Noyac residents threw out question after question about trash and recycling on Tuesday to a Southampton Town official, who summed up the situation with municipal solid waste like this: “We are overwhelmed.”
Christine Fetten, Southampton’s director of municipal works, visited the Noyac Civic Council on an invitation to talk about waste and recycling in the wake of a three-part news series published by the Press News Group that had caught the group’s attention.
“As you’ve all seen in the paper recently, there’s been a big upset in the industry as a whole. It’s affecting all of Long Island,” Ms. Fetten said.
Southampton Town, from what officials can tell, takes in 15 percent of the municipal solid waste discarded by its residents, with private carting companies hauling the rest of it to commercial disposal sites outside the town, Ms. Fetten said. She said it’s possible that many people pay a carter to take away the trash and then take recyclables to one of the town’s four transfer stations themselves.
Diane Hewett, a vice president of the Noyac Civic Council, asked a key question: “We heard the guys who pick up our trash do the recycling for us. Is that true?”
Ms. Fetten’s response was, “To a point.” She said whether or not carters recycle is heavily dependent on what kind of market exists for recyclables — such as the price someone will pay for recycled plastic, which is tied to the price of oil; or the price someone will pay for paper, depending on how high-quality the paper material is.
“Recycling is very manual-labor intensive, depending on which way you do it,” she said. “When your carter says they recycle it, that’s a handpicked process generally. … If it’s not fetching a good dollar, it’s not going into the recycling market at that time. That’s the benefit of source separation.”
The actions of other municipalities also impact recycling and waste disposal in Southampton Town, Ms. Fetten said. Some years ago, when Brookhaven Town opted in to single-stream recycling — in which all types of recyclables could be mixed together — it affected Southampton. “Brookhaven changed their plant and their mechanics, and they couldn’t continue to take our comingled containers,” she said.
It led to Southampton Town’s current agreement with Islip Town for comingled container recycling. Brookhaven recently switched back to dual-stream recycling, a system in which paper and cardboard are collected together on one day and plastic and metal are collected together on a different day. Glass is no longer collected at curbside in Brookhaven.
Ms. Fetten also explained the contamination factor: Many times, recyclables aren’t clean enough to be truly recycled, and instead they get tossed along with the solid waste. She said the best way to make sure something has the best chance at being recycled is to clean it, separate it and haul it yourself to one of the transfer stations.
During a discussion on solid waste, Ms. Fetten defined “small bulk” as a cubic yard and “large bulk” items as anything greater than a cubic yard, and broke down the fees for the North Sea transfer station, which has a scale for weighing vehicles that bring in bulk refuse. But the fees were not without criticism.
“I’ve noticed the numbers are all over the place,” said Noyac resident Matt Burns. “There’s not a lot of consistency. It seems a little bit puzzling sometimes.”
Currently, Southampton is seeing an average of 6,000 tons per year collected at all four transfer stations together. According to a graph Ms. Fetten displayed on Tuesday, the volume of trash decreased from 2006 to 2010 then rose again through 2016 before dropping again in 2017. Mixed paper has been trending downward, which she said could be attributed to shifts toward electronic communication and banking. Comingled container recycling is also on the downward slide as people get used to the idea of reusable water bottles and other containers, she said. Cardboard recycling has been on a slight uptick, which could likely be attributed to increases in online shopping, which yields the boxes, Ms. Fetten said.
Among her goals for the town are establishing a permitting and tracking process for private carters and reducing or eliminating single-use products such as straws and Styrofoam food containers.
Southampton would like to “make wise choices to reduce the carbon footprint of the town as a whole,” Ms. Fetten said.
Her talk on Tuesday was well-received by the small crowd that had gathered at the Old Noyac Schoolhouse.
“I thought it was excellent,” said Janet Grossman. “There were so many things she helped with that were bothering me.”
Ms. Hewett said Wednesday that she was surprised to hear it is still better to separate and drop off one’s own recyclables than rely on carters to do so.
“I also guess I feel like they are trying and doing the best they can with the really hard situation of our society’s waste problem, but also that perhaps overall there is too much of a reactive rather than proactive stance,” she said. “I feel like the town needs to do more brainstorming and public outreach and helping to create a mindset of using and trashing less.”