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New Jersey strives to regain its recycling reputation

In 1987, New Jersey became the first state in the country to require residents to recycle, a milestone in the environmental movement that set off a massive surge in recycling around the country.

Michael McQuade of ReCommunity passes through bundles of sorted plastic at the company's Camden recycling plant. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Michael McQuade of ReCommunity passes through bundles of sorted plastic at the company's Camden recycling plant. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

In 1987, New Jersey became the first state in the country to require residents to recycle, a milestone in the environmental movement that set off a massive surge in recycling around the country.

For years in the Garden State, never perceived as the most environmentally pristine of places, recycling rates grew and grew.

But in the last decade and a half, despite a global environmental movement that has turned words such as green and sustainability into popular lingo, New Jersey's recycling program has faltered.

The proportion of the 10 million tons of trash picked up by municipal collectors each year that is recycled fell from 45 percent in 1995 to 37 percent in 2009, the latest year for which data were available.

Over that same period, the national recycling rate increased by almost a third, to 34 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Pennsylvania does not keep comparable data.)

There is no less stuff being recycled in New Jersey - 3.6 million tons by the latest count - but the state's trash stream has increased by such a degree that simply holding steady has meant that what was once a paragon of the recycling movement has lost pace with the rest of the country.

"It's quite the opposite of what's happening in most of the world," said Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Each ton of trash not recycled means more waste dumped in a landfill or burned in an incinerator, options that state environmental officials have been trying to get away from since they consolidated the state's numerous municipal landfills in the 1980s.

"There are consequences," said Jane Kozinski, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. "Landfills, no matter how well designed, do emit toxic pollutants into the environment . . . and there are economic factors. Recycling is a job generator."

A 2001 survey by the Northeast Recycling Council, a regional industry group, found that 27,000 people worked in the state's recycling industry. The EPA-funded study has not been repeated since.

What happened in New Jersey?

The theories run far and wide. One industry advocate chalked it up to apathy, but a series of court decisions in the mid-1990s may have played a significant role: They put an end to a state rule that forced towns to keep their trash within county lines. The rule was designed to keep business steady for newly built incinerators and landfills.

Tipping costs fell overnight, and recycling became less economically attractive.

In 1996, during a budget crunch, the state Legislature decided to end a tax on trash dumped at landfills and incinerators that funded state recycling education and enforcement programs.

The number of inspectors checking to see whether businesses were recycling fell dramatically; households were no longer reminded to separate glass from aluminum.

"It was a perfect storm," said Guy Watson, head of the state DEP Bureau of Recycling and Planning. "We've been trying to dig ourselves out ever since."

Environmentalism, like any movement, is prone to surges and ebbs of enthusiasm. And it is widely believed that any successful recycling program requires the constant prodding of people, whose natural inclination is to minimize the amount of time they spend dealing with their trash.

Ad campaigns, the familiar triangle logo, and getting recycling into school curriculums are considered imperative to get people to take their little blue bins out to the curb each week.

Lori Braunstein, an environmental advocate in Cherry Hill, travels around South Jersey making presentations at town halls and showing documentaries like Trashed.

"There are the people, environmentalists and people just into the outdoors, who are always going to recycle," she said. "But there is everyone else, and that's who we really focus on. Recycling is the entry point. People relate to it; they feel good about it."

Even for those willing, the myriad types of packaging materials and plastics can make recycling confusing.

Braunstein's father, Don Rosenblit, 80, said he struggles to make sense of it all.

"Do I put the plastic in from the strawberries and blueberries?" he asked. "My daughter tells me, but I keep forgetting."

Over the last few years, there have been signs New Jersey could be turning itself around.

In 2008, the Legislature reinstated the tax on dumping, which now generates $22 million a year for recycling education and infrastructure improvement.

And recycling firms have been upgrading their equipment, switching to so-called single-stream programs, which don't require people to separate bottles and papers and which are believed to increase the propensity to recycle.

Single stream has become standard practice across much of the country. But some New Jersey recyclers, once pioneers in the industry, are using equipment more than two decades old, said Marie Kruzan, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers, an industry group.

Currently, only 141 out of New Jersey's almost 600 towns and cities have single-stream programs, according to the group.

ReCommunity, a recycling firm with operations in 10 states, converted two plants in Camden and Morris Counties to take mixed recyclables within the last three years and said recycling rates in those areas had increased by up to 40 percent.

"That's the way the industry is going," regional manager Bob Anderson said. "I believe the state of New Jersey will be converted to single stream within two years."

Some impact is already evident. Between 2005 and 2009, the recycling rate climbed 3 percentage points.

But recycling is already moving on to its next evolution.

Trash disposal and recycling in the United States is paid for entirely by taxpayers, but in Europe, where recycling rates are considerably higher, the process is subsidized by a levy on the consumer-products industry, Hershkowitz said.

States such as California and Washington are considering similar models, which, if passed, could mean a sort of sea change of the sort seen in New Jersey in the late 1980s.

Not that Hershkowitz is holding his breath.

"The corporations have lobbied aggressively to prevent that," he said.