SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Changing market conditions are impacting what can and cannot be recycled and, in the Borough of South Plainfield, bins containing unacceptable items will not be emptied beginning next month. 

Effective March 1, clear or blue plastic recycling bags can no longer be used and the borough, along with its recycling company Solterra, will work together to ensure that unacceptable items are not placed in recycling containers. In South Plainfield, bins with items that cannot be recycled will be tagged and not emptied. Residents will be able to remove the contaminated items and have bins emptied on their next regularly scheduled collection day or bring recyclables to the borough’s drop-off center during regular operating hours. 

“We hope that the first round of tagging will take care of the problem, but if follow-up tagging is needed, we will eventually issue violations to repeat offenders,” said Alice Tempel, recycling coordinator for South Plainfield. 

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While plastics (those marked 1 PETE or 2 HOPE only), aluminum and steel cans, glass bottles, mixed papers (newspaper, magazines, junk mail, catalogs, etc.), and corrugated cardboard are still considered ‘recyclable,’ many other plastics along with pizza boxes, Styrofoam, dirty food containers, aluminum foil, dishware, glasses, mirrors, light bulbs, plastic and paper cups, pots, pans, and small appliances are not and should not be put in recycling bins. Additionally, ‘tanglers’ (electric cords, garden hoses, ribbon, etc.) along with shredded paper and plastic bags are also not recyclable. 

“We were previously accepting clean pizza boxes. However, too many people do not realize, apparently, that a box that is stained with grease is not clean,” said Tempel, telling TAPinto South Plainfield that boxes still containing pizza, including one with a full pie, have been found in the past. 

Although the borough once accepted shredded paper, over the past year that, too, has changed. “We used to tell residents they could put it in their bins in a clear plastic bag; however, that was based on misinformation about how recyclables are being sorted at the Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs),” she said, adding that plastic bags, like tanglers, that are mixed with recyclables can get wrapped around gears and clog screens, resulting in the line having to be shut down several times during the day. “They can lose hours of processing time because of bags and other tangling things like electric cords and garden hoses.” 

Plastic bags, said Tempel, can be recycled at most supermarkets and residents who want their confidential papers recycled can bring them to one of the free county-sponsored paper-shredding events held throughout the year; South Plainfield’s is held in September in the Community Pool parking lot. 

According to Tempel, the new ‘recycling rules’ are not specific to the borough with changing market conditions having a widespread impact on what can and cannot go into curbside recycling bins. “Because of geopolitical and economic changes over the last several years, market demand for recyclables has decreased and it is harder for the MRFs to sell their bales. “If the bales are not perfectly clean - less than 0.05-percent  contamination - nobody will buy them,” she said.

Until 2017, she said, China was taking the bulk of U.S. recyclables, and they had cheap labor that sorted the trash out of the bales. That changed, she said, when the government said it would no longer take other countries' trash and put up a ‘green fence’ at their ports. The U.S. then began selling to Vietnam, but last year they began refusing dirty loads also. Additionally, in late 2019, India also shut its ports.

“Because of the trouble the MRFs are having moving the material, they are charging the haulers ever increasing rates to dump contaminated loads,” said Tempel, noting that continuous disposal of unacceptable items in recycling bins will result in recycling costs continuing to increase. 

“Contamination in the bin drastically increases the MRF's cost to separate and market the material and send the garbage to the landfill,” she said. “We were shielded from this because we are in the Middlesex County Improvement Authority's recycling program, and their contract with Solterra let us pay the same price we were paying three years ago. That contract is over at the end of March. The new contract is almost double the cost of the old one.”

For a complete list of what can and cannot be put in recycling bins, visit http://www.southplainfieldnj.com/spnj/Departments/Departments/Recycling/. The South Plainfield Recycling Center, located on Kenneth Avenue just past the ball fields, is open Tuesdays from 12 to 7 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call (908) 226-7621. 

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