The good, bad and ugly of recycling in Chautauqua County
Chautauqua County residents, like most Americans, are good at recycling and bad at recycling.
They’re good in that many residents make an effort to recycle parts of their trash instead of having it all end up in a cell at the county landfill. They’re bad in that sometimes they dispose of things that aren’t recyclable or at least aren’t clean, causing more problems than if they just threw those things in the trash in the first place.
In 2020, Chautauqua County collected nearly 3,500 tons of recyclable materials. That doesn’t include recycling collected by private contractors who take their recyclable materials elsewhere. The breakdown is as follows (in tons):
¯ cardboard: 779.24
¯ paper: 579.02
¯ scrap metal: 520.19
¯ glass: 512.37
¯ tires: 382
¯ single stream: 249.92
¯ electronics: 209.11
¯ plastic: 205.80
¯ metal cans: 37.40
Tracy Pierce is an analyst for the county’s Division of Solid Waste. Pierce notes that in order for an item to be recycled, there must be a buyer who wants that product. “Every recycling commodity we deal with becomes a commodity and it has a spot market. The spot market for us is Buffalo. In Buffalo, there’s a bunch of buyers, a bunch of brokers,” he said.
Number 2 scrap, which is unsorted metal, is collected by Weitsman in Jamestown at the county transfer stations. The company pays the county a percentage based on the Buffalo spot market price. It can be sorted with a magnet to separate the ferrous metals, which contain iron, and the non-ferrous metal. “This stuff moves all the time,” Pierce said.
Pierce discussed recycling during an interview at the Webster Road transfer station in the town of Pomfret. That day there was a bicycle there with the rubber tires still on it. To recycle that bicycle, it will be run through a shredder. Anything that is not metal, such as the tires, becomes residue and is discarded in a landfill.
The county collects pie tins, aluminum cans, clean tin foil and tin cans. Pierce said it’s important that the cans be cleaned, and labels removed, before turning in. “When we send this, it ends up being with contamination that has to be removed. That causes the scrap recycler a disposal fee and now they have to get rid of it,” he said.
Pierce says New York state is more efficient with recycling cans of soda pop or Arizona iced tea (look on the top to see if there’s a deposit). About 25 years ago, aluminum was recycled every 90 days. Today, it’s every 60 days, which means theoretically you could be drinking out of the same can six times a year.
Chautauqua County collects corrugated cardboard, as well as flat cardboard, like empty tissue or cereal boxes. The corrugated cardboard has the most value, but Chautauqua County has been collecting both kinds since former County Executive Greg Edwards made the change.
“One of the inefficiencies nationwide and internationally is separating (the types of cardboard),” Pierce said.
However, cardboard is almost always able to be recycled. The only time it’s not is when it becomes contaminated from food particles, like pizza boxes that come from takeout. That’s because the food attracts bugs, rats and other animals. And once animals get into the recycled materials, it needs to be thrown away.
Another issue with cardboard is with Amazon and shipping packages. The labels should be removed and the packing needs to be discarded. Packing plastic can actually be recycled with plastic bags that are accepted at large retailers like grocery stores, Walmart and Home Depot.
Used plastic is the most difficult item to recycle and to sell, not only locally, but nationwide. Chautauqua County collects seven different types of plastics. Those include jars, milk jugs and detergents, shampoo, margarine and food containers and yogurt containers. But often people throw all sorts of items that have plastic in them but don’t qualify for recycling.
“All of this should be food containers,” Pierce said while pointing to the bin that residents place their plastic in for recycling. “No toys, no potting goods, no racks from the nursery. … the reason why food is the common theme here is it’s a higher quality plastic.”
Pierce said motor oil bottles, pesticides, bleach bottles, window wipers all should be thrown away. Even an unwashed laundry detergent bottle can contaminate recyclables, so please rinse it. “Keep it clean and dry,” he said.
Certain types of plastics can be turned into coats or carpets. However not all plastics are used for the same purpose so the plastic needs to be separated by resin type manually. The plastic collected through deposit program in NY has the greatest demand because it is clean, separated.
Demand for the plastics increases with demand from consumers and the rise in energy prices.
“If there’s no demand on the other end, it just gets piled up,” said Pierce. “Plastic is the least efficient.”
In fact last year, for a short time some of the plastic collected by Chautauqua County had to be placed in the landfill, because they couldn’t find a company to take it. “When we’ve been lucky, we’ve had our vendors say we’ll take some plastic,” he said.
In the city of Dunkirk, residents have all their recyclables collected at once. This is known as “single stream” recycling. Dunkirk is the only municipality in the county that uses single stream recycling.
In 2020, Republic Services sold its recyclable material recovery facility in Kenmore to Modern Disposal and Modern closed that facility. Now they sort recyclables at their Buffalo plant. Currently, Modern is the only recyclable material recovery facility in the region that processes single stream and plastic within reach. They still accept Dunkirk’s single stream collection, however because they have so much recycling they won’t accept any new contracts.
Around Chautauqua County are “paper retriever” collection bins. They are at the county landfill, but also at schools, churches and other not-for-profit locations. Once the bins are filled, depending on the market, they are collected and the local user is given $20 a load. Right now the economy isn’t as strong, so the county isn’t making money off its paper, however the county doesn’t have to pay to get rid of it, which includes newspapers, magazines, “junk” mail, cards, telephone books, envelopes, and office and school paper.
That’s because of the government. According to Pierce, the U.S. government and other branches of government are the biggest consumer of recycled paper. Because the federal, state and lower levels of government require their paper to be recycled, there’s a strong demand for paper, even when the economy is weak.
According to Pierce, paper can be recycled up to seven times. After that it breaks down too much and is used to make toilet paper or paper towels.
Pierce said most of the paper recyclables from Chautauqua County goes to the Midwest, Syracuse, Buffalo, or Canada
Late last year, the Jamestown BPU decided to eliminate collecting glass from its customers.
At the time, Dave Leathers, BPU general manger, told The Post-Journal there are two reasons why BPU officials wanted to are looking to remove glass from the recycling program. He said the first is it’s an expense to the solid waste division because it costs money to pick up the glass recycling and then transport it for disposal. The second reason is that even with a spread out pickup time, which is usually 8 to 10 weeks apart, customer participation is low.
The change was approved by the Jamestown City Council.
Jamestown area residents that still want to recycle glass can take it to the Falconer transfer station.
Technically the colored glass and clear glass are not recycled, but are broken down and used by the county’s DPW department at the landfill, in place of stone. “Rather than go and mine stone out of nature, we’re using the glass,” said Pierce. “We’re very fortunate to have it.”
Glass with deposits on them are the cleanest glass and sought by recyclers. However glass at the landfill is often contaminated by light bulbs, window glass, and ovenware. That glass can’t be melted down at high temperatures. Because of this, recycling companies don’t want it.
There’s been talk at the state level to put deposits on wine and liquor bottles. Should that happen, Pierce believes the available glass for recycling will drop substantially.
A few years ago, Chautauqua County used to collect TVs, computers and other electronics for free. The county no longer does that and instead charges a fee for every item residents dispose. That change is because the county must pay to get rid of the electronics.
In 2015, New York state enacted legislation making it illegal for electronics to be placed in landfills. That doesn’t mean individuals don’t try to sneak them into the landfill, however they’re breaking the law and can face significant fines.
“According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), 90% of the toxic metals in the landfill comes from electronics,” Pierce said.
For electronics, Pierce noted there are companies that take old TVs to their plants, manually dissemble them, remove the precious metals and send the unusable parts to a landfill. Right now the county is using a company in Victor, NY to disassemble the electronics.
Vendors are required to take old tires when customers buy new tires, which Pierce encourages residents to do. The county does accept tires for a fee. The county bales tires and uses them in the landfill, but they collect far more tires than they need so they ask residents to have the business where they buy news ones dispose of them.
WHAT CAN CITIZENS DO
The first thing Pierce wants to see residents to do is not contaminate recyclables with things that can’t be recycled. That only generates more waste and can cause items that would be recycled to end up in the landfill.
There are a number of small things as well.
Small propane tanks can be recycled with scrap metal, although the county asks that residents place the blue cap on the tank after disposing it, to help distinguish it from a grenade. They can also be disposed of at hazardous waste collections the county occasionally hosts.
Another problem item is old wires and sockets from home renovations. They should be taken to a metal recycling facility instead of thrown in the trash. That’s because the trucks at the landfill drive over them and the tires are popped.
Batteries can be thrown in the trash, unless they’re rechargeable, or Lithium-ion. In that case, they can be brought to the store where they were purchased. The same is true with fluorescent light bulbs.
New York has banned plastic bags from most retail stores. Even so, many people have lots of plastic bags around their house and throw them away. Pierce says to put trash in the bags; don’t throw a “bag of bags” in the trash because they can start to blow around. “We compact the trash. When the compactor drives over the trash bag, it breaks and those bags just go ‘poof’ when the wind blows. There’s nothing in them,” he said. He did note that they’re starting to see fewer bags in the landfill.
Pierce was working for the county when New York added deposits to water bottles. The number of water bottles that end up in the landfill dropped significantly. He writes to state officials every two years asking for legislation to be enacted to cover bottles like Gatorade, energy drinks, etc. He would like to see others ask for this legislation to pressure state to make a change.
Two other points Pierce suggests have to do with how we shop.
Pierce notes that shopping on line requires greater consumption of packaging than mall shopping. According to a study by Simon Properties (former owner of Chautauqua Mall) less packaging material is used to stock retail stores than shopping on-line; and the average shopper visits more than one store and buys six to 10 items. The efficiency of mall shopping is also greater because most mall shoppers go with family and friends. Plus, nobody leaves the store with items that don’t fit, thus there is a reduced occurrence of returned items, which reduces fuel consumption.
Finally, Pierce suggests residents try purchase more items made from recycled materials and increase production through consumer demand. For example Mohawk Industries, a large flooring manufacturer, has an entire carpet brand that is made from recycling food containers. Patagonia makes clothing from recycled plastic. If more consumers purchased materials made from recycled plastics, the need for recycled plastic will increase and less plastic will end up in landfills.