Friday, January 27, 2012

Recycling Update

An announcement sent out by Princeton Township, apparently in reference to a column I had published in the Jan. 13 Princeton Packet, has caused considerable confusion. Over the course of a week, I made multiple attempts to reach township staff for a clarification, but heard nothing back. The announcement, sprinkled with capital letters to add emphasis, says that "Plastics marked #3-7 ARE NOT COLLECTED OR RECYCLED through the curbside recycling program." My research showed that these plastics are indeed collected and recycled. What the township announcement probably meant to say is that their official policy is to collect only plastics #1 and 2. Whether its leaf pickup or recycling, policy and realities on the streets of Princeton often part company.

The township announcement goes on to say, "While the facility accepts the materials, they are shipped overseas, which is not environmentally friendly." Experts I've spoken to question these assumptions. In fact, one told me that the availability of plastics 3-7 has prompted businesses to spring up in NJ to make use of them, whether to make plastic timbers or some other use. Even if the plastics are sent overseas, they likely ride in otherwise empty ships that were delivering products to the U.S., and whether they are used in an environmentally friendly way would be hard to determine.

The recycling business is very complex and constantly evolving. The truth, or some semblance thereof, takes a lot of digging, and it's all too easy to speak with an air of great authority and be completely wrong. Years back I was told with conviction by Princeton Township recycling staff that I must keep tearing those annoying cellophane windows out before recycling envelopes. This was contradicted by an expert I tracked down at the NJ Dept. of Environmental Protection. The misinformation remains on the township website to this day.

For years, most residents have been putting all manner of plastics in the curbside bin. I contacted the hauler to ask if they've ever complained to Mercer County (which administers Princeton's curbside recycling service) about the lack of adherence to the list, but got no response. I'm aware of no attempts to enforce the limitations imposed by the county list, which is hard to find both via google and via the county website. The township's concern about people placing plastics beyond #1 and 2 in the bin, then, is coming a bit late in the game.

So, for those who worry about doing the right thing, be happy. You don't have to tear those silly windows off of envelopes, and if you happen to accidentally drop a plastic #3-7 (or aluminum foil and trays, or an empty aerosol can) in the bin, like many of your oblivious neighbors are already doing, the good news is that it will get recycled. Maybe someday policy will catch up with practice.

Of course, the best thing to do is to somehow avoid buying unnecessary packaging, and thus minimize both one's garbage and one's recyclables.

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