It’s not easy being green

After extremely restrictive regulations were put on recycling standards by China, the Brookhaven Materials Recycling Facility, operated by Green Stream Long Island, became backed up with recyclables spilling out the front and stacked in the back of the building in March. As of September, Green Stream has been slowly able to regain control of the recyclables and is managing to move materials.

All of the recyclable waste including plastics, fibers, paper and metal are brought to the facility from curbside pickup, half of which comes from the Town of Brookhaven. The rest is brought in through intermunicipal agreements with about eight towns and villages including Smithtown, Patchogue and Bellport villages.

The facility, according to Green Stream president George Bateman, sorted about 72,000 tons of recyclables last year, equivalent to about 1,500 tons per week. Green Stream, a third party operator, first sorts the materials and separates it by kind, trying to keep each material as “clean and pure” as possible to later be baled/bundled, placed in containers, sold as a commodity and shipped.

The Town of Brookhaven uses a single-stream recycling collection process, meaning residents mix all materials together and place them curbside for pickup.

In addition to machinery, the human eye is used to further filter the products and dispose of unwanted materials with about 41 employees, 30 of which are sorters. The material is first dumped into a machine that evenly spreads it on a belt, which is then fed into several other machines for further sorting.

Since becoming single-stream in 2014 and entering an agreement with the town, Bateman said this is the first time Green Stream has been backed up. The building itself has been operating for 25-plus years. But due to restrictions set by China, he said the facility was unable to move materials and is still moving very slowly, now irregularly dealing with whoever will take them, such as Indonesia and Korea.

According to Christopher Andrade, commissioner of the Department of Recycling and Sustainable Materials Management, China has been slowly instituting policies that virtually set standards so high they stopped taking paper and plastics altogether. However, he said since then, Green Stream has managed to move materials and has not yet refused any deliveries.

“We were down for awhile, but we’re back up,” said Bateman. “We cleaned up the outside of the facility about a month ago and have been getting rid of the backlogged materials, but it’s sporadic. It’s not constant like it used to be with China. Now, we move loads, then we fill up again,” he said, also referencing the lower prices received for the commodities. Some buyers, he said, are even asking for money to remove certain products.

Cardboard is a commodity on the rise, newspaper is still the largest recycled material and plastics are sold and processed locally. Restrictions now only allow for about one-half of a percent of mixed materials, something Bateman said is nearly impossible for a single-stream facility.

“Most buyers won’t event attempt to purchase single-stream anymore,” he said. “The standards are so restrictive it’s almost like they don’t want you to bring them in.”

Buyers, he explained, can be anyone from mills overseas or local brokers looking to sell product to facilities processing and reusing the materials. The town plant solely collects, sorts and bundles; it does not process.

“Single-stream recycling has been a great success for the town as well as the other municipalities that have partnered with us,” said supervisor Ed Romaine. “We will continue to work toward educating residents about the importance of recycling and the benefits that it brings to the environment. This is part of a long-term commitment to make Brookhaven Town, and the world, a cleaner, greener place to live.”

Forcing residents to become dual-stream — separating materials at the curb — Bateman said, would certainly help the quality, however, it is a town decision and something he believes residents wouldn’t be happy with. According to the town, single-stream was implemented to encourage and simplify recycling and something that was written into the Green Stream contract, which still has 21 years left.

Since the restrictions, Bateman said he has hired more hands to help sort the materials with more human eyes to catch unwanted debris. “This isn’t a local change, it’s a world change that everyone single-stream is dealing with,” he added. “At one time, we might have gotten $180 a ton for paper. Now, some people are charging to take it away.”

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