Cost of trash and recycling removal on the rise

May 09, 2019 07:27 PM

Our local landfills are filling up fast. The town of Colonie Landfill just had to expand to fulfill a "vital need in the community." While the City of Albany's Rapp Road Landfill scaled back to accept only a third of waste they’ve been accepting in the last few years. That cut back to extend the life of the landfill. It’s now slated to close in 2026.

If you haven’t already, you can expect to see your waste removal fees go up when they close.

"I've been in the business for 20 years I've seen the rates triple in the last 15 years,” Superintendent of Sanitation Services Joe Giebelhaus said.

Giebelhaus said the City of Albany’s operation is relatively small compared to those of private waste haulers. They serve 33,000 customers in 21,000 homes around the city. Giebelhaus said they used to take commercial waste, but changed their collection restrictions to save space at Rapp Road.

"Prior years, about 10 years ago we were taking in 1,000 tons per day,” Giebelhaus said. “The rationale for that was to balance the budget. Now we're getting closer to closure we're seeing that the landfill space is more valuable to us right now and in the future. So we're starting to truncate the amount of waste that we take in so instead of taking 1,000 tons a day we're down to about 3,000 tons a day."

Giebelhaus said by doing that, they bought about 7 more years for Rapp Road. But he said they'll have to re-evaluate their options again soon.

"2020, 2021 we will start looking again as to what to do, what kind of technology is out there,” Giebelhaus said. “It can be as simple as a transfer station operation or using an existing transfer operation to another landfill more than likely. Perhaps another incinerator, it depends on what's available at that time."

Giebelhaus said the city and other waste haulers will no longer profit from waste collection when the local landfills close.

"We can expect to spend about $2 million a year in waste disposal just for what we collect off the street in the city,” Giebelhaus said.

Since DGS is funded by the city, that means taxpayers will ultimately end up footing that bill. Customers who use private haulers can expect the same hike.

But Giebelhaus said it's not just trash that will cost more to get rid of, recycling removal is going to get more expensive too.

Some haulers have had to raise recycling rates in the last year or so because China is no longer taking U.S. plastics.

For decades, China was the single largest buyer of our country's recycling. Last year new contamination restrictions were imposed and most of the material we’ve been exporting is now considered too dirty.

Frank Zeoli is the Director of Operations for the City of Albany’s Department of General Services. He said there’s also come confusion over what can and cannot be recycled.

"We don't want the stuff to go to a landfill that's taking up space when we can recycle it and it can have a whole other use and another life,” Zeoli said.

Zeoli said because many of the loads are contaminated, more and more batches of recycling are ending up in landfills.

“When we talk about contamination in the bin it's not just something that's in there that hasn't been rinsed,” Zeoli said. “It's also stuff that's in there that shouldn't be in there can contaminate a load. That could make it so that the entire load even though the majority of it is recyclable you could make the whole thing no longer is recyclable and that needs to then be put in a landfill and that's what we're trying to avoid."

Zeoli said pizza boxes are commonly placed in recycling bins but really should be put in the garbage.

"Pizza boxes are not recyclable, majority-- 99 percent of the reason why they're not recyclable is because they are contaminated,” Zeoli said. “There's some sort of foreign soil grease, they're stained, there's food."

Paper plates and plastic utensils are also commonly misplaced in recycling bins.

“Even if they were made with recyclable material they're contaminated after you've put food on them after you've used them,” Zeoli said.

Conversely, there are also many items that are put in the garbage that should be recycled.

"Your newspapers, your paper towel rolls, your toilet paper rolls, all recyclable and should be placed in the recycling,” Zeoli said. "Window envelopes, this is a misconception. People think this cannot be recycled envelopes or paper they can be recycled the windows do not need to be removed. Cellophane windows can stay."

“Pre-cycling" is another way to prevent waste from going into the landfill. It means thinking about whether or not something can be recycled before you even buy it.

"So you've got an option here three different egg cartons to purchase,” Zeoli said. “One’s made out of a paper board which is recyclable. One is made out of plastic which is recyclable. The other is made out of Styrofoam, it is not recyclable so therefore we ask people don't purchase [Styrofoam], purchase [plastic/cardboard] if you can because at the end of the day [Styrofoam] has to go into the landfill taking up valuable space and [plastic/cardboard] can be recycled into something else."

WEB EXTRA: Full show and tell with Frank Zeoli

It’s also typically cheaper to make new plastics from petroleum than it is to use recycled materials.

All of these factors have thrown the U.S. into plastic pandemonium, but research being done in the Capital Region could provide a solution.

Plant-based plastics may be the answer, according to Dr. Richard Gross.

Gross is a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He's also researching chemical enzymes that break down traditional plastics. Gross said it won't be long before these new methods can be brought to market.

"We are faced with a situation where these plastics were not designed for recycled use,” Gross said. “In fact only 10 percent of the plastics are recycled."

Of that 10 percent that is recycled, almost all of it is "downcycled," meaning it cannot be recycled more than once.

So where does all that plastic go? Well, a lot of it ends up in our landfills and oceans. That's a problem because eventually it breaks down and ends up in the food chain. Last year a study found micro particles of plastics in human stool.

That's why Gross began his research into plants.

RPI professor researches plant-based plastics

"We are taking plant oils or triglycerides and converting them to monomers that we then polymerize and make bio-based polyethylene,” Gross said. “This re-designed polyethylene has groups in it that allow for its breakdown to monomers for re-polymerization or it’s biodegradation into bio active environments.”

Translation: Gross is using plant molecules to make plastics instead of petroleum. They can be broken down into molecules to produce more plant based plastics, a process that prevents downcycling.

Should these plant-based plastics end up in a landfill, they'll break down into plant monomers.

Gross is also working with chemical enzymes that can break down petroleum-based plastics. That's a big deal, because traditional recycling methods aren't that efficient.

"For example you can have a mixture of different plastics, but the enzyme will seek out that plastic that integrates and a grade only that,” Gross said. “So we can have mixed plastic waste and consider degrading individual components."

Gross’ method would also allow dirty or contaminated plastics to be utilized.

“The idea of using enzymes and chemical approaches to break down current plastic can get around some of the issues that the plastics aren’t clean, that they have residues,” Gross said. “We can work with that and overcome that problem with the right design of catalysts both enzymatic and chemical.”

Gross said enzyme breakdown approaches could be implemented within the next two to five years. But he said introducing plant based plastics to the market is a little further down the road.

"In terms of developing replacement monomers and polymers, that's more of a long-term opportunity,” Dr. Gross said. “That's going to take probably around 10 years to realize."

It'll be costly and big oil certainly won't be on board, which is why Gross believes lawmakers will have to step in.

"There's no question that legislation has got to play a part in this solution as well because companies are going to be a little bit hesitant to make these very large changes,” Dr. Gross said. “Unless there's so much public pressure that it pushes them in that direction."

Gross argues these processes would create a continual recycling stream, therefore saving both natural and financial resources.

"Ultimately what we're doing is were entombing carbon and energy and were absolutely wasting important resources,” he said.

To be clear, you should absolutely still be recycling. More and more companies are using the materials to make textiles and jewelry, so manufacturers are finding new ways to use the recycled materials.

You can take also initiative, making sure you're rinsing and sorting recycling properly. You can also using reusable water bottles, utensils and grocery bags to reduce the amount of plastics that are being produced.

You can find more information on the Albany DGS website.


Emily Burkhard

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