Californians Are Dedicated To Recycling, But It May Not Be Accomplishing Much

RecyclingFrom a young age, Californians are told that it is their civic duty, perhaps even moral duty, to recycle. Starting in elementary school, I remember that posters with green recycling arrows would line the halls, reminding you to do your part. But what does it really mean to recycle? Most people feel like their job is done when they’ve put their cardboard boxes or soda bottles in the blue recycle bin. Fill it up and you’ve helped save the environment!

But it’s not that simple. The basic idea behind recycling is that there is inherent value in some of the things you want to throw away and that it can be converted into a material that can be reused — plastic bottles can be turned into other kinds of plastic goods. But do you know what happens to recyclables after you throw them into your blue bin?

For the last few decades, we’ve been selling our recyclable materials to China. But as the country has developed, they don’t want these materials anymore. Sorting through our waste is not a glamorous job, and a growing Chinese middle class means it’s harder to find people willing to manually sort through trash.

The other issue is that much of the material we send them is contaminated. In January, China put a ban on materials that were greater than half a percent contaminated. It’s simply too costly for them to clean and convert anything with a higher rate of contamination into new material.

Right now, the average contamination rate of our recyclable materials is 25 percent. “It’s amazing what people put in recycling bins,” Mark Oldfield public affairs director at CalRecycle, said in the Los Angeles Times. “Dirty diapers. Broken crockery. Old garden hoses. Some of the worst offenders are old batteries.”

Of course many Californians probably think that they know better than to put dirty diapers in the recycling bin. But what about pizza boxes, plastic bags, or dirty jars and cans? All of those things are considered contaminated materials and cannot be recycled. Just because you want something to be recyclable doesn’t mean it is.

Brent Bell, Vice President of Recycling Operations for Waste Management, a waste and environmental service provider, recently wrote on the company’s website, “contamination significantly increases the cost to process recyclables.” Trying to get from 25 percent to a virtually zero percent contamination rate would cost a significant amount of money, investing hours of manpower to manually sort through each individual piece of trash. The cost of getting down to that half a percent contamination rate would likely be higher than the price China is willing to pay for it.

So if China isn’t going to take our recyclable materials, what are we going to do with them?

One option is just to switch to the next developing country that would be willing to buy the material, such as Indonesia. But in another 30 years, we’re likely to find ourselves in the same position that we’re in today. Once a country develops, they often decide they don’t want to process recyclables anymore. They simply don’t want to see “Third World” trashing sorting in their country anymore.

Are we really accomplishing any of the goals we hoped to achieve through recycling? Most people feel like recycling is good for the environment, and think that the process of diverting trash away from landfills is inherently better than the alternative. But when you actually track where your plastic bottles and cardboard boxes go, it’s not making much of a difference at all.

Contaminated materials still need to be sifted through and separated. If they’re too impure to reuse, it gets thrown out. So, many items get dumped in a landfill in the U.S. or shipped to another country to get thrown into their landfill.

If the material is clean enough to be recycled, what’s the environmental cost of the factories processing it? What are the working conditions like for the people in these factories? What resources need to be used to get old recyclable materials to factories in China or Indonesia, and what’s the environmental impact of shipping new plastic products back to the U.S.?

We need to be thinking about a long-term solution for what can be done about with this waste. One option is a waste to energy (WTE) program. WTE, which is the process of burning trash in order to create energy, is relatively clean and used in many places throughout the world, such as Sweden. But this option hasn’t gained much traction in the United States. One of the big problems is that not a lot of people want to live next to a WTE incinerator. This is partly because many people still believe that incinerating trash is bad for the environment, which is not a totally unfounded idea. Burning trash can be bad for the environment and release pollutants into the air, but WTE incinerators are far more advanced than a simple open fire in someone’s backyard.

Oddly enough, some of the big opponents to WTE are environmentalists who prefer recycling, composting, or simply just generate less waste. For them, incinerating trash is just not good enough. These two factors make WTE incinerators politically infeasible.

But there are some practical everyday solutions. We need to quit practicing wishful recycling and stop throwing things like pizza boxes and other contaminated materials into the recycling bin. In fact, recycling shouldn’t even be looked at as the best choice for dealing with waste. As the common phrase goes: reduce, reuse, recycle—in that order. Glass jars can be reused as drinking glasses. You can turn old clothes and fabrics into cleaning rags. We can all be a little more mindful when it comes to the waste we generate and stop putting blind faith into the inefficient model of shipping waste overseas, only for it to be dumped in another landfill, this time, one thousands of miles away.

Adriana Vazquez is a Bay Area resident and Young Voices Advocate. She has been published in Washington Examiner, San Francisco Examiner, and the East Bay Times. Follow her on Twitter at @VazquezAdriana.

Are Californians Ready to Drink ‘From Toilet to Tap’?

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

Photo Credit: The International Rice Research Institute

Looking for an edge in coping with California’s drought, officials around the state have embarked on a public relations campaign for recycled drinking water.

Proponents of the new push hoped to capitalize on the bad publicity hitting the bottled water industry, where several suppliers have come under scrutiny for drawing their water from California. This month, “Starbucks announced that it would begin a process to move the bottling operations for its Ethos water brand to Pennsylvania,” NBC News reported. Nestle, meanwhile, refused to stop sourcing its water from public lands in the Golden State, although its pumping permit expired decades ago, and activists have petitioned the California Water Resources Control Board to halt the practice.

“The attention on Nestlé’s permit bumped it to the front of the pile for renewal review. The process will take at least 18 months, Heil said. Meanwhile, Nestlé can continue to operate in the forest as long as the company continues to pay the annual fee of $524 on the expired permit and operate under its provisions.”

Feeling the heat, Nestle Waters North America’s Tim Brown took to the San Bernardino Sun to vouch that California bottling operations should not be considered water-wasting culprits. “Our latest conservation measures include a waste-water recovery project expected to save annually 25 million gallons of water,” he wrote. “We supported the recent water bond to improve infrastructure and protect and restore watersheds and ecosystems and we believe that California’s new groundwater management legislation is a step in the right direction.”

Public skepticism

Yet, “despite the extensive science that goes into cleansing recycled water down to its molecular construction, in a recent study, 13 percent of adults said they would point-blank refuse to try it,” according to The Week. “Similar efforts in the past to jumpstart the recycled water trend in the state have failed.”

California’s long history with recycled water projects has lent credence to those who expect the pattern to continue. “Enticing people to drink recycled water […] requires getting past what experts call the ‘yuck’ factor,” as the New York Times observed. “Efforts in the 1990s to develop water reuse in San Diego and Los Angeles were beaten back by activists who denounced what they called, devastatingly, ‘toilet to tap.’ Los Angeles built a $55 million purification plant in the 1990s, but never used it to produce drinking water; the water goes to irrigation instead.”

Orange County officials, however, have brightened hopes for the recycled water movement. As Southern California Public Radiosuggested, the O.C.’s successful recycling program has underscored why “calling it ‘toilet to tap’ isn’t fair.”

“The recycled sewage water makes quite a journey on its path to purification before it comes out of faucets at home. About 2.4 million Orange County residents get their water from a massive underground aquifer, which, since 2008, has been steadily recharged with billions of gallons of purified wastewater.”

According to SCPR, Orange County Water District officials overcame the yuck factor “with a massive public relations campaign that involved more than 2,000 community presentations.”

In Santa Clara County, where recycled water has been steadily employed for non-drinking uses, San Jose’s public figures have kicked off a similar effort. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews, and others held a recent press conference around their own consumption of recycled water, the Contra Costa Times reported. “‘Delicious,’ said Liccardo, as cameras clicked. ‘Good stuff!’ said Matthews, as video rolled.”

Nudging state law

At the statewide level, fans of recycled water had a bit more news to cheer as well. In Sacramento, the author of a string of recycled water-use bills stretching across the several years, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, recently secured committee support for Assembly Bill 1463, another proposal pushing the approach to conservation. “Gatto’s legislation to help reduce the barriers for onsite-water recycling and allow more Californians to participate in safe and sustainable recycled-water practices was approved by the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee on a 15-0 vote,” according to California Newswire.

Originally published by