No Time to Waste: Zero Waste in Ulster County

By Rebecca Martin

With much emphasis on solid waste management issues in the Hudson Valley, what short term solutions are there to our current unsustainable consumption of stuff?

City of Kingston Recycling

The City of Kingston has a weekly recycling program where the materials are taken to the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency (UCRRA). It removes accepted materials out of the waste stream, but there are many gaps where we end up throwing much of what we consume away in the trash. From clam shells and toothbrushes to single use batteries and latex paint, in Ulster County, these are just some of the materials that end up in the Seneca Meadows landfill that is set to close in 2025 some 235 miles away from here.

Ulster County Recycling Oversight Committee and UCRRA

The Ulster County Recycling Oversight Committee is a committee that meets quarterly and has some authority in determining any new types of recyclable materials accepted in Ulster County. This becomes complicated, as the potential investment of equipment and capacity must also be accounted for for any new materials not currently accepted. This can be costly out front. However, the costs to travel our waste so far away and with tipping fees, or establishing a new landfill in Ulster County? How about calculating the environmental harms? What are those costs and in the long run, would they offset the needed investment? Imagine if companies were made to include the backend of disposing of their packaging? There are probably large lobbying efforts against it, because it would be cost prohibitive for them. But if lawmakers are serious about solid waste, then those brave souls who are in it for the public good come together and push back to succeed, it would certainly provoke a nearly immediate culture shift. (1)

Last I knew, the Zero Waste 2020 plan in Ulster County stalled in the Energy and Environment committee due to timeline differences between the legislature and UCRRA. UCRRA recently was selected as “one of eleven recipients of the 2020-2021 Community Grants Program, a project of the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I). UCRRA will launch a county-wide community engagement campaign, the UCRRA Zero Waste Seminar Project, to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of single use plastics, and how waste reduction and reuse can be practical strategies for pollution prevention.” So it appears to be coming.

Out of site, out of mind

Meanwhile, the Ulster County Solid Waste Management plan was recently approved by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). Written into it, an “emerging technology” known as BioHiTech that we lobbied against. BioHiTech is merely a Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF), first in collecting municipal waste. After removing any valuable metals, the plastic and fibers are dried and shredded into confetti.  They are then trucked away to cement plants where it is incinerated to supplement coal in creating energy. The remaining waste is dumped in unnamed landfills or garbage incinerators. It is unprincipled for materials to be trucked away as far as Pennsylvania where the output of the incineration is dealt by the neighboring communities several states away from where the waste was generated. Most of the time, these are environmental justice communities that lack resources or a voice to improve their circumstances. We mustn’t contribute to it.

Last year, reached out to Institute for Local Self Reliance who generously reviewed Ulster County’s Solid Waste Management Plan. They summarized the good and the bad, stating that “Citizens should request participation in the decision-making process used by UCRRA to determine how the Plan will be implemented. The City Council of Honolulu just passed a resolution calling for zero waste experts to be part of decision-making for the $2 billion of federal pandemic relief funds that have been allocated to the city. The County should develop a zero waste purchasing/procurement guidelines that are available from organizations. These programs reduce costs and reduce the County’s environmental footprint.”

Zero Waste now

In the meantime, there are a couple of local opportunities that can help.

In Red Hook, The Ozone Sustainability Center provide options, including taking in some of those hard to recycle items by partnering with Terracycle. (2)

They also accept single use alkaline batteries that are currently being encouraged to be thrown in the trash. This is partly due to the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act passed in 1996 that phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries, making them less of an issue when disposed in landfills. But this doesn’t mean alkaline batteries are not recyclable. The Ozone in Red Hook is the only place we’ve found within 25 miles of Kingston that takes them. The cost is $0.10 per battery, and a non-conductive clear tape must be used on the positive ends when they are returned to keep them from sparking. I personally haven’t felt comfortable throwing them out and I’ve kept a bucket in the basement for them for years. Today, we delivered nearly 200 of them and the effort and the cost gave me pause. It’s easy to understand why they will mostly end up in the dump.

In Kingston, the brand new Village Grocery & Refillery located at 2 Jansen Street in downtown Kingston has a fill-up station for laundry & dish soap, shampoo and all sorts of other household and personal items. Check it out.

We’ve got a “mountain to climb

Seneca Meadows’ mountain of trash is going to come to a screeching halt soon. Those who are passionate about this issue can reach out to the Ulster County legislature, who have direct oversight of UCRRA, to learn how to plug in. You can also contact your Kingston Council member and let them know that you want Kingston to do more on the zero waste front. It’s a problem that can only be solved when we are all involved.

ADDITIONS (7/5 @ 9am)

(1) The proposed “Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act” (Federal), offers some hope that we can stop some of the production of plastic and hold producers accountable.  Learn more and take action by clicking the link. (Thanks Tanya!)

(2) Unfortunately, Terracycle also sends materials to the incinerator.