How ‘Wish-cycling’ And Other Practices Are Contributing to N.H.’s Landfill Problems

Nov 14, 2019

View of the landfill in Lebanon, N.H.
Credit Daniela Allee for NHPR

Even after decades of the mantra, “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” too much of New Hampshire’s trash ends up in what should be considered the last resort for solid waste: landfills.  

“You're putting stuff into the ground in perpetuity. You're not able to realize the full potential of those materials that could be reused,” said Michael Nork, environmental analyst at the solid waste management bureau of the N.H. Department of Environmental Services, on The Exchange. 

(To listen to the full conversation, visit here. Excerpts in this story have been edited slightly for clarity.)

There are six landfills operating in the state -- three are publically owned; three are owned by private entities. (Read this recent NHPR story on contamination problems at a privately owned landfill in Bethlehem.)

There are also about 300 closed landfills that have been capped but must be monitored for possible groundwater contamination.  

Marc Morgan, solid waste manager for Lebanon, oversees the city’s landfill.  He also tries to educate the public on what should and shouldn’t go into the landfill -- and what can and can’t be recycled.

“We find kiddie pools and snow fences in our plastic bins. People think, ‘It’s plastic, so it must be recyclable,’ but that's not the case.”

There’s a name for this: "Wish-cycling."

Rep. Karen Ebel chaired the Committee to Study Recycling Streams and Solid Waste Management in New Hampshire, which recently issued a report. Among its findings:  New Hampshire has fallen far behind other states in New England -- and nationally -- on best practices, in large part due to budget cuts at the N.H. Department of Environmental Services. 

As part of her committee work, Ebel, a Democrat from New London and Deputy Speaker of the House, visited a materials-recovery facility (MRF) in Billerica, Mass. These facilities sort through piles of recyclables. New Hampshire does not have any of these facilities, which is a problem, Ebel says, given the expense of transporting the materials out of state. 

“You’re just surrounded by what feels like the world’s refuse. There are chutes going all over the place as all the different single-stream recycling is dumped in. It all has to be sorted," she said, describing the Billerica facility. "You have puffs of air blowing different kinds of plastics into other bins. And then you literally have people standing in sorting areas, pulling out plastic bags.” 

Those plastic bags are among the items that don’t belong in recycling bins.  

“There’s this category called ‘wish-cycling,’ where people really do want to do the right thing and they throw shovels and skateboards and all these things that aren’t recyclable into recycling,” she said. “It can really foul things up.”

The confusion is understandable, says Nork. “There are so many different types of plastics. And even if it has a recycling symbol on it, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's definitely recyclable. It could just be identifying what kind of resin the plastic is made from.”

Meanwhile, packaging now contains mixed materials, such as plastic containers with steel tops, further complicating the issue, he says.

Still, the impact of unwanted materials in the system is huge, says Morgan.

“We see things like potato chip bags with aluminum cans, simply because it's shiny. So there's confusion about what aluminum is and what it's not,” he said. “These things that people hope to be recycled or recyclable ultimately end up in landfills at a huge expense.  So this thought of when in doubt, throw it in the recycling bin is really damaging the recycling stream because it's contaminating good recycling efforts by others.”

Morgan sees this as part of a larger societal problem, in part fed by an appetite for the next best product. “We need to rethink waste as a culture. At one point, waste or refuse or trash was something that had been repaired or reused and no longer had value. Now it's something I just don't want. For example, cell phones. Every two years we get a new contract and a new phone. There's nothing wrong with our phone, but we no longer want it. So it gets discarded.”  And those electronic items often end up in landfills. 

Nork says the problem goes beyond residential activities. “There's construction, commercial waste, industrial waste; there's a large number of things that are regulated as solid waste that we don't always think of when we talk about waste or recycling -- things like contaminated soils that don't have hazardous components but are still contaminated with oil or other petroleum products."

Meanwhile, regional practices can also affect what ends up in N.H. landfills. Massachusetts has banned construction and demolition debris from its landfills – materials that can end up here. The state has also been closing its landfills, increasing pressure on surrounding states to absorb that waste.

Morgan says New Hampshire also needs to update its permitting process for composting facilities to help reduce the amount of discarded food in landfills.

Nork agrees. “We'd obviously love to see more composting infrastructure, rather than seeing more landfills or other things that aren't necessarily promoting higher and better use of resources,” he said.

But NH DES right now doesn't have the staff and resources to devote time and energy to that project, he said, let alone keep up with the task of permitting, made more difficult by a new state law.“If permits are not acted on, and we don’t issue a decision within a certain timeframe, those permits automatically approve, which could be problematic for a solid waste facility or recycling facility.”

Ebel says her committee's work will likely result in several pieces of legislation  -- instituting a disposal surcharge to help fund an increase in DES staff; increasing the bureau’s capacity to track waste that is coming into the state and being disposed of here; and requiring the state to reduce what goes into landfills by about 25 percent by 2030 and by 45 percent, at a minimum, by 2050.