environmental officials urged towns and cities to create new recycling programs to help alleviate the overall garbage problem. Back then, the bizarre plight of the Islip garbage barge — wandering the high seas in search of a place to dump its refuse — highlighted the national need for recycling and better ways to get rid of waste.
There has been some admirable progress. Overall, America’s recycling has increased from under 7% in 1960 to 32% by last year. Since 1980, the total amount of glass waste generated in the United States, which peaked in 1980 at 15 million tons, was reduced to 12 million tons by 2018, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
During this period, the amount of glass recycled increased significantly. Yet today, more than two-thirds of all glass waste nationally is still either buried in landfills or burned as part of energy recovery projects.
Glass waste is only a small part of the gargantuan task of getting rid of Long Island’s garbage. The EPA says glass waste accounts for under 5% of the nation's garbage.
Despite the building of modern incinerators generating electric power in many towns, garbage woes are still very much with us, largely due to the shutdown of landfills. One of the last, Brookhaven’s landfill, where other towns pay to dispose of their incinerator ash by mutual agreement, is expected to begin closing its gates next year. Finding solutions to solid waste problems already tops many municipal leaders’ agendas.
Working together in a single unified manner to deal with glass waste could inspire other regional or multi-town ways to help Long Island deal with its solid waste problems. That’s why the Brookhaven example with recycled glass is particularly worth emulating on a bigger scale.
REGIONAL SOLUTION NEEDED
It’s clear that more Long Island cooperation and leadership — by the 13 town supervisors together with the two county executives — is needed to devise a sensible solution for recycled glass and stimulate new markets for it. An individual town, even one as big as Brookhaven, generates a limited flow of recycled glass.
But a unified regional effort — ideally by a public-private consortium collecting clean recycled glass from three million residents and many businesses — could provide a flow large enough to entice private firms to build a plant that can process the glass and sell it for reuse. Right now, recycling firms say Long Island’s approach is too decentralized to provide an ample supply of glass to make such an endeavor profitable.
There is already some help toward reaching that regional goal. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has provided $4.2 million for a program at upstate Alfred State College to find new ways to recycle and reuse glass and expand existing markets. But legislative leaders must provide stronger support for this regional approach. The recent failure to include wine and liquor bottles in the 5-cent redemption bill stymied attempts to get more clean glass into the system. We can’t afford to miss opportunities like that to help expand markets for recycling.
For many, spending time at home cleaning and washing bottles, jars and other used glass products is an act of good citizenship. They should be confident their efforts are being put to good use with a Long Island-wide government recycling approach that truly helps improve our environment.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.