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Stony Brook University researchers aim to improve recycling rates across New York state

Researchers trying to find a way to help New Yorkers recycle
Researchers trying to find a way to help New Yorkers recycle 02:40

STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- There is a hands-on effort to improve the way New Yorkers recycle, and those hands are getting dirty.

It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

"It looks gross, but we love it. This is what we do," Stony Brook University graduate student Maeen Akter said.

They're getting to the bottom of our recycling habits.

"We would like to know exactly what's in garbage, and the only way you can do that is either by theorizing it or getting your elbows into the pile," said Dr. David Tonjes, with the Stony Brook University Waste Data and Analysis Center.

They're researchers, professors and students with Stony Brook University, taking dumpster diving to a new level as part of a five-year, $4 million New York state study to improve recycling rates, which have plateaued.

At Long Island's recycling facilities, roughly 1/3 of glass, metal and plastic sent in from households should not have been.

"People want to recycle with the best of intentions. Unfortunately, sometimes we see items that aren't necessarily recyclable," Smithtown Waste Director Michael Engelman said.

Plastic seems the most tricky.

"The numbering system confuses a lot of people," Tonjes said.

Researchers found Long Islanders are only recycling 30-60% of what they can and should recycle.

"If we did better, if we recycled everything, we would triple our recycling," Tonjes said.

"You've got to do it. If nobody do it, we're not going to know how to recycle our waste," graduate student Alfred Manu said.

"We love garbage, and we want to world to be a better world, so we are very proud of what we are doing right now," graduate student Hailey Lee said.

A better world is the goal, as Long Island's biggest landfill is slated to close. Better recycling is needed to save energy, costs and re-use raw materials.

"Garbage is not good for the environment. Everything is going to landfill ... Increases the global warming," Akter said.

The results will be used to shape policy to teach the public to be better in tune with what we throw out.

The research team has been sorting at 20 locations per year. They'll spend spring break sorting trash in upstate New York.

Different SUNY schools around the state are also taking part in the study in various roles. 

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