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Sorry, You’re Still Recycling Wrong. Experts Talk NJ’S Worst Waste Habits.

by Steven Rodas | NJ Advance Media for

This story is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement. Link to story:

Flattened soda cans, plastic bottles, and shards of paper formed mini-mountains at the 58-acre recycling center in Keasbey.And still, Michael Oppelt, operations manager at Bayshore Recycling, spotted the rogue plastic hanger.

“It’s not polyethylene, it’s a polypropylene hanger,” he remarked of why it didn’t belong.

“The industry as a whole is imperfect,” Oppelt explained during a recent tour of Bayshore Recycling, which services about 1.4 million people—or roughly 15 percent of the entire state.

“The mills that are consuming this stuff and turning it into new water bottles, they’re equipped to handle some contamination because they have to be,” he continued. “One or two hangers in a bale is not going to make a difference but if I can grab one as I’m walking by, I’m gonna.”

While residents don’t need to know plastics down to their chemical compounds to be effective recyclers, there’s still ample nuance in the world of waste in New Jersey they should know.

And even though we’ve made strides in the last three and a half decades, we’re still not always recycling quite right.

Are we recycling effectively? Data dating back to 1995 shows our recycling rate has slightly dipped in recent years.

Recycling managers also say non-recyclable items are still finding their way into processing centers and the ways towns are collecting the waste indicate we can likely bolster our efforts to even greater heights.

“In a nutshell, New Jersey is a successful recycling state but can be improved,” Serpil Guran, director of Rutgers University’s EcoComplex Clean Energy Innovation Center, said in an interview. “There is always better than best.”

In the last nearly 40 years, New Jersey has taken aggressive steps to minimize our waste, better recycle the trash our growing population produces and provide education on better disposal habits.

The latest strategies: a wide-spanning ban on plastic bags and limits on straws and paper bags.

But what have these laws meant for the trash that places like Bayshore are seeing? New Jersey recycled about 54 percent of the approximately 22 million tons of waste it disposed of in 2021—a decrease from our peak of 63 percent in 2015, according to the latest figures from the NJDEP released in mid-March. That’s still above the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Recycling Goal of a 50 percent recycling rate, which the agency hopes to achieve nationally by 2030.

On average, a person in New Jersey on a daily basis disposed of 11.83 pounds of waste a year in 1995. That jumped to about 13 pounds in 2021. A breakdown of just what those materials ar— including plastic containers, tires, office paper and batteries—can be found at

By comparison, Ohio—a state known for having among the lowest track records for recycling—hit a high of 30 percent in 2020.

New Jersey became a national leader in recycling in 1987, experts said.

That year the Garden State passed a groundbreaking recycling bill — becoming the first state nationwide to “institute comprehensive statewide mandatory recycling.”

According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the law required all 21 counties to craft plans that mandated local recycling of at least three designated recyclable materials. It’s long been credited for reshaping how residents and businesses manage waste.

What impact did banning plastic bags have? Helping our waste efforts further, New Jersey in 2022 enacted a law barring stores from handing out plastic bags and paper bags at most supermarkets and big box stores.

It also restricted Styrofoam-like products and re-enforced limits on how restaurants and food trucks give out plastic straws.

Anecdotally, Oppelt, the operations manager at Bayshore Recycling, said the center’s screens, which process waste, are not getting jammed as much by the low-density polyethylene most plastic shopping bags are made of.

“On any given day, to de-clog the screens was a four-man job at 30 minutes per job and we were doing it twice a day,” Oppelt said of how things looked pre-ban.

Oppelt said that job now takes only two workers and lasts roughly 15 minutes. What once were multiple-story piles of plastic bag debris that came in regularly are now meager piles of only a few feet.

Nary a reusable bag—made of nylon, cloth, hemp products or other washable fabrics and designed for multiple uses—has been spotted at Bayshore Recycling so far this year, Oppelt said.

What can we do better? Recycling center officials, during a tour in early March, said plenty of other “tanglers” can still cause issues.

“So tanglers would be wire rope. For some reason, everybody thinks they can recycle their garden hoses. … We get an extraordinary amount of sports equipment, a lot of bowling balls,” said Gary Sondermeyer, vice president of operations at Bayshore Recycling, who spent 30 years working for the NJDEP and has been in the garbage and recycling industry for nearly half a century.

In short, don’t throw tanglers along with the rest of your curbside recycling. The best option is to find somewhere that specifically recycles or salvages that material.

“When we first opened this system, the first week our operations manager came in and he put two full paper bags of needles and syringes on my desk,” said Sondermeyer. “It’s not that people are being nefarious or anything. If you’re an at-home diabetic, you can almost see it. They look at the thing and say, ‘Oh, this part’s metal, this part’s of plastic, maybe it’s recyclable.’”

It can largely come down to that: well-meaning residents tossing waste where it doesn’t belong or on the wrong day or in the wrong place.

There is a bevy of ways to remedy that.

Beware of “Tanglers” “Tanglers,” New Jersey recycling experts said, are materials that can gum up the works at waste management facilities. They are often mistakenly recycled by residents on the curb.

Reducing the amount of clothes you buy (and then toss), how much food you leave in a container you’re throwing away (pesky rats scuttled about the Keasbey center in search of food remains) or how many bottles you dispose of (try to refill them or get a multi-use bottle) are some steps you can take at home.

Other strategies: re-use plastic shopping bags and dispose of them in specialized bins at big box stores, develop better reusable bag habits like not forgetting them at home or fill a bin of them in your trunk. And, if you live in a town that recycles by material type, be sure to separate items at home.

Guran, director of Rutgers’ EcoComplex Clean Energy Innovation Center, pointed to the issues that waste residue—materials that get sent to the processing facilities but can’t be recycled—can present when it ends up in a landfill or is burned at a trash incinerator thus worsening air quality.

“Every product has a carbon footprint,” Guran said over why that’s important, “if we incorporate waste back into the economy within the concept of (a) circular economy, we’re going to reduce the carbon footprint (and that would) impact climate change mitigation efforts positively.”

New Jersey has also considered limits and programs to address the proliferation of plastic bottles and plastic utensils.

“New York is trying to pass another law that if somebody creates packaging … they have to be responsible (for paying for that) packaging contamination,” said Guran. “Maine, Oregon and California have similar laws. We don’t have that kind of law but New Jersey could join them.”

To learn more about how your county recycles,

Have a question about how recycling works where you live? Find your county coordinator or your municipal coordinator here: