A Recycling Crisis Leads to New Innovations

(This is an article I wrote as part of a solutions journalism class during my undergrad)

On the Stony Brook University campus is a building called The Boathouse. It’s a concrete garage that holds the Marine Science program’s boat, vans and supplies. It looks no different from other campus buildings, but it might hold an answer to the recycling and waste crisis. The building is made mostly from trash.

The boathouse has been an experiment for Larry Swanson, a marine sciences professor at Stony Brook, and a few of his colleagues at the university’s Waste Reduction and Management Institute. It was constructed in 1990 using the innovative technique of combining municipal waste ash with concrete for use as an engineering aggregate. The building material is made up of 75 percent waste ash and 25 percent concrete.

Environmental programs and efforts have existed for decades but have taken on a new importance in the last several months as the United States has fallen into a recycling crisis. Early in 2018, the world’s largest customer for recyclables, China, has abruptly cut off imports on other nations’ garbage.

“People are sort of scratching their heads about what to do, but we’re all trying new things,” said Swanson.


On Long Island, in recent decades, most recyclables have been collected by sanitation companies working under contracts with towns. The cans, bottles, plastics and newspapers are taken to town recycling centers, where they are separated by machines and employees based on what kind of materials they are, then the plastics are compacted into bales.

For decades, China has bought most of those bales from U.S. recyclers, a trade which amounted to 10.8 million tons of material and $5.6 billion in 2017, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc.

In May 2018, China stopped buying almost all recyclables from the United States as part of its expanded environmental protection legislation, part of an attempt to curb the environmental damage done by the skyrocketing industrial growth in the nation. With China having industrialized at an unprecedented rate over the last several decades, the country is now beginning to face their own problems with waste, as well as their position as one of the worst polluting countries. It also comes after a 2015 study conducted by research group Berkeley Earth that estimated the rampant pollution contributed to 1.6 million deaths per year in China. Since then, the market for recyclable materials has been nearly non-existent.

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Recycling centers across the country have been at capacity or over capacity now that their main customer is no longer buying from them. Some centers have gotten special permissions from their town or state to bring a portion of those recyclables to landfills so that the centers could keep taking their citizens materials. This has presented another problem as landfills begin to reach their maximum capacities. Use of sustainable building aggregates like those used in The Boathouse could help to to alleviate the issue of landfill space while also buying time to find a new solution for recyclables.
Swanson and his group brought their research to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in 2017, hoping to get a Beneficial Use Determination, which would allow the technology to be used across the state, but the DEC rejected their attempts despite more than 25 years of environmental test data that scientists supplied.

The DEC’s reasoning for this decision has been concern over whether the public would approve of using repurposed trash in their buildings, Swanson said.

The DEC declined to comment.

Over the past 28 years, the Stony Brook scientists have tested the chemical stability of the boathouse itself and water runoff from the building to make sure no toxic substances were released. The material has proved to be completely safe and chemically stable.

When concrete is poured for a structure, it begins a process called hydration, in which the water and cement begin to form calcium silicate hydrate molecules. This is the glue that holds the material together and creates the durable material we refer to as concrete. As the material absorbs moisture and slowly dries, it strengthens. This process continues over years, and when complete, the material has doubled in hardness and strength. The boathouse has doubled in strength in almost exactly the same fashion as traditional concrete, Swanson said.

Swanson said that regardless of these findings and tests he conducted, the DEC has not changed its stance on the use of municipal ash in concrete, nor has the technique been adopted on large-scale construction projects.

While the DEC struggles over the public perception of these new technologies, the Town of Brookhaven Recycling Center on Long Island in Yaphank, New York has had an exceptionally difficult time dealing with buildup of material since the Chinese banned plastic imports. More than half of the gigantic facility is filled with piles of plastic and paper over 10 feet high. Industrial loaders and forklifts shuffle the waste from place to place in an attempt to provide workers adequate room to sort recyclables.

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A worker looks over his shoulder at the daunting piles of plastic

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The conveyor belts where employees pick through the garbage and recyclables

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Piles of garbage like this are scattered around the Town of Brookhaven recycling center

Employees at the facility often are stationed along extensive conveyor belts that stretch most of length of the building, picking out the non-recyclable material that could not be properly separated by the massive machinery. After this, the recyclables are brought to industrial baling machines where it is compacted into large blocks. Before the China ban took place, it would be sent out to be shipped to China. Now, the blocks just sit and wait.

“This building was clean about a month ago,” a Town of Brookhaven official said during a visit with Stony Brook students in Sep. 2018.

The non-recyclable waste is loaded onto trucks that take it to a nearby incinerator where it is burned and turned to ash. Then, it is loaded back onto the trucks and brought back to the landfill, where it is added to the mountain of dense ash.

While the boathouse presents one solution to the recycling crisis, one of Swanson’s colleagues has been working on another approach.

Another Stony Brook professor, Frank Roethel, has been working on another project that should help the Town of Brookhaven Landfill with its own overcrowding issues. Roethel’s research is mostly in the area of beneficial use of waste. He is seeking approval by the DEC and funding to mine into the landfill to remove some of the usable metals from all the ash.

The process would use a combination of mining technology and sediment sorting technology to separate particles of metal from the ash based on size. According to Roethel’s research, the particles that the machine would collect would be too small to have any significant contamination.

It is easy to mistake the Brookhaven landfill for a mountain at first glance, until you see the blackened color of the ash. Dump trucks are constantly driving up and down hills in the trash to add to the piles. Some sections of the landfill have actually been covered in soil to give the appearance of a natural formation, as well as to seal the compacted trash from outside air and pests.

By Roethel’s estimates, the project should be able to cut down approximately 10 percent of the volume of the landfill and produce $200,000 worth of metal. He was granted a Research, Development and Demonstration Permit by the state on Aug. 10 and hopes to begin the project in the coming months.

Based on the current rate of waste being added to the Brookhaven landfill, it will reach its maximum capacity by 2032, but there have been proposals to close down the landfill sooner due to the rising costs and complaints from people living nearby. It costs about $6 million per year to haul ash to and from the landfill, but it would only cost $3 million to close the landfill over the next two- to three-year period.

Roethel said he hopes that, should the project go well, his team will be granted a “beneficial use determination” from New York State, which would allow the process of mining metals from garbage ash to be used statewide. His largest concern for the project has been funding. The money that would be made from the metals being mined would largely pay for the project, but to begin Roethel needs investments from private companies.

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Just a sliver of the ash mountains at the Brookhaven landfill

“We’re moving in the right direction, but the financial cost is not always viable,” Roethel said.

While Swanson and his colleagues at Stony Brook are working to get their technologies utilized, innovations in waste reduction have not been confined to New York.

On Sept. 5, the Mayor of Baltimore City announced a new program entitled the Baltimore Food Waste Recovery Strategy. Its goals are to reduce commercial food waste in the city by 50 percent, eliminate all food waste from higher education institutions, and divert 90 percent of food and organic waste generated by city officials, all by 2040.

This program is part of a larger accountability system set up by the State of Maryland to encourage waste source reduction programs. The counties that enact these types of programs receive “credits” that count toward their waste diversion goal of 40 percent. The system provides a way of quantifying the amorphous goal of reducing waste and encourages counties to be more proactive in providing environmentally friendly programs.

“If you encourage source reduction efficiently, the amount of waste reduces every year,” Caj Didigu of the Maryland Recycling department said.

The severity of this crisis has made efforts like the source reduction credit system in Maryland all the more important.

The EPA has been putting forth increased efforts in reducing waste in recent years, with case studies in several hospitals across the U.S. Only about 15 percent of a hospital’s waste consists of infectious materials that require incineration. The other 85 percent comprises paper, plastic, food or other recyclable materials. These case studies have been largely conducted by Terry Grogan, chief of the Municipal Waste Reduction Branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In one study, the EPA instituted guidelines to reduce the amount of overall waste produced by the hospital, donate unneeded materials to community groups and nonprofit organizations and institute a comprehensive recycling plan. The Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, increased the amount of solid waste diverted from the waste stream from 10 to 32 percent. After seven years the hospital even saved an average of $100,000 per year in disposal costs.

The effort to reduce waste can bring significant economic benefits even at a small scale. A Pizzeria Uno in New York saved over $1,000 per year simply from replacing cocktail napkins with reusable coasters. The book retailer Barnes & Noble has begun to reuse the boxes it uses to ship product to stores, saving on the cost of cardboard while cutting down on waste.

As recently as Oct. 18, New York City passed a ban on single-use plastic-foam cups. Attempts to ban these cups began in 2013 but have faced repeated challenges by the Dart Container company, makers of Styrofoam. In June 2017, Justice Margaret Chan turned away Dart’s challenge and upheld the ban. The legal battle was fought with help from nonprofit groups such as the National Resources Defense Counsel.

New York City now joins over 200 cities across the U.S. that have banned single-use foam cups.

The mounting pressure of the current recycling crisis is pushing states, counties and companies to put forth new solutions and create innovative solutions that could have a lasting impact on the future of the environment as well as the economy.

“To deal with the issue, we all have to be more inventive,” Caj Didigu said.

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