NEWARK, NJ — For decades, cities and towns across the nation have collected mixed plastic via recycling programs in an attempt to beat back a looming waste crisis. But according to a recent report that studied five large U.S. cities — including Newark — the vast majority of that plastic isn’t “recycled” at all.
Instead, it’s burned, the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) says.
In a report released last month, GAIA, an international coalition of environmental activist groups, took a look at recycling numbers in Newark, Baltimore, Detroit, Long Beach and Minneapolis. The common link? All currently incinerate their waste or have recently relied on waste incineration.
The statistics are eye-opening, researchers said. Only 8.8 percent of all plastic in the waste stream in the five cities is actually recycled. Nearly all of the rest is burned or trucked to nearby landfills.
In New Jersey’s most populated city, Newark, a measly 11 percent of plastic gets recycled, with the remainder incinerated.
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Read the full report and see its methodology here.
Why are rates in these cities so low? Much of the plastic being thrown out was never meant to be recycled in the first place.
According to researchers:
“64.3 percent of all plastic in the waste stream in the five cities is not recyclable through municipal recycling or state redemption programs … In the five cities, only 24 percent of potentially recyclable plastic (#1, #2, #5) gets recycled; 76 percent gets incinerated or landfilled. Conversely, 12 to 55 percent of all plastic that ended up in single-stream recycling programs was not recyclable.”
But what about those little arrows on the package? Don’t they mean an item can be recycled? Not always, researchers said:
“Plastic packaging is generally required by state laws to be labeled with #1–7 and chasing arrows to signify the resin used to make that product. These resin numbers lead municipalities and consumers to believe that the plastic they put in their recycling bin or cart can be recycled. In reality, most plastic in the waste stream is not recycled, and the #1–7 codes have become a greenwashing tool for single-use plastic. Recycling arrows that surround the numbers on plastic packaging are used by consumer goods companies, even when the product packaging is not actually recyclable.”
And that translates into a whole lot of garbage that has to be disposed of in landfills or other ways — such as burning it.
In Newark, 89 percent of the city’s plastic ends up being incinerated, much of it at the Covanta Essex facility on Raymond Boulevard, the coalition said.
The Newark “waste-to-energy” facility accepts trash from 21 other municipalities in the county and New York City, combusting 2,800 tons per day of municipal garbage and generating about 65 megawatts of electricity.
Covanta has maintained that emissions at its Newark facility are well below federal and state thresholds. The company has reduced its overall emissions more than 72 percent since launching a sustainability program in 2007, according to its website. In addition, its facility in Newark processes up to 985,000 tons of waste per year that would otherwise end up in landfills, instead turning it into enough power to run 46,000 homes.
In July, the company started releasing emissions data for its three major facilities in New Jersey to the public, including Newark. Other facilities are located in Camden and Rahway.
- See related article: Covanta Releases Emissions Data For Newark Trash Incinerator
But activists say they aren’t giving up the battle to shed light on the plastic-to-trash problem in the Garden State.
“The Ironbound community has faced decades of pollution from an unjust waste system that has allowed the Covanta incinerator to operate, and for plastic to proliferate across the state,” charged Maria Lopez-Nunez of the Newark-based Ironbound Community Corporation.
“False solutions, such as incineration and chemical recycling, are preventing a just and equitable transition to zero-waste for environmental justice communities across Ne to burn the planet,” Lopez-Nunez said.
“This report clearly shows that our government officials have failed the Ironbound community time and again,” Lopez-Nunez added. “Not only have they allowed the Covanta incinerator to continue to burn, they have turned a blind eye to the waste problem.”
- See related article: The Color Purple: Newark Residents Fed Up With Incinerator Smoke
Here are some other local statistics for Newark cited in the study:
- “For every two tons of recyclable plastic that is collected through Newark’s MSW program, three tons are non-recyclable.”
- “The vast majority of plastic in the study was not recyclable in Newark’s municipal program, including 22.7% non-recyclable plastic and 36.4% film. 30.1% of all plastic could be diverted to recycling but is currently in the trash stream and incinerated.”
- “Only 8.7% of all plastic in the waste stream is recyclable plastic collected through Newark’s residential recycling collection program.”
ZERO-WASTE ACROSS THE U.S.
According to GAIA researchers, the companies that produce this problem plastic — not individual cities — are the ones who should ultimately pay to keep it out of the waste stream.
“Data on municipal waste flows is absent, old and difficult to find,” the report stated. “This allows the plastic industry to exploit loopholes and push self-serving narratives, and creates challenges for cities and communities that want to shift to true zero-waste systems.”
Part of the problem is that the numbers are sketchy and incomplete. In Newark, no published waste or recycling characterization studies were found, and recycling information was not provided by the city’s contractor when requested, the coalition said.
But in the end, there’s hope — if local officials and activists are willing to take up the fight, the group said.
“The cities in this study have the potential to be at the forefront of reimagining the system and truly shifting their communities to a circular, zero-waste economy,” GAIA stated.
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