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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Trashing Recyclables

Air Date: Week of

David Leonard, of West Sand Lake, New York, was sure he saw his garbageman throwing his recyclables into the garbage truck. So he caught it on tape and sent it to Dina Capiello, a local investigative reporter who broke the story. Host Steve Curwood talks with Mr. Leonard and Ms. Capiello about why private hauling companies often resort to trashing your recyclables.


CURWOOD: Each week, millions of Americans bundle the newspapers, magazines, and junk mail, wash out the cans, crush the plastic containers, and set it all out on the curb for recycling. Most of us assume the materials are trucked to some factory and reprocessed into useful products. And that's what David Leonard of West Sand Lake, New York, thought, until the day he saw his trash hauler dump the contents of his recycling bin straight into an ordinary garbage truck. Later he read stories in the Albany Times Union by Dina Capiello, who reported that other folks had seen their recyclables being thrown away, too. So, Mr. Leonard decided to do some sleuthing of his own.

LEONARD: So I got my video recorder, went out in the garage, got all my recyclables out, put them on the roadside where they were supposed to go, went back in the garage and I waited. And a truck pulled up. So I filmed them through the garage window. And the truck stops by, and the guy picks up the bucket of glass bottles and the tin cans and the plastic and the newspaper, and he throws them in the back of the truck, in the basic trash hopper.

CURWOOD: So how did you feel when you saw your recyclables getting thrown in the trash with the garbage?

LEONARD: Well, I wasn't sure what he was doing, and I said, Jeez, you know, what's this guy doing? Is he new, a rookie, or what's the deal? I said maybe he made a mistake, you know? I was kind of a little bit irritated, because I spend time cleaning bottles, wrapping up newspaper, separating everything, put it out there. I estimate we spend an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half a week doing this for the service of the community and the earth. So I made a copy of the tape and Dina came over. We looked at it together, and said, yeah, this is obvious that this guy is doing it every week and he doesn't care.

CURWOOD: Let me turn now to you, Dina Capiello. Are companies that trash recyclables breaking the law?

CAPIELLO: Yes. Companies that trash recyclables are breaking both state and local laws. On the state level, because they're taking what people have source separated and are mixing it back in with the trash. And on the local level because they're throwing away things that local governments have on the books as to be recycled.

CURWOOD: Well, what's the incentive for these private haulers to mix the stuff? It's against the law. Why do they want to get busted or run the risk of that?

CAPIELLO: Because it saves them money. That's the simple answer. You have to remember that these people are in the transport business, and to make a lot of money transporting, you've got to do two things. You've got to get a lot of quantity, a lot of tons of trash and tons of recyclables in the shortest amount of time. You know, this is all about the market. If the market's good for plastics and sorting facilities are getting paid top dollar for plastics, then they're going to be able to pay the haulers more to take the plastics to them. So I think, you know, the haulers are very much in tune to that market, and it goes from the market to the sorters to the haulers.

CURWOOD: So the law is kind of contradictory. It says on the one hand it's supposed to make financial sense, and yet the incentives for the trash haulers don't make financial sense.

CAPIELLO: Exactly. And in many cases, you know, there is this other issue of contamination in terms of dirty recyclables. People not doing it at the curb properly. And I actually went on the route with the owner of the largest independent hauler in the region and looked at recycling bins with him, and saw that, yeah, I would say two-thirds of the block, there was something wrong with the recyclables. Now, what's wrong ranges everywhere from having caps on your Snapple bottles to having, you know, your recyclables in plastic bags is also an issue.

CURWOOD: So why can't the companies refuse to pick that stuff up? I mean, my hauler, if I don't sort it right (laughs) it's there the next time I go out.

CAPIELLO: A lot of the haulers will say hey, you know, it's not our job to enforce it. We're making money. People want their trash and their recyclables to miraculously disappear when they wake up in the morning. If we leave it there, we're going to lose customers. But I do think that on some occasions, contamination is an excuse.

CURWOOD: How widespread is this problem, Dina?

CAPIELLO: It's hard to quantify. I do know from my reporting that, you know, although no landfills really in the area spot check specifically for recyclables, they do see a small amount of recyclables in every load that goes to the landfill. Now, whether that's from contamination or from just, you know, cutting corners, I'm not really sure. Now, we did do, the Times Union did do a Web survey and received over thirty different e-mails from people who said they've seen this happen in their front yard. And those e-mails covered at least ten different hauling companies in the area.

CURWOOD: Now, do they suffer any kind of penalty for this? Or is it the sort of thing, it's, you know, 55 mile-an-hour speed limit, nobody pays any attention to it and nobody really winds up in court over it?

CAPIELLO: Local municipalities on the books, in the laws they have written, have penalties that they can assess to these haulers. They don't usually. Usually what happens is people like David Leonard call their hauler directly and say, Hey, knock it off. Or they call up their town clerk and say, Hey, this is happening. And then the town clerk either goes to the recycling coordinator if there is one, or the Department of General Services, and says, Call up the hauler and tell him to knock it off.

CURWOOD: Has the problem been fixed in your neighborhood, Mr. Leonard?

LEONARD: The following week I went out with my video camera, because I wanted to see what kind of reaction I would get. So I went out and I sat on the hood of the car with my video camera, and the same trash guy came down the street with the same truck, and he stopped. And he went over and he picked up the newspapers, and he put them up on a high bin. He went over and he took the trash out of the hopper, or out of my can, and he put it in the back hopper. And then he saw me filming, so he pushed my can over and knocked it on the ground. Then he went over and looked at the recyclables. He looked through them. He didn't touch them, he moved them out of the way, and then he went back to his truck, and then he took off. So I filmed all that, and I filmed him doing it to my neighbors. And so, the next week I watched and the same thing happened and the same thing happened. So, in my estimation, they cleaned up their act. And that kind of bummed me out a bit, because I wanted to get him really dirty on tape, and I was out there for ten minutes filming that in one week (laughs).

CURWOOD: (Laughs) David Leonard is a residential contractor who lives outside of Albany in West Sand Lake, New York, and Dina Capiello is an investigative environmental reporter for the Albany Times Union. Thank you both.

LEONARD: Thank you, Steve. You’re welcome.

CAPIELLO: Thank you, Steve.



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