9/25/2004, 9:59 a.m. ET
By STEVE STRUNSKY
The Associated Press
WOODBRIDGE, N.J. (AP) ó Lourdes Dos Santos, who sells sunglasses from a cart in front of the New Jersey Turnpike's Thomas A. Edison Service Area, finished her Diet Pepsi and threw the plastic bottle in the trash.
Informed that a black, 55-gallon drum set down near her cart a few days earlier was for recycling, Dos Santos mouthed a silent "oops," retrieved the bottle and put it in the drum.
"I didn't know that," the Elizabeth resident said, with an embarrassed laugh.
Moments later, a man who had just pulled off the turnpike into the Edison service area in Woodbridge, threw a Diet Coke can into a concrete trash receptacle only a few feet from the recycling drum.
"I missed that," the man said, as he headed for the service area door.
Recycling may take some getting used to along the turnpike and New Jersey's other main toll road, the Garden State Parkway. For the first time in the highways' half-century histories, motorists now have an environmentally friendly way to dispose of their bottles and cans.
Two weeks ago, HMS Host, a Maryland-based company that operates most of the state's highway service areas, installed 160 recycling drums at the turnpike's 12 service areas and six of the nine service areas on the parkway. McDonalds, which runs the three remaining parkway service areas, also installed recycling bins this month, a spokesman said.
Though the drums' flat, blue lids have the triangular recycling symbol painted next to a round hole for bottles and cans, the sides give no hint of the drums' purpose. Joe Orlando, a spokesman for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, said recycling symbols will be painted on the sides of the drums.
The turnpike authority, which also oversees the parkway, asked service area operators to install recycling bins after the Associated Press reported in June that there were no recycling options at the rest areas.
Many items sold at the service areas are recyclable, including plastic bottles with labels reading, "Please recycle."
"This clearly was an oversight that was brought to our attention," Orlando said. "There's no two ways about it, there should be recycling containers out there."
HMS Host's contract with the turnpike authority dates back to 1974, before recycling was commonplace. The contract has been extended several times, including a September 2000 extension to 2018, when HMS pledged to invest $25 million in the rest areas' physical condition. Turnpike and company officials said the issue of recycling had simply never come up.
"It's probably something we all should have all thought about," HMS President Tommy Sanders said of recycling.
The Atlantic City Expressway has offered recycling at its one service area for several years, said Sharon Gordon, a spokeswoman for the South Jersey Transportation Authority.
The parkway and turnpike recycling initiative comes as officials are trying to reverse a statewide decline in recycling. Recycled materials represented 44.5 percent of the state's overall waste stream in 1995, and that dropped to 33.6 percent in 2002, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
One reason for the decline, officials and recycling proponents said, was that public awareness campaigns encouraging recycling have faded as funding for them dried up.
For example, a tax of $1.50 per ton on solid waste disposal expired in 1997 and was never reauthorized, after having raised about $11 million a year for recycling programs for a decade, said Fred Mumford, a DEP spokesman.
About $3.2 million was raised for recycling grants last year under a 2002 tax on high-litter industries, Mumford said.
But that falls far short of what the expired solid waste law provided, said Marie Kruzan, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Recyclers.
"If you want people to do something, you have to keep reminding them," said Kruzan, who said she's aware of the political will needed to approve any tax. "The reauthorizing is difficult because it's got the T-word attached to it."