February 19, 2020

County Clamps Down On Recycling Rules

By Anne Levin

If you find a bright red tag attached to the recycling bin you dutifully placed by the curb the night before, and the can is still full, consider yourself warned. The Mercer County Improvement Authority (MCIA) is getting serious about enforcing just what can and cannot be recycled.

As of this past Monday, recyclables that do not qualify for pickup are being tagged and left for homeowners to sort through before the next scheduled pickup. The red tags list possible reasons why the materials were not collected — plastic bags, the biggest culprit; pizza boxes; Styrofoam; cardboard not broken down into manageable piles; and items not placed in the county-issued bins — along with a written explanation if the problem was something else.

The hope is that the public will catch on quickly, streamlining the recycling process and, in turn, saving money. The red tags are being issued in towns across the county.

“We got a heads-up from the county about this,” said Princeton Council member Eve Niedergang, one of three members of the governing body who serve as liaisons to Princeton’s Department of Public Works. “From our perspective, it’s fabulous, because despite efforts to educate people, some don’t understand what is acceptable and what is not. But it’s not supposed to be punitive. It’s supposed to be educational. We’re hoping it will get people’s attention. The key goal for the county is to bring down the cost and make people more compliant along the way.”

Plastic bags clog the recycling machinery and drive up the cost of sorting. If there is too much contamination, entire truckloads can end up being discarded.

Molly Jones, executive director of Sustainable Princeton, welcomes the MCIA’s efforts to enforce the recycling rules. “The municipality has worked for a long time to educate residents on what can be included in the bins, but we have seen other towns have success in cleaning their recycling streams by having the enforcement go hand in hand with the education,” she said in an email. “People want to do the right thing when it comes to recycling, but the rules can be hard to know and get complicated because they do vary from place to place.”

Jones said she took a walk on Monday
to see how many homeowners were issued red tags. “It looked like some neighborhoods got hit with the tags, while others did not,” she said. “We’ve seen that in other towns, they hit on one community one week, and another the next. The hope is that neighbors talk to each other and educate each other about the process.”

Sustainable Princeton urges the public to tackle the problem of waste by reducing what is consumed. The organization recently hosted a forum at Princeton Public Library titled “Shrink Your Footprint: What We Buy.” It is also available on sustainableprinceton.org.

“Recycling isn’t the solution to climate change,” Jones said. “Consuming less is really the path we need to all embrace. When we do have waste it is important to have clean recycling streams so financially viable markets can be found for these materials. Costs increase with contamination.”

Once clear about what is and is not acceptable for curbside recycling, people will follow the rules, Jones believes. “It’s not that people don’t want to do the right thing. It’s just that they don’t know. They are used to material leaving their homes in plastic bags. It keeps things cleaner. It’s contained. So it makes sense to think that it would be acceptable. But the sorting process is mechanized, and the bags get caught in the gear system. That breaks the sorting equipment.”

Among the items that are acceptable for recycling are mixed paper, phone books, soft cover books, hardcover books with covers removed, newspapers, corrugated cardboard that is flattened and/or cut, pet food cans, milk jugs, and aluminum and metal cans.

The list of unacceptable items is headed by plastic bags and pizza boxes, but also includes light bulbs, aluminum foil and baking pans, Styrofoam, broken window glass, drinking glasses, ceramics, aerosol cans, and motor oil and anti-freeze containers.

All questions about the recycling program should be directed to Access Princeton and the Department of Public Works at princetonnj.gov.