A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Waste Not, Want Not: The Life and Stories of Ulster County Waste

by Terence P Ward
It’s not exactly obvious, but Ulster County has a solid waste problem. The problem is that all of the garbage collected by the county’s Resource Recovery Agency (UCCRA) is hauled over 200 miles to Seneca Lake, New York, because there isn’t a landfill closer, and estimates of what that costs crest $8 million a year. As UCRRA is, by law, the only game in town, it’s a cost which is borne by every person who creates garbage. While an increase in garbage-collection bills or the cost of a town transfer station permit isn’t always a budget-buster, there are also environmental costs associated with carting solid waste so far away. Another possible red flag is the fact that New York City is now sending some waste to the same site, which means it will reach capacity sooner than county officials here might have hoped.
The UCRRA facility.
In some ways, the situation is much better than it was in the 1990s, when UCRRA was first created. At that time, nearly every town had a landfill, and they were all leaching toxins into the ground. Those have all been safely closed down, but the next anticipated step—siting a single landfill somewhere in the county—never came to fruition. Landfills are a tough sell to neighbors, and every time the idea has been suggested in Ulster County it’s resulted in some backlash. However, the current system is viewed as unsustainable both fiscally and environmentally, and a number of people in government here are working to do something to improve the state of affairs.

 

Because of the flow-control law, no matter how someone in Ulster County disposes of their waste, it’s going to end up at the Resource Recovery Agency facility outside of Kingston. A resident might use a private hauler or bring materials to a town transfer station, while the hauling company trucks are required either go to those same transfer stations or the RRA facility directly since the fees are the same. UCRRA executives prize recycling brought by individuals to transfer stations because it’s often much more sorted than what arrives on trucks. UCRRA has equipment to process and bale dual-stream recycling, where fibers such as cardboard are separated from plastics, and then sells the material to any of about a dozen brokers. The single-stream recycling can’t be processed locally, and there are only two or three brokers bidding on it. According to Executive Director Tim Rose, the prices on all materials fluctuate daily.
What’s left is the municipal solid waste (MSW) and construction and demolition (C&D), which is hauled away by a trucking company. Including tipping fees at the landfill, Rose said it costs about $6.2 million annually to get rid of 120,000 tons of waste. In addition to the cost of the trucking itself, the process adds over 3,400 long-haul truck trips to the Thruway to bring the materials to western New York.
The biggest push is to find ways to reduce the amount of waste which is considered garbage, by finding ways to recycle and reuse what people and businesses throw away. The county now has a commission studying solid waste issues, and that’s what the group is focusing on first. Some categories being eyed closely include building materials and food waste, which represent a considerable amount of the tonnage now being sent to Seneca Lake’s facility. Nationally, up to 66 percent of all waste going into landfills is organic material and 25 to 30 percent of that is food waste.
Laura Petit is the recycling coordinator in New Paltz, which is one of 13 communities nationwide that was selected by the EPA for a pilot zero-waste community initiative. Some of the efforts in New Paltz are echoed in other parts of the county, and the successes and failures there could provide much needed hints about how to improve the system overall. “To date, waste designated for landfills located more than four hours away has been reduced by 20 percent in 2012, 11 percent in 2013, and 7 percent in 2014, a reduction of 163 tons. Part of the success of the Zero Waste Action Plan is that it was written by the public through comments received during several interactive workshops. New Paltz was also fortunate to have many hands on volunteers who worked to create new programs: Wolfe Bravo, Tool Share; John Wackman, Repair Café; Jens Verhaegh, Perennial Gardens/Annual Zero Waste event; [and] SUNY New Paltz students who provided invaluable insight in public relations/marketing, craftsmanship, and elbow grease; and many, many more individuals that made programs a reality.”
Petit said that some of the programs being tested in New Paltz include composting and a textile-and-clothing swap, the latter of which was responsible for keeping six tons of material out of the waste stream this year, much of which was donated to causes that clothe people in need. Not everything has worked equally well, however. “It seems people are more willing to participate in clothing drop-offs than composting, even though organics is about 30 percent of the waste stream, because they put a value on a sweater. Potato peels, not so much.”
“The New Paltz Zero Waste Plan, due to the dynamics of this community, is much more than garbage,” Petit said. “It encompasses environmental, economic, and social issues that are connected at the center by sustainability.”

 

Giving people options to recycle rather than throw away, and then getting them to adopt them, could eventually make it possible to site a landfill locally. Right now, the base criterion is a space of 200 acres or more, but less waste means a smaller space. Ulster County mandates that some retailers recycle film plastic. Likewise, electronics are collected at the UCRRA headquarters in Kingston. What these programs have in common is that they lack a curbside pickup option, which may be what it takes to get them more widely adopted. Behavior is a tricky thing.