May 06, 2019 — Jennifer Reid was near the bins for recycling plastic inside the town of North Elba Recycling Center when Bob Hudak walked in with two gray totes. Written on the side of one was “#2 PLASTIC.” But Reid saw more than No. 2 plastic in the tote, so she swooped in to make sure it was all getting sorted properly. As she helped Hudak throw plastic containers into the bins, she realized he had it under control.
“You’re as good as me with the number thing, aren’t you?” Reid said.
“Experience,” Hudak replied.
The Recycling Center is the first building people see when they arrive at the transfer station. It’s on the right of the road; to the left is the old dump, capped in the 1990s. Painted brown, the Recycling Center looks like a warehouse. Inside, there are two rooms. The garage-like room in the front is lined with big, green compactors and plastic bins to sort the recyclables. The back room – behind a sliding door – is for employees; it’s where they take everything after the bins and compactors are full.
This is a busy place. People like Hudak, of Saranac Lake, continually walk through the door with their totes and bags full of cans, bottles and paper. Some people ask for help, some don’t. Some people are seeing friends and neighbors and catching up on the latest news. And some are in and out quickly so they can finish their errands and get home.
It gets noisy, with the clanking of glass, thuds of aluminum and tin cans, and the long, drawn-out hum of a compactor as it crushes cardboard. A radio crackles in the background, and a space heater overhead provides another layer of humming.
The smells can be as pleasant as laundry detergent and as unpleasant as a tuna can that has roasted in the heat for two weeks.
A watchful eye
Through all of this, Reid is keeping a watchful eye. She knows the regulars who are experienced at recycling – and are good at it – and the regulars who always need help. When she spots a newcomer, she gives a tour and a lesson of what’s recyclable and what’s not. It’s a constant process and makes for a day long.
“We have to make sure it’s done correctly because if you don’t do recycling correctly, then you might as well not recycle.”
Recycling has been in the news a lot lately, and it has people asking a lot of questions. Now that China has stopped importing plastics for recycling, they want to know if their recyclables are simply going into the trash. If so, then why recycle at all?
“There’s people out there, and it really upsets me, they think that we actually don’t recycle,” Reid said. “Well, I don’t think that I would have a job, first of all.”
The recycling market
There are currently no active municipal landfills inside the Adirondack Park. That means all the trash is collected at county transfer stations and shipped outside the Blue Line. The town of North Elba operates the Essex County transfer station in Lake Placid, and the trash is trucked north to the Franklin County landfill in Constable.
The recyclables are a different story. When Reid’s supervisor, Shannon Porter, began working at the transfer station 15 years ago, the town didn’t broker out the recycled material like it does today.
“I started out on the scales, and one day I was sitting there watching all the recycling go out,” Porter said. “It went to another party, and I realized that there was money to be had, so why not make money for the town?”
The market was pretty good back then. The town was getting $300 a ton for cardboard.
“Now, unfortunately, we’re down to like $50 a ton because things have changed over the years and a lot of it has to do with the zero sort,” Porter said of the practice by some trash companies to not sort recycled materials. “There was so much contamination in these loads that went overseas.”
None of the recycled material from the North Elba transfer station has gone overseas, according to Porter. Instead, they go to mills in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.The recyclables are compacted and packaged as bales, which are stored in the back room of the Recycling Center until they are loaded onto the trucks and shipped out.
“A lot of people see the back room and they’re like, ‘Oh, you throw it in the garbage,’” Porter said. “That’s not the case. We have never thrown anything in the garbage, unless it’s contaminated.”
The mills that received recyclables from North Elba will process everything that’s given to them if it’s packaged correctly and not contaminated.
First of all, recyclables must be clean when they come into the Recycling Center.
“Unfortunately people come in and think, ‘Oh we’re recycling,’ but their containers are full of food and dog food and sauce or oil and stuff like that in the containers,” Porter said. “That’s contamination. You really need to rinse them out. We don’t have the capabilities of doing it.”
Dirty recyclables — such as laundry detergent left inside plastic containers — can also lead to dirty employees. In the back room, there’s a pile of plastic that Reid has to “squoosh and push” — condensing the material so it can be baled.
“People have to understand, it’s not only the right thing to do to have it clean; it’s also gross,” Reid said, “because it gets on me, and that doesn’t make me too happy.”
Even clean, a load of recyclables can be contaminated when it includes the wrong kinds of materials.
“There’s rules like no black plastic,” Reid said, “no bags, no oil cans, no plant pots, stuff like that because there’s toxins in that that contaminate and then they contaminate the rest of the stuff.”
Styrofoam also needs to be thrown into the garbage instead of the recycling bins. “Styrofoam is very bad. They need to stop making it,” Reid said. “I do not know if anyone actually recycles Styrofoam around this area.” When the mills get a batch of recyclables that has more than 2 percent contamination, the material cannot be recycled and therefore must be thrown out.
“We’re fortunate because we’re hands on, and the workers sort, pick and they are very diligent with what they do throughout the day that we don’t really have contamination,” Porter said. “We are pretty much almost at zero percent (contamination) because of the work that they do here.”
Reid said she had a new customer walk into the Recycling Center one day. He had a lot of bags, and everything was mixed.
“And I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll help you.’ He was kind of overwhelmed because you have to separate everything…. We took everything out, and we showed him exactly where everything went.”
Learning all the recycling rules can be like learning a new language – the language of recycling. But after spending some time at the Recycling Center, people take ownership of the space. It becomes an extension of their home – a place to help save the planet and to socialize.
The most challenging moments, Reid said, are when people get upset at hearing that their recyclables are too dirty to be recycled. Most, however, are thankful for the help.
“What I love most about working in recycling is people coming in and not really knowing how it goes in here and then me talking to them, educating them, telling them exactly what we do here. We really do recycle. We really do ship this stuff out. It does not go overseas. They are so happy when they walk out.”
When people walk into the Recycling Center, there are three compactors on the right. The first is for magazines and newspapers. During our visit, there were several issues of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise next to a Wall Street Journal on top of the pile.
“A lot of people get confused on this one,” Reid said. “Not confused, but they don’t understand why they can’t put their paper products in here. Because the mill does not want it. They’ve called and said it literally has to be a newspaper or a magazine.”
The next two compactors on the right are for cardboard. Contaminants in cardboard include plastic packing slips and overabundance of tape, which must be removed.
Inside the cardboard bin, we saw Amazon shipping boxes; food boxes for Thomas’ English muffins, Klondike Ice Cream Bars and Marie Callenders chicken pot pie; a box for Ziploc plastic bags; and a box for a 12-bottle pack of Samuel Adams beer. Those are all acceptable.
“A lot of people don’t understand that the milk cartons, they think that’s cardboard,” Reid said. “It is not. It’s wax. And you know, the ice cream containers, those are also wax.”
On the left side of the room are the bins for plastics, a compactor for junk mail and office paper and bins for metal cans and containers.
“This is our aluminum, and this is tin,” Reid said. “And they’re separate because they’re different prices. A lot of people, they’re not sure of the difference between aluminum and tin, well that’s why we have this magnet right here…. So if you have a question and we’re at lunch, you can just, see how it sticks to the magnet? So tin sticks to the magnet … and aluminum does not.”
People can also leave aerosol spray cans; the Recycling Center has a machine that gets the liquid out, and the cans are recycled with the tin. There are also bins for glass and electronic waste and for returnable cans and plastic and glass bottles, the proceeds of which are donated to nonprofit groups in the community.
“You know what would be wonderful?” Reid said. “If anybody out there has doubts or doesn’t really know how recycling works, I would love for them to come down here and I would take them through everything.”
Although the North Elba Recycling Center is a busy place, there are many residents who don’t recycle. Reid said she thinks more people would use the facility if they were more educated about recycling. After all, she believes this is an important community service, and a free one at that.
“If people are not coming here, then are they throwing all this stuff that can be recycled in the garbage? That’s not good. First of all, they could be saving money. And second of all, saving the Earth. That’s what recycling’s all about. I mean, you put this stuff in the ground, and it’s years and years for it to go away, if at all.”