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Trash vs. recycling: a delicate balance in Lewis County

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LOWVILLE — Pound for pound, plastic milk jugs are more valuable than computers — and garbage is worth even more.

That’s as of today, at least, in the world of trash and recyclable materials where Peter J. Wood, Lewis County’s director of solid waste management, deals with that delicate balance on a daily basis.

Mr. Wood has been at the Lewis County facility since its formation in mid-1989. He’s seen the transformation of the site from a dump to a transfer site and witnessed the development and growth of the recycling program.

He recalled the early days of recycling in the county, when paper was sorted into different categories: newspaper, office paper and corrugated cardboard only.

Today, many more products are accepted, including magazines and flattened packaging.

“We’re fortunate to have a company that takes it all in Solvay,” Mr. Wood said.

Recycling is mandated by county law. Education comes in the form of household mailings, classroom education for students and, most recently, a Development Authority of the North County ad campaign.

Mr. Wood’s challenge is to make a profit when tipping fees for trash are higher than the selling price of recycled materials.

His years in the industry have helped him form connections to sell the recyclables at top price, when pennies on a pound really add up for a facility that sees an average of five tons of recycling and 45 tons of trash per day.

In Jefferson County, residents must separate their recyclables into seven different categories before they are deposited at a transfer site or picked up by a garbage hauler.

In Lewis County, however, recyclables are separated into two categories, either paper materials or glass, tin and plastic.

Sorting into categories for sale is done by an average crew of five at the facility.

Mr. Wood said some of those employees are provided by the Department of Social Services, helping to reduce his operating costs.

Taking on the responsibility of sorting plastics, tin and aluminum ensures correct distribution of materials to purchasers.

Glass products are separated for shipment to Jefferson County to be crushed and used for highway material.

One load for sale may contain 24 or 25 bales, 1 ton each, of product. An error of including more than 5 percent of unacceptable material could end the sale.

“They could reject a whole load if they wanted,” if the material was not sorted properly, Mr. Wood said.

Rejection of nearly 50,000 pounds of product at 25 cents per pound could be devastating for the department.

“We’ve never had a load rejected. These guys do a great job,” Mr. Wood said.

Still, the majority of the department’s profit comes from trash.

The department is self-supported, with no tax dollars used for operation. Mr. Wood continually is looking at ways to make the department more efficient and sell at high prices to avoid a fee-based recycling program.

Thursday morning, as the facility was short-staffed, Mr. Wood worked alongside his crew, helping one customer unload his truck.

Milk jugs, going for a price of 39 cents per pound, were bound together in 1-ton pallets. Computers, which can be dropped off for free as part of the newest electronics recycling, earn only five cents per pound.

“That’s new. They take the precious metal out,” he said of the purchaser in the Rochester area. “Hopefully, as that market grows, we’ll see the prices go up.”

For contact information, hours of operation and recycling guidelines for Lewis County, visit http://wdt.me/3GJVy8. DANC’s recycling information and ad campaign can be seen at www.northcountryrecycles.org.

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