There’s progress still to be made if recycling rates in Delaware are to meet standards established by law in 2010.
That’s when the General Assembly enacted the Universal Recycling Law, with a goal of recycling 60% of municipal solid waste by 2020.
But the number was more like 37% in 2021, the Delaware Recycling Public Advisory Council said in its annual report last month.
The council noted, “Even though Delaware has not achieved the goals established in the legislation, a comprehensive statewide system has been developed to reduce the burden on our landfills and provide raw materials to the market through our diversion activities.”
Regarding the objective set more than a decade ago, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control recycling program manager Adam Schlachter said that it was “interim in nature and not statutorily required when the Universal Recycling Law was enacted.”
“That said, DNREC is consistently assessing what we can do to get to that goal.”
Mr. Schlachter added that, since the time the 60% number was instituted, Delaware has had a growing interest in the composting of food waste, which is one area that would give a boost to diversion efforts.
When it comes to progress, Delaware Solid Waste Authority spokesman Michael Parkowski said, “Since 2015, Delaware’s recycling rate has fluctuated between 42% and 37%, which is above the Environmental Protection Agency’s cited national average of 32%.
“There are many factors that cause fluctuation in recycling rates: the reduction of commercial recycling, the overall economy, the effect of COVID on the overall waste stream and many others. The reality is, we won’t reach these high goals unless we can find a way to reduce the amount of food waste going to landfills.”
Mr. Parkowski, who also serves as the authority’s chief of business and governmental services, continued, “DSWA is working with many organizations throughout Delaware to find ways to reduce and divert food waste from our landfills. We hope these efforts will lead to higher recycling rates for Delaware.”
The advisory council’s report also noted that “Delaware has made significant strides in the diversion of waste to new uses and in the reduction in the amount of waste sent to Delaware’s landfills since 2006.”
It added, “Due to COVID, the recycling rate for 2021 was still less than the 2019 pre-COVID rate. This is mainly due to a drop in the commercial recycling sector, as many people continue to work from home.
“There were also a few issues with haulers not having enough staff to collect yard waste. The amount of material sent to the landfills also increased for the tenth year in a row. Much of the increase in waste can be attributed to growth in population and economic development within the State.”
Further, there’s no credible way to measure how Delaware stacks up, since the “methodology is not consistent across all states, and the reality is that pretty much every state measures their recycling differently,” Mr. Schlachter said.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control regulates all the facilities the Delaware Solid Waste Authority operates, except those that are exempt, such as recycling centers. No state money is directly expended for recycling, and the authority generates its revenue through avenues like commercial and municipal waste pickup.
Additionally, Mr. Schlachter said, “DNREC often partners with DSWA on outreach and education efforts centering on recycling, waste reduction and other waste-related issues.”
Recycling helps state in several ways
Recycling is a boost to the state on many fronts, Mr. Schlachter said.
“The diversion of waste from disposal in our landfills has a variety of benefits for Delawareans,” he said. “The first one being it conserves landfill space, which is expensive to build and hard to site. Secondly, recycling provides significant greenhouse gas reductions when compared to using non-recycled feedstocks (original materials) in manufacturing.”
According to Mr. Schlachter, using the Environmental Protection Agency’s Waste and Recycling Model to calculate sustainability savings, Delaware’s 2021 diversion activities reduced emissions at a rate equal to removing over 176,000 vehicles from roads.
“The final benefit of recycling, which is often understated, is that it can be a boon for the state’s economy,” he said.
Using EPA’s model, “it was calculated that recycling activities added $67 million in wages to our economy in 2021. Between landfill conservation, greenhouse gas reductions and economic growth, recycling is a healthy asset for Delaware’s economy.”
Regarding selling packaged recycled material to commercial entities, Mr. Parkowski said that it fluctuates.
“The market is not the best it has ever been, (but) it’s certainly not the worst it’s ever been. It’s a pretty average market right now. We are getting paid for everything except glass, which is good,” he said.
“It’s kind of like the stock market. Prices can fluctuate for all sorts of reasons.”
The most received recyclable material is paper, and “it’s the thing that fluctuates (in price) the most.”
Cardboard rates usually spike in October due to a need for packaging and then drops by February, Mr. Parkowski said.
Predictably, he added, the volume of recyclables and trash overall rises significantly in the summer, when thousands of out-of-state visitors arrive at Sussex County beaches.
Materials Recovery Facility
Thanks to the “state-of-the-art” Materials Recovery Facility in New Castle, maintained by DSWA, “we have very high-quality recycling being bought from that ... facility, so where others have had issues selling material, Delaware has not,” Mr. Schlachter said.
However, he said, “Just because we have the technology to sort doesn’t mean we don’t want a cleaner recycling stream coming into the plant. Like other states, we have an issue with contamination (nonrecyclable items in the recycling stream), which can present issues within the plant.”
Then, there’s the holiday period, when the total volume increases around 5%-6%. But Mr. Parkowski said the system is structured to handle that influx.
According to the council’s report, the Materials Recovery Facility processes about 115,546 tons of recyclables per year, while Mr. Parkowski said its capacity is roughly 120,000 tons.
But for recycling to succeed, it requires a buy-in from the public, and Mr. Schlachter said citizens are making positive contributions in what can be a head-scratching program at times.
“While DNREC credits most of our residents with their enthusiasm to participate in the recycling program, we also acknowledge that there may be confusion around what can and cannot be recycled (especially for newcomers to Delaware), and that can impact our overall recycling success,” he said.
Count Dover resident Charles Spiering as one who believes in the process.
As he moved briskly to and from his truck unloading Styrofoam into a recycling container Tuesday, Mr. Spiering gave a thumbs-up to Delaware’s system.
“From what I can see, the state does pretty well,” he said. “There’s places to get rid of your batteries, your motor oil.”
Mr. Spiering spoke from the Cheswold Collection Station, where he visits once or twice a month for drop-offs.
“This place is a lifesaver,” he said. “I hate going all the way to the Sandtown (Landfill in Felton) to get rid of this stuff, so this is a real lifesaver for me.”
He believes in the immense importance of recycling.
“It’s important to take the stuff out of the system, the water table, the land that’s getting trashy,” he said. “It’s terrible the amount of time that farmers have to spend picking bottles up out of their fields. They didn’t used to have to do that, and the land was cleared, but it’s not like that anymore.”
On the road where he lives, “it’s like a deposit ground,” Mr. Spiering said. “Everyone goes to Wawa and McDonald’s, and then, they go in front of my place and throw their cups and bottles out the window.”
Knowledge is key
“Delaware law requires every waste hauler in the state to provide their customers with instructions on how to participate in the Universal Recycling program,” Mr. Schlachter said.
“The haulers do this in a variety of ways, from including a flyer in their customers’ bill to a refrigerator magnet for customers with details or just a link to an online resource. Some of the haulers have now started to put weatherproof adhesive stickers on the tops of recycling carts, outlining what materials can be recycled and how to do it (for example, advising against bagged material).”
DNREC also participates in recycling outreach opportunities, such as the Delaware State Fair and the University of Delaware’s Coast Day, he said.
Recycling centers in Kent and Sussex counties include: