by Susan Hellauer
Kerri Scales loves trash talk.
The high-energy Education Director of the Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority (RCSWMA) — a walking, talking, smiling encyclopedia of what’s in our waste — sat at her neatly cluttered desk in the Materials Recovery Facility (what insiders call the MRF) in Hillburn, to talk about Autumn leaves and yard debris. But our brief chat turned into two hours of mind-bending facts, figures, myths and marvels about recycling, trash, and the perils of the waste stream.
There’s more trash in our towns than meets the eye. The tiny, 0.6 square-mile, Village of South Nyack, collected 232 tons of recycling last year — roughly equal to the weight of the Statue of Liberty.
Three Rockland transfer stations receive trash from municipal or contracted carters, where it’s tipped out and transferred to large tractor trailers — more than 740 trailer loads each month, each weighing 30 tons. That load is hauled over 300 miles to a landfill in upstate New York. Picture 40 Boeing 747s, filled with garbage, rolling up the NYS Thruway. That’s Rockland’s output — about 40 million pounds — each month.
Yard waste goes to a county composting facility, to be turned into mulch that is sold commercially and also made available to town residents. Jim Dean, Orangetown’s Superintendent of Highways, says the leaves his department vacuums up from the five Orangetown hamlets could cover a football field seven feet high. And that’s after being crushed to about 25 percent of its original volume.
We count on people at the village, town, and county level whose job it is to deal — for a price — with what we toss. They stand in the trenches at the front line of the environmental war, neutralizing the barrage of everything we mindlessly throw away.
But, in the end, there is no “away.” There are places to which our detritus is hauled, dumped, and buried or burned. It’s out of our sight and smell, but it must continue to be dealt with for years to come. Garbage is vile, and the environment must be protected from the toxic brew it leaches into groundwater, or the explosive, global-warming methane gas emitted when your putrescibles are piled in a landfill.
“The EPA and other sources estimate that the average household garbage can in the United States contains anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of stuff that does not need to be dumped in the landfill,” says South Nyack Trustee Andrew Goodwillie. “If we could recycle more and reduce the number of trash collections there’s the potential of realizing savings for village residents.” Scales adds that “we’re working very hard over here to keep waste disposal costs down!”
Environmental warriors like Scales, Dean and Goodwillie say just a few changes in everyday habits can help reduce the pressure on the environment and on municipal budgets. Here are ten ways of thinking and acting that can have a big impact on a big problem.
- Remember that garbage is expensive. It costs a lot more to haul away and bury your trash in an upstate New York landfill than it does to haul and process recycling locally. (Rockland’s last landfill closed in the mid 1990s.) The county rebates each municipality $35 per ton for its recyclables, but must pay $76 per ton to dispose of 20,000 tons of trash every month. Aside from the direct cost in dollars, these massive trucks, on their 640-mile round trip, pollute the air and wear down roads.
And the local costs of trash hauling are considerable as well. “The effective cost of our new weekly recycling equates to $518 per collection after the recycling rebate,” said Goodwillie. “That compares to the village having to pay almost four times as much — $2,063 — per trash pick-up.”
- Start at the store. With a little education (see #1 above), you’ll begin to see your purchases in a new light. Do you really want that lip balm encased in a fortress of plastic and paper? Do you really need a big blister pack of 15 stick pens when you only need one (But it’s such a good deal!)?
- Yeah, no, that’s not recyclable. It’s not always easy to remember what items you should toss into your recycling bin and what items to leave out. You may believe that that piece of Styrofoam, or plastic packing with no triangle mark, should be recyclable, so you toss it in, figuring that “they” will do something with it. Workers have to pick out these items, which just end up taking a detour to the landfill, costing taxpayers more money.
The RCSWMA website has a full list of recyclables, with a searchable database, showing destinations for all your disposables. Consult your own village’s website for curbside trash and recycling pickup times and rules.
When asked what residents do with their recycling that drives her crazy, Scales answered immediately, “Plastic bags. People wrap their recycling in plastic bags and we have to cut them open. And plastic bags mixed in with recyclables jam the processing machinery. It all costs time and money.”
- Leave those leaves. Nyack and South Nyack will vacuum up your Autumn leaves beginning on October 15, and take them to the county composting facility. Leaves should be piled onto the outer edge of the sidewalk, and never in the road or gutter, where they will cause a number of hazards. (See tips at Nyack Village website.). “Roadways are channels for water into storm drains, which go directly into streams and rivers, ” says Jim Dean. “If fertilizer, dog waste, etc., are carried into the drains with leaves, it creates pollution. That’s why we have a ‘Clean Streets Clean Streams’ program of street cleaning after green waste pickup.”
Goodwillie, however, feels that there’s an even better way. “Leaves are aptly named, because ‘leave’-ing them to decompose on the garden over the cooler months allows valuable nutrients to return to the soil. Leaves are also great for mulching — simply pile them on planted beds to help keep weeds down.” Kerri Scales adds that “we can all reduce the burden on local composting facilities by leaving grass clippings on our lawns. Grasscycling returns needed nutrients into the ground, reducing the need for fertilizers and watering.”
- Untrash those textiles. As long as they are not mildewed or otherwise contaminated, textiles can be kept entirely out of the waste stream. Before they leave your house, stock your “rag bag” with old t-shirts and towels for cleaning tasks, to replace paper towels.
New or almost-new clothing can be donated to a local organization like People to People. Clothing with a good amount of wear left can be brought to one of many thrift stores in Rockland County, like Goodwill Industries. Animal shelters and some veterinarians can use worn out towels and linens for bedding.
Those clothing donation bins you see everywhere will take garments, linens, towels and most other textile items. They will also happily take those that are worn out, stained, or damaged (but dry and uncontaminated), and recycle them into new fabric.
The award-winning New York State Association for Reduction, Reuse and Recycling (NYSAR³) spreads the word through its “ReClothe NY” program.
- Respect the hazmats. Keeping hazardous materials separated from your regular trash not only reduces the waste stream, but helps insure safer soil and drinking water. Rockland residents are fortunate to have a permanent Household Hazardous Waste facility in Pomona at 35 Firemen’s Memorial Drive (HHW Hotline 845-364-2444). Check their schedule for acceptable waste and drop-off details.
Narcotic medications and other controlled substances can be brought to the Rockland County Sheriff’s office, 55 New Hempstead Road in New City, or the Orangetown Police Department, 26 Orangeburg Road in Orangeburg, 24 hours a day.
There is growing support for a proposed New York State law requiring pharmacies to take back any medication they sell — a law that is on the books in several other states.
Above all, don’t discard medications down the drain or toilet. Rising medication levels in drinking water (mainly as waste from the medication-takers’ bodies) is an alarming problem, and no current technology can deal with it. The New York State Department of Health has more information on this.
Municipalities are thinking about ways to accept electronic waste, to save the trip to Pomona. The Town of Clarkstown held an event recently, and South Nyack will host one on October 24, from 10:00 am to noon at the DPW, 65 Brookside Ave. ARC of Rockland also accepts unwanted electronics for recycling through their eWorks Program. Call 845 450-5900 for more information.
- Do some alchemy – Like textiles, metals are collected and recycled by commercial enterprises. There are three facilities in Rockland that will buy your non-recyclable metal. South Nyack residents can leave metal and appliances (refrigerator doors must be removed) curbside for once-a-week pickup. Check your own village or town website for their procedures.
Turn other unwanted possessions into cash by posting them for sale online or holding a yard sale. Donate items for a tax deduction. Or just give stuff away to someone who can use it, and feel good (priceless).
- Pass on the plastic bag. Do you put every produce item you buy into its own bag? Consider skipping the plastic bag for tougher items like bananas or squash.
You have reusable shopping bags, of course, but sometimes they don’t make it into the store with you. You can recycle those thin plastic supermarket bags (remove the paper receipts) in a bin near the front of the store. Managers at local supermarkets Shoprite and Stop & Shop say that their recycling bins will accept any kind of plastic bags, in addition to their supermarket bags, as long as they are dry and empty. The plastic bags you recycle at the store stay out of the waste stream, and are re-manufactured into a variety of products, from pencils to park benches.
- Compost. Composting is for everyone, not just for hard-core gardeners. It’s a great way to keep food scraps from your home out of the landfill. You can invest many, few, or no dollars in your home setup. The internet will show you every kind, including indoor vermicomposting for those who don’t mind cohabiting with some busy (but quiet) worms.
RCSWMA offers an at-cost composting bin, available at its site in Hillburn, or at the Cornell Cooperative Extension site in Stony Point. The Cornell Cooperative Extension is the expert in every kind of composting and are happy to help you get started or solve problems.
- Review this phrase: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — and Rethink. Remember that the order of these words truly matters. In a time of tax caps and budget constraints, the only sure way to save money in this area, and do a good environmental thing at the same time, is to reduce both trash and recycling.“Recycling is a last resort,” says Kerri Scales. “It cannot solve all our problems.” Recyclables are a commodity, like any other. In slower times, manufacturers can be hard to find, or less eager to buy. The county sells its aluminum to Coca Cola, and much of the plastic is bound for China to be re-manufactured into products like building materials, rugs, and tote bags. But there are no guarantees, and the less there is to deal with, the cheaper it is for the county.“We could find a way to recycle everything,” says Scales, “but it needs to be cost effective, and there needs to be someone who wants to manufacture it into something else. Otherwise, it’s going into the landfill.”
Susan Hellauer is a Bronx native and Nyack resident. She has been a volunteer with Nyack Community Ambulance Corps since 2001, and now serves as board member and Corps secretary. She teaches music and writing at Queens College and is a member of the vocal ensemble Anonymous 4.