Sunday, July 03, 2022

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Old Saybrook Digs Deep into Recycling Efforts


Residents may soon be able to acquire a reusable snack bag like this prototype made by Old Saybrook High School Ecology Club advisor/science teacher Karen Corlone’s mother-in-law. 

Photo by Karen Corlone

Residents may soon be able to acquire a reusable snack bag like this prototype made by Old Saybrook High School Ecology Club advisor/science teacher Karen Corlone’s mother-in-law. (Photo by Karen Corlone)

As Old Saybrook Transfer Station operator Jim Therrien will tell you, recyclables are commodities. And to ensure they have value, they need to be clean.

That was just one of the messages for those who turned up at a recycling program at Old Saybrook Middle School on a rainy Tuesday evening in late October.

Sherill Baldwin of the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP) aimed to clear up misconceptions and convey changes to what and what cannot be recycled in the state. Around 78 residents attended, according to Therrien.

One of those misconceptions is that black plastic containers are not recyclable. They are, Therrien said. Styrofoam, however, no matter its color, is not.

And shredded paper does not belong in the recycling bin. When dumped in the sorter, it creates air quality issues and the dust clogs up the machine’s filters, he said. The paper can be placed in a bag and thrown in the trash. It will ultimately be incinerated with other garbage.

Recyclable Market Drying Up

“Recyclables [aren’t] really garbage,” Therrien explained. “It’s sort of a commodity that needs to be clean. It gets processed.”

The United States once shipped nearly all its recyclables overseas and largely to China, but that market has all but dried up as Chinese consumerism has increased, producing western-style waste. But the main issue affecting China’s refusal to take U.S. solid waste, according to Therrien, is contamination.

“That’s one of the things [Baldwin] addressed” at the presentation, Therrien said.

“Out in the media, China is not taking any [foreign recyclables],” but in actuality, he said, “they are taking some but at a greatly reduced number.”

China’s rejection of U.S. waste is largely because “a lot of it is dirty.”

At home, Therrien puts many of his recyclables in the dishwasher: a peanut butter jar that he’s gotten only so clean by hand, food cans, jars.

“I put it in with the rest of the dishes,” he said. “It cleans it very well.”

Despite contamination from food containers to paper, “single stream [recycling] works really well,” said Therrien. “Sorting machines are much better than they were a long time ago.”

For Old Saybrook’s and many other towns’ waste, processing takes place at the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) in Hartford. Some of the material is sorted by hand; most is dumped into a mechanical sorter. Saybrook’s contract with MIRA has insulated the town temporarily from the effects of the collapsing recycling market. Where recycled waste once earn a few dollars per ton for towns, it now costs some municipalities as much as $95 a ton for recycling disposal.

Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl P. Fortuna, Jr., predicts that the town will likely be forced to pay to have its recyclables processed within the next two years.

“The recycling market is certainly not what it once was but there may be new markets developing,” he said.

The Problem of Plastic Bags

Plastic bags are a continuous problem, explained Therrien.

At recycling plants, “[a]bout three times a day, they have to stop the machine and pull bags out physically,” he said. “It takes a long time to start up operations again. Plastic bags do not belong in the recycling stream.”

Many supermarkets have receptacles for collecting used plastic bags. And as of Aug. 1, they cost 10 cents apiece, a measure designed to encourage customers to bring their own bags. Many supermarkets don’t offer plastic bags at all and, as of July 1, 2021, stores will be banned entirely from providing them to customers.

The Saybrook Transfer Station has been communicating to residents that single-use plastic bags can’t be recycled, Therrien said, and things have improved locally.

“We have very few bags in the stream,” he said. “We’re very thankful for that.”

A Reusable Snack Bag Project

The Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) Ecology Club’s Reducing Plastic Campaign aims to cut down the town’s use of plastic bags. Ecology Club Advisor and OSHS science teacher Karen Corlone has set a goal of producing 500 reusable snack bags by the end of the school year.

The bags are being made with quilting fabric and plastic shower liners, she explained.

“Rather than using a [plastic resealable] bag, you can reuse this bag over and over again,” Corlone said. Her mother-in-law made several for her and Corlone puts them in the clothes washer. The bags have a flap that folds over and is sealed with Velcro strips.

Students are currently cutting out fabric squares; the next step will be to cut out squares from plastic liners. As the bags will be used for food, the fabric and liners are new and not recycled, but this is made up for by the fact that the bags are reusable, according to Corlone.

Katie Conklin, a senior, is the point person for the project, and is doing her best to reach out to the community for donations of quilting fabric and shower liners. And Corlone estimates that after Christmas they’ll need volunteers to help sew the bags, as well as the use of sewing machines and adult sewing mavens to oversee the project and troubleshoot any problems that arise.

The bags will likely be distributed to people at no charge, said Carlone.

“We may ask for a donation and use that for some other environmental stewardship,” she said. “But the goal is to create good habits. Perhaps if they have one of these, they’ll think about the plastic that they use...and they may stop using [resealable] bags.”

The plastic resealable bags so many people rely on have a short lifespan, explained Corlone. And washing and reusing them may not be a wise decision.

“If you hold on to it, the plastic might leak into your food and it’s not safe,” she said.

As with single-use water bottles, the plastic degrades over time.

OSHS alumna Chelsea Wieland, at Corlone’s request, created a video to inspire and inform the community, as well as to request assistance with the project. The video was shown at the recycling presentation. A link to Wieland’s film can be found at the Old Saybrook School District’s website under the title “OSHS Ecology Club—Reduce Plastic.”

The town’s Information Technology department will soon post a video of the recycling program on the town website, according to Therrien.

Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at

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