Remarkable Recycler

How one New Jersey city soared to the top of the EPA's "A" list.

The city of Clifton, N.J., population 75,000, brings new meaning to the phrase "ahead of the curve." As municipalities nationwide strive to meet the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 25 percent landfill diversion requirement, and other New Jersey cities scramble to reach the state's ambitious 65 percent diversion goal by the end of this year, Clifton's 1,300 businesses are recycling at a rate of 68 percent. And the EPA has noticed.

In a 1999 report entitled, "Cutting the Waste Stream in Half: Community Record Setters Show How," the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), Washington, D.C., in cooperation with the EPA, presented the city of Clifton as one of the nation's recycling models. The report commended Clifton's recycling program for incorporating educational outreach, achieving a 68 percent commercial solid waste diversion rate, reaching a 56 percent overall diversion rate and making money to boot.

Going into the Community According to Clifton city officials, mandating recycling is not enough. Achieving high diversion rates is a team effort in which communication and education are essential. Committed to educating its residents about recycling, the city established a Recycling Office in 1988 staffed by officials to oversee its three-part program that uses city and state funds to reach children, young adults and adults.

From 1988 to 1996, the city received a state recycling tonnage grant that was directed toward the recycling program. But currently, Clifton's Recycling Office uses a $80,000 state Clean Communities grant to go into the city's 25 schools and teach the importance of litter prevention, recycling, reuse, backyard composting, source reduction, non-point source pollution and environmentally conscious shopping.

The recycling office gives many of these educational presentations, using visual aids such as slides, videos, booklets, etc., and encourages questions from students. Additional grant funds pay for magicians and puppeteers who come into the classroom to discuss environmental issues.

Reaching out to young adults, the city also targets civic and youth organizations by offering a $250 reward to groups that develop successful environmental programs. All groups rid the community of some kind of non-point source pollution. But because these awards are tied to the Clean Communities grant, groups often will develop anti-litter programs. For example, schools will sponsor cleanup days on their grounds. Other groups host adopt-a-park or adopt-a-road programs where volunteers will pick up litter a few times each year in certain areas. However, some groups go beyond the anti-litter campaign, for example, by distributing reusable mugs and bags.

At an annual awards ceremony, the mayor and the city council celebrate such group efforts and acknowledge the schools that participated in the state's Clean Communities Program.

In addition to youth-centered programs, the Recycling Office conducts a comprehensive media campaign. Local cable television advertisements, newspaper ads, posters and fliers, which are distributed at libraries, city hall, stores, supermarkets and other public places, emphasize the city's recycling message. Slide shows and video presentations at schools, civic groups and other youth groups, as well as radio announcements and televised city council meetings help Clifton reach community members in their homes and on the street. The city even used a $2,000 grant from the Environmental Endowment of New Jersey to distribute 800 reusable mugs, along with brochures on source reduction, at local coffee shops.

Officials want to make sure that no one can live in Clifton for very long without learning something about recycling. For example, from 1991 to 1994, to promote composting, the recycling office hosted popular home composting classes that attracted as many as 200 community members. These classes were tied into promotions by the county, private companies, the environmental commission and the recycling office, which, at the time, provided mowers and home compost bins to class participants at reduced rates.

To help residents implement what they've learned, the city mails a recycling guide annually to all residential and commercial establishments, explaining sorting and collection procedures. Sponsored by local businesses, the production of this guide costs the city nothing.

Commercial Recycling Like other cities working to meet New Jersey's mandated diversion goals, Clifton has passed commercial recycling ordinances. One ordinance requires all the city's businesses and institutions to recycle 22 types of materials. Another ordinance requires commercial establishments to "source-separate, collect, transport and market" materials for which markets are secured. Both private contractors and commercial entities are required to report the quantities of material that they recycle. And proving it is not afraid to enforce recycling ordinances, Clifton fined three local businesses $150 each for violations between 1995 and 1996.

Other New Jersey communities, such as Newark, continue to enforce recycling ordinances with fines, but Clifton now tries to promote recycling among haulers and businesses with a "friendlier" approach. Instead of fining businesses and citizens, the city works with residents and encourages private waste companies to set up recyclables dumpsters or leave materials such as cardboard on the curb for its haulers to collect. So far, Clifton officials believe the system works - the congested suburban city can be run like a small family community, yet recycling rates remain high.

Meantime, while the language of Clifton's ordinances may not be new, the way in which the city supports its ordinances certainly is innovative. As the EPA's report points out, Clifton's ordinance is only one part of the city's comprehensive commercial recycling program, which also incorporates data collection, strict enforcement of recycling laws and high tipping fees to discourage disposal.

Data collection is the foundation of Clifton's program. Each year, the Recycling Office sends a letter to all the city's businesses, solid waste haulers and recycling vendors requesting submission of recycling reports, which highlight the types and amounts of waste generated at each location. Using this information, the city determines the types of waste it will collect and the amounts of waste it will require commercial entities to recycle. Currently the city accepts more than 40 types of waste from the business community for recycling and composting.

Another factor encouraging recycling among Clifton's businesses was a late 1980s county flow-control ordinance that required all municipalities and private collection vendors to dispose of solid waste at county-designated facilities. While flow control is dead, the ordinance helped raise disposal fees for the city of Clifton from $35 per ton in 1987, to $112 per ton in 1996. This set the wheel in motion so local businesses continue to make a concerted effort to recycle even today.

The city is at the same time strict and helpful, believing that strict regulations and enforcement are more effective if combined with support from regulators. In 1990, when the state's recycling goal was revised from 25 percent to 60 percent, Clifton worked closely with the Passaic county recycling staff to help businesses meet recycling mandates through waste audits and refuse stream analysis.

Cost Effectiveness In 1987, when New Jersey first passed its "Statewide Source Separation and Recycling Act" requiring all municipalities to attain a 25 percent recycling goal by 1990, the city of Clifton responded quickly by creating a recycling committee to review solid waste issues and implement a recycling program.

Having high-profile members on board - Councilman Don Kowal; past Councilman and past Board of Education Member Lester Herrschast, who has been the committee chairman since its inception; Mayor James Anzaldi, now chairman of the Clean Communities Program; Gloria Kolodziej, now chairwoman of the beautification committee, the city's Arbor Day and Tree City USA; civic leader Anthony Sassioti; Director of Public Works Joe DeVasconcellous; and City Manager Robert Hammer - creates a synergy that helps raise the bar on all environmental issues. Proof is in the number of awards the city has received for recycling, anti-litter and beautification.

Working as a team, the committee has agreed that the city will collect recyclables separately and handle them as a commodity. In 1987, at a time when most recycling programs barely were breaking even, Clifton officials were determined to work toward making a profit.

The first step was to avoid disposal fees by diverting as much refuse as possible from the solid waste stream. Not limited by the state's 25 percent diversion goal, the city diverted 34 percent of residential waste and 31 percent of commercial waste in 1990. And, as disposal fees continue to rise, so does Clifton's cost savings.

The city also uses private vendors to process the materials, as a way to lower its overall costs. As the EPA report notes, "In 1996, Clifton incurred no processing cost (just the equivalent of 19 cents per ton for marketing) but received more than $13 per ton on average in materials revenues."

The city has earned an average of $160,000 per year by selling newspaper, cardboard, office paper, plastic bottles, glass, white goods appliances, aluminum and bi-metal cans, ferrous and non-ferrous metal, and car batteries. Based on current contracts, Clifton will earn more than $200,000 this year.

Sorting and Collecting Before taking recyclables to the curb, Clifton residents sort glass by color, rinse aluminum and steel cans, and bundle paper products. Glass, aluminum cans and food cans are placed in separate, reusable containers and set at the curb, along with appliances and scrap metal. This has eliminated the need for materials recovery facilities.

Three-person crews from the Department of Public Works (DPW) then collect source-separated recyclables in a five-compartment truck; three-person crews collect paper in a packer truck; two-person crews collect appliances and metal in a packer truck; and two-person crews collect old corrugated cardboard from businesses in a packer truck.

Serving the city's 28,000 households and 1,300 businesses, the DPW brings all paper products and white goods directly to local recycling vendors. Remaining commodities are stored in bins and later loaded into 40-yard roll-off containers at the Public Works yard.

Accounting for approximately 28 percent of the waste stream, green waste is another important commodity for the city. Clifton's public works staff, along with private haulers, provides residential curbside collection of grass clippings, leaves, tree branches, logs and Christmas trees.

Nature's Choice, a local vendor composts all organic waste except for branches, which along with brush, travel to the city yard, where a tub grinder chips them into fine mulch. As part of the city's five-year contract, the company also accepts 2,000 cubic yards per year of mulch for free and will be giving the city 1,000 cubic yards of screened compost, which will be available to Clifton residents free of charge.

In addition to curbside collection programs, the city has established a community recycling drop-off depot for residents and small businesses. Located within the 12-acre city hall complex grounds, the drop-off facility is open six days per week from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. and receives approximately 33 percent of the city's recyclables. Items not accepted at the curb, such as corrugated cardboard, plastic bottles and aluminum pie plates, are accepted at this facility. Adding the drop-off numbers into the mix, Clifton claims an 80 percent to 85 percent overall participation rate.

Why is Clifton's program successful? EPA's report cites several factors, including only collecting source-separated recyclables, stressing that this practice brings revenues and eliminates processing costs.

While the city continues to maintain its high recycling rate and far-reaching educational programs, it also supports the county's efforts to collect old tires, household hazardous waste and old computers. Clifton also is trying to work cooperatively with other nearby municipalities to strengthen its program.

Noting that government support, educational outreach and strict enforcement of ordinances also are essential ingredients for a successful recycling program, the EPA report commends Clifton for its holistic approach to recycling.