Why Has Recycling Becoming so Complicated?

Environmentalists were prepared last week to celebrate the passing of landmark legislation entitled the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act. Senate Bill 54 and Assembly Bill 1080 promised to break through the state’s recycling crisis. 

Despite overcoming intense resistance from various quarters, the bills were not addressed by lawmakers at the close of session on Saturday, September 14. The effort to ban 75 percent of single use plastic and the barring of plastic products and packaging with no known recycling value had the potential to create a model for the rest of the country to manage and substantially reduce the glut of plastics in the recycling industry and the troublesome byproduct of pollution of the ocean and waterways with plastic refuse and microplastics. 

Plastics. That storied word reverberates today as the global production of plastics, one of the world’s worst sources of pollution, has surpassed 300 million tons per year. A mere single-digit percentage is ever recycled. In addition, China’s decision last year to turn away most of the paper and plastic it was traditionally processing has created an enormous backlog of materials at Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and the shutting down of smaller private run companies that can no longer find profitable markets.

The solution is complex. Professor of Resource Management and Sustainability Practitioner Victoria Charles states that the disconnect between producers and waste haulers is the key to understanding the problem. SB 54 and AB 1080 were far-reaching pieces of legislation in the search for a solution and would have forced that conversation. 

“The lifecycle of a product starts with what resource managers call ’upstream’, the manufacturers, themselves. The producers employ designers who come up with nifty new and convenient ways to provide attractive, affordable, convenient and brand-affirming packaging and products.”

According to Charles, some of the new packaging seen on grocery store shelves is evidence of manufacturers seeking to “go green” by employing a variety of bioplastics in their packaging trying to demonstrate the environmental cred of their brand. Unfortunately, without taking into account the “end of life” of their products and packaging, their use of these new materials far outpaces the capacity of our current plastic recovery systemsthe “downstream”in waste hauling facilities. In fact that burden is increasingly put upon the consumers who end up with the dilemma of “can I recycle this?”

Earnest consumers often engage in “wish-cycling”—toss the item in the recycle bin and hope that it doesn’t go to the landfill, giving that plastic item perhaps one more chance at becoming converted into a recycled end product. That squeezable single-serve applesauce container, that compostable food tray or that biodegradable plasticware that claims a six-month breakdown life? When tossed in the recycling bin these materials only pollute the plastics separation process at the MRFs—and end up being tossed in the landfill anyway.

Until our legislatures can pass measures that seriously address this disconnect, there are some things that consumers can continue to pay attention to:

  • Focus on what you purchase. Although living a plastic-free life can be nearly impossible (see Kait Leonard’s article on page 23) you can consciously reduce
  • Be aware and avoid single-use plastics. Carry your own utensils, use a refillable water bottle, bring your insulated container for that stop at Starbucks.
  • Be aware of composite materials. Plastic windows in paper envelopes, plastic insert in tissue boxes, paper cups that are insulated with light styrofoam coatings. Unless you can separate the materials these all go in the trash and are not recyclable.
  • Textiles—clothing, towels, old blankets—don’t go in the trash. Take them to a USAgain bin or similar bin collection spots that will recycle the materials appropriately. (There is one on the Topanga Community Center grounds.)
  • Paperbacks and hardcover books can be dropped off at the local library.
  • Eyeglasses can also be taken to most libraries and are collected as well by Walmart and most optometrist’s offices.
  • Here’s a weird one. Do you flush your used contacts like approximately 45 million others do.
  • Batteries should not be discarded in the trash bin; they can be recycled at Best Buy outlets and at electronics and hazardous waste collection locations. There is a monthly collection in Calabasas, see our Calendar https://messengermountainnews.com/news/event/electronics-recycling/2019-09-07/
  • Plastic bags and film from packaging cannot be disposed of in recycling bins. This includes newspaper sleeves, bread bags, dry-cleaning bags, food storage bags, plastic shipping envelopes, bubble wrap and air pillows, and product wrap on cases of water and soda bottles, paper towels, etc. This type of plastic jams up machines at MRFs. When this plastic is recycled separately it is turned into plastic pellets that are used by a variety of companies creating recycled material packaging or even solid decking material. Save these items separately and then drop off at a participating grocery store such as Sprouts or Ralphs. 
  • Do not drop off your recyclables into your recycling bin while enclosed in a plastic garbage bag. Open the bag and empty the contents or you risk having the entire bag pushed to the landfill section. Plastic bags as described above, jam up the recycling equipment used to sort.

More Resources

  • Get familiar with the CalRecycle website. According to Charles, this has become one of the best resources for determining the proper disposition of all sorts of household and commercial waste materials. https://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/Recycle/
  • Educate yourself about your local waste hauler. The Messenger Mountain News has visited and toured Waste Management’s Material Recycling Facility (MRF) in charge of much of the waste hauling in Los Angeles County. https://messengermountainnews.com/news/recycle-often-recycle-right/

Messenger Mountain News maintains a “Trash Talk” section on our website with other solutions and resources https://messengermountainnews.com/news/category/trash-talk/


Bonnie Morgan

Bonnie is the Chief Operating Officer for the Messenger Mountain News. She comes from a rich background of research, marketing and technology and is the company's business manager, web designer and social media geek. bonnie@messengermountainnews.com

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