Why Recycling is Not the Same Everywhere

If you pay close attention to recycling, you’ve probably noticed that what’s accepted one place is not necessarily accepted in the next town over. For example, in the RethinkWaste service area (Burlingame to East Palo Alto) we do NOT accept plastic bags in the recycling, while in San Francisco they do.

It may be easier for residents if recycling was standardized, but there are reasons why it’s not the same everywhere. Two of the main reasons for the variation in recycling are: markets and community differences.


Markets dictate what can and cannot be recycled. When you put something into your blue recycling cart, there are multiple steps in the process before an item can actually get recycled. First, recyclables head to a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). While at the MRF, all recyclables are separated by material type (i.e. glass, metal, cardboard, paper, etc..). After being separated, each individual material is marketed and sold to different companies, both domestically and internationally. It’s at these facilities that recycling actually occurs, and items are transformed into something new and useful.

Without a destination (or an end market) where materials can be made into something new, “recyclables” wouldn’t be actually “recycled.” Markets are dependent on many factors including location, time, and material type, just to name a few. Markets change from location to location because manufacturing companies have put factories in different places. For example, if there are several paper mills in Arizona, but none in Michigan, it’s going to be much more difficult for MRFs in Michigan to find a market for their paper.

Markets also change over time and can have larger global shifts, such as China’s National Sword policy, which has had a major impact on the recycling industry. Additionally, some materials simply have more stable markets than others. For example, plastics #1 and #2 (water bottles, laundry detergent containers, etc.) tend to have very consistent markets, while other plastics have more unstable markets meaning they may not get recycled. Plastic #1 & #2 have a variety of markets and can be made into carpet, clothing, rope, construction materials, toys, recycling bins, and of course bottles. These variations in markets make it difficult to accept the same materials for recycling everywhere.

Community Differences

In addition to markets, community differences also contribute to the variation we see in recycling.

Everything that makes our communities distinct can also have an impact on the waste system that develops. One major factor that must be considered is the size of the community. For smaller, more rural communities there can be serious barriers hindering a recycling program. While larger, more urban communities tend to have more robust recycling systems. With a smaller community comes a less dense population making curbside recycling less fiscally sound. Typically smaller, rural communities rely on recycling drop off, which usually results in lower participation rates.

Along with less funding, is a lack of local markets. Typically, rural communities are further away from markets and transportation can be an expensive barrier for the community. Trucking costs vary by weight, the heavier the material the more costly it will be to transport. Where it may be possible to truck plastic 400 miles to be recycled, it might not be the same for glass, which is much heavier.

In addition to funding and markets, communities may also focus on different priorities. In the RethinkWaste area (and greater Bay Area), many believe that environmental protection should be a top priority, but that does not always hold true for the rest of the nation. These differences in population size, funding, and values play a large role in if items can be recycled.

What does this mean for you?

Now you know that recycling is not always equal. Whenever you travel or relocate, be sure to look for your local recycling guides (you can find ours here). Don’t be afraid to seek help or ask questions and reach out to local organizations if you are confused about what goes where.

Remember, recycling may not always be easy, but it is always worth it!

Beyond Recycling: The Other “R’s” Webinar Follow-Up

RethinkWaste and Recology San Mateo County held a webinar on June 30, 2020. This page provides the webinar recording, presentation slides, links to more resources, and all of the questions submitted. If you have more questions, fill out the form at the bottom of the page.

To view a recording of the webinar and the live Q&A, click the recording below.

1. What happens to the compost collected and is the volume from households and businesses trending up?

Compost collected in the RethinkWaste service area is sent to either Newby Island in San Jose or Blossom Valley Organics in Vernalis. Compost volume in the RethinkWaste service area is trending up. There was a 1.7% increase in overall compost collection from 2018-2019, and residential, business, and apartments all saw increases in compost collected.

2. Are the items that we place in our blue recycling carts really getting recycled? I know consumers should avoid buying these items in the first place but is there anything else (aside from cleaning better) that we can do? Are the cardboard milk cartons actually recyclable?

Plastics #3-7 are currently not being recycled as there is no market for recycling them. These are items like to-go containers and yogurt cups. Other than being contractually bound to collect 3-7 plastics, a market could come back so we do still collect them. The best steps would be to focus on reducing waste, cleaning the best that you can, and supporting policies that reduce the amount of non-recyclable plastics available to consumers in the first place. Cardboard milk cartons, if from the refrigerated section at the grocery store go in your recycling cart. If they are shelf-stable, they are aseptic containers and are made of mixed material, so they go in the garbage.

3. What is being done to bring back Recycling Buyback?

For those unfamiliar, Recycling Buyback refers to California’s redemption program for bottles and cans. Whenever you buy a bottle or can, you pay an extra 5 or 10 cents depending on size and what qualifies. There is currently one open buyback facility in our service area – J&D Recycling in San Mateo. Note that our Shoreway Public Recycling Center was a buyback location for many years, but last year after RePlanet closed all their locations, we saw a huge backlog of cars on Shoreway Road, making it difficult for Recology trucks and our trucks to get in and out of the facility to collect, drop off, and move off site your recycling, compost, and garbage and causing a nuisance to our neighbors on this narrow road. Therefore, we closed the Shoreway buyback center and have not found a safe way to open it back up. RethinkWaste and Recology are not required by State law to have a buyback center.

4. Are there places to giveaway unwanted but still useable items?

Check with NextDoor, freecycle.org, your family members or friends. If you don’t find success through those options, bring items to local donation centers.

5. Should we put shredded paper in paper or plastic bags?

Put shredded paper in a closed paper bag labelled “Shredded Paper,” to avoid it from flying around and becoming litter.

6. What is the smallest size for a ball of tinfoil that is accepted? Does clean aluminum foil ball go to recycle? What about food soiled aluminum foil?

Combine small pieces of clean (free of food) tinfoil together so they make a larger tinfoil ball. Clean aluminum goes into your recycling cart. If foil is food-soiled, try your best to empty the crumbs or food remnants in the compost, and then ball up the foil, food side on the inside to ensure any leftover food stays inside to not soil the rest of your recycling.

7. Do plastic net bags for onions and potatoes go in the recycling cart?

No, plastic net bags for produce go into the garbage.

8. Can old lightbulbs be put in my orange battery bin?

No, lightbulbs do not belong in the orange battery bucket. If you have an incandescent lightbulb, they can be thrown in the garbage. If you have a fluorescent lightbulb, these lights container mercury and must be brought to a local drop off location such as a hardware store where it can be disposed of properly. You can find drop off locations for fluorescent lights and LED lights at RecycleStuff.org.

9. Are spiral bound notebooks recyclable?

Yes, spiral bound notebooks can go in the recycling cart.

10. Are small plastic sauce containers that are from restaurants and have the #1-7 recyclable?

As long as the plastic containers have a chasing arrows sign with the number 1-7 on it, it can go in the recycling.

11. What do I do with the bubble wrap envelopes? Also, what’s the best way to get rid of styrofoam?

Sometimes bubble wrap envelopes have a “Store Drop-off” label on it, which usually means you can bring it to a participating store that takes it back to get recycled. If it does not have that label, it goes into the garbage.

12. Can you talk about thin plastic?

Thin, flimsy plastic refers to cling wrap, zip-top bags, or other crinkly plastics like plastic bags. These plastics DO NOT go into the recycling cart because they jam the machines at the Shoreway recycling facility. If you cannot reuse them, they go into the garbage.

13. Are rubberbands recyclable?

Rubberbands are not recyclable but they can be reused.

14. How much of the good plastic you take in is actually recycled and used in products again? What percentage of plastic is just going to landfills?

About 83% of the material that comes to our recycling facility goes on to get recycled, including plastic mixed paper, cardboard, glass, and metals, leaving 17% of the remaining material going to landfill. We currently do not have a breakdown of how much of the total plastic that comes through the facility is recycled versus going to landfill.

15. Where do plastic and metal bottle caps go?

We ask that you keep plastic and metal bottle caps attached to their bottle and put the whole item in the recycling. If bottle caps are loose in your cart, they are likely to get littered into the street when your carts are being serviced.

16. What do you advise as best option for disposing of e-waste?

You can bring select electronic waste to GreenCitizen in Burlingame at no charge or hold onto it until the Shoreway Public Recycling Center is open for free disposal.

17. Where does wood go?

If the wood is clean, untreated wood, it can go into the compost cart as long as it is cut down to fit inside the cart so the lid can close. If the wood is treated or has paint on it, it must go in the garbage.

18. Is waxed cardboard recyclable?

Waxed cardboard goes into your compost cart.

19. Are receipts recyclable?

No, receipts are made up more than one material and contain BPA chemicals, so they go in the garbage.

20. Where do tissues used to wipe wet hands go?

Tissues used to wipe wet hands are soiled paper so they can go into the compost.

21. Are there any other items that you commonly see recycled or composted that shouldn’t be?

Personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks, along with plastic bags and film have been found in all three carts, but they belong in only the garbage cart.

22. Does 100% cotton scrap fabric go in the compost?

Textiles of any type are not accepted in any of your three carts. You can find places to donate unwanted textiles at RecycleStuff.org.

23. Can flimsy plastic go in the plastic shopping bag containers at the grocery stores?

Yes, if grocery stores are accepting plastic bags to recycle, you can bring them there to get recycled.

24. Where do I start? What will help me reduce the most amount of waste?

Start small, by switching out one single-use item with a reusable one. For example, start with saying no to straws, and once that becomes a habit, move to utensils. Try doing a waste audit to see what you throw out the most. Check your recycling bin too, as reducing items you throw into the recycling also has a very positive impact. Also try examining items around your house, and start with an item that you feel that you can reduce your use of/repair/replace with a reusable option.

If you have more questions, fill out the form below!

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The Importance of Recycling and Composting

Every day we face the choice of properly sorting our waste into our three carts. With proper sorting, there should be more items in your blue recycling and green compost carts than in your black garbage cart. But why does this matter? Recycling and composting have important environmental benefits and understanding why they matter goes a long way in keeping us motivated to sort correctly!

Recycling saves energy and conserves resources

One great thing about recycling is that it has been pivotal in reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfill. From 1999 to 2018, the annual amount of waste sent to the landfill in San Mateo County dropped by 32% despite an 8% increase in population size and significant economic growth.

Material that is sent to the landfill stays there forever, whereas material that is recycled can be turned into new products. By making new products from recycled materials, we also reduce demand for virgin materials, which is important because we live on a planet with finite resources! By reducing demand for virgin materials, we also save the energy that would have been used to extract and process those resources from our environment.

Even with the energy needed to process our recyclable materials at our Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) and energy needed to turn our recyclables into new products, there is still a net energy saving from recycling! Saving energy means less CO2 emissions, which contribute to climate change by acting as a heat trapping blanket in our atmosphere. Here are some of the energy savings from different materials:

  • Recycling one 20 oz plastic bottle = energy to power one CFL lightbulb for 10.3 hours
    • Recycling one ream of printer paper (500 sheets) = energy to power a typical laptop for 49 hours

Recycling glass and aluminum is especially important because they can be recycled over and over again!

  • Recycling one 12 oz glass bottle = energy to power one CFL lightbulb for 5.3 hours
    • Recycling one aluminum can = energy to power a typical laptop for 5.8 hours

Composting prevents climate change and improves our soils

Composting also plays an important role in diverting waste from our landfill, and actually plays an even bigger role than recycling in our service area. In 2018, the Shoreway Environmental Center received 120,000 tons of organic material, which was about 50% more in weight than the amount of recyclable material received.

Furthermore, diverting organic material is arguably even more important than diverting recyclable material because when organic material enters the landfill, it breaks down and releases a gas known as methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change in the same way that CO2 does, but has a warming effect 34 times stronger than CO2! Composting just one ton of organic waste has the same emission reductions as taking a car off the road for two months, which means that in 2018 the RethinkWaste service area composted enough organic waste to reduce emissions equivalent to taking over 22,000 cars off of the road.  In addition to diverting waste from landfills and reducing harmful emissions, finished compost has many environmental benefits as a soil additive, including reducing the need for chemical fertilizers, improving soil water retention, and assisting in erosion control.

While recycling and composting play only a small role in protecting our planet, everyone can contribute to taking better care of it by taking full advantage of these wonderful systems we have in place.

So next time when you go to sort your waste, remember that diverting compostable or recyclable items from the landfill helps us use our wonderful resources to their full advantage. You can also remember the energy you can save by turning your items into new ones when you recycle right or that composting your organic waste will help improve our soils to grow our next meals!

To learn more about energy savings and emissions reductions from recycling and composting, check out these resources:

·        https://www.epa.gov/warm/individual-waste-reduction-model-iwarm-tool

·        http://www.stopwaste.co/calculator/

5 Tips for Managing Your Recycling, Compost & Garbage

[1] The Sorting Hat

Not sure what goes where? Check out WhatBin.com to learn what materials belong in each cart. Think you’re a master sorter? Test out your skills with our Interactive Carts Game.

[2] Let’s Break It Down

Optimize space in your blue recycling cart by keeping recyclables loose (not bagged) and breaking down boxes.

Remember that you are able to place all recyclables in the same cart—this includes cardboard, clean paper products, glass bottles and jars, metals, and plastics containers #1-7. Shredded paper may be placed inside a paper bag labeled “shredded paper.”

Please make sure lids are completely closed to prevent items from falling out of your cart.

[3] Bag Your Garbage Before You Toss It

Do your part to keep drivers safe and reduce litter. Garbage should be secured in bags to prevent unwanted critters and materials from blowing onto the street. Make sure all garbage fits inside your cart, with the lid completely closed.

[4] Save Your Donations

Put reusable items aside for now. Once Shelter-In-Place restrictions are lifted, donate reusable goods to a local charity, non-profit, family or friend. They will appreciate the donation, and it won’t go to the landfill. You can also find a location for your donatable items at: RecycleStuff.org

[5] Roll Out!

Place residential carts out by 6:00 a.m. on your service day. Drivers may pick up carts earlier or later due to temporary routing changes. Carts should be put away within 24 hours of service. Remember to position carts two feet apart to allow automated trucks to collect carts efficiently.

2019 – 2020 Holiday Collection Schedule

Recology San Mateo County is closed Christmas Day and New Year’s Day so employees can enjoy the holidays with their families.

Compost, recycling, and garbage collection will be delayed by one day for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday customers for the week of these two holidays. If your regular collection day falls on Wednesday, December 25th and Wednesday, January 1st your collection will be moved to the next day (Thursday, December 26th and Thursday, January 2nd). If your collection usually falls on Thursday, place your containers out on Friday, December 27th and Friday, January 3rd. Friday customers will have their carts serviced on Saturday. Please see the calendar below for complete schedule.

Regular collection service by Recology will resume the week of Monday, January 6, 2020.

The Hard Facts About Plastic

The recycling industry is under a microscope with the recent market changes and the impacts are being felt by the community. Whether it’s buyback closures, pollution, or landfilling seemingly ‘recyclable’ material, plastic is at the forefront of these conversations. In this post, we will address common questions that we receive regarding plastic and the issues plastics pose within the recycling industry.

1. What makes recycling plastic so difficult?

You know that triangle symbol that we’ve known to associate with recycling? It is commonly used as a symbol on the side of a bin to encourage people to recycle. It is also usually found on the underside of different plastic items. The triangle symbols on plastic products does NOT mean the product is recyclable. The chasing-arrow triangles with numbers inside is the resin identification code, which indicates the type of plastic the product is made of with numbers ranging from #1-7. This leads to confusion among the public, since many items are mistaken to be recyclable when they are not.

2. Which plastics are recyclable?

Plastics #1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) are readily recyclable and are usually recycled in both domestic and some international markets. Plastics #1 are items such as water and soda bottles, peanut butter jars, and salad dressing bottles. These items are mostly recycled into more water and soda bottles or textiles and insulation. Examples of Plastics #2 are milk jugs, laundry detergent and oil bottles, and drain cleaner containers. These items are mostly recycled into more laundry detergent and oil bottles, piping, recycling containers, shampoo bottles, and chairs.

3. Are any of the numbers in the triangles difficult to recycle?

Plastics #3 – 7 are plastics that are difficult to recycle. Examples of Plastics #3 – 7 are PVC pipes, yogurt containers, cold and hot beverage lids, and takeout containers. There is currently no market for the material when it is deconstructed, as these are low-quality plastics. Currently, RethinkWaste is still accepting plastics #1 – 7, but once plastics #1 – 2 are sorted out, plastics #3 – 7 are directed to the transfer station and sent to the landfill.  Try and avoid these plastics as much as possible or reuse them if you can.

4. Which plastic is not recyclable in the RethinkWaste service area and why?

Items such as plastic utensils, black-colored plastic, straws, plastic hangers, plastic bags, and polystyrene foam (also known as Styrofoam) do not belong in the recycling cart. These items can damage facility equipment and cannot be accurately or efficiently captured due to their size. In addition, RethinkWaste does not currently have an existing or stable market to sell these materials to, as they are also low-quality plastic.

When we talk about recycling and what items are “recyclable,” we mean that materials can be turned into something else and as long as there is a market for the materials. With plastic at the forefront of recycling conversations, it forces us to take a hard look at what is and is not actually marketable, and in turn allows us to make informed decisions for ourselves. Since we now know which plastics are marketable, we have the choice to refuse these plastics in our lives or to reuse them instead.

More information can be found on our “The Hard Facts About Plastics” fact sheet.

Have more questions about recycling or plastics? Shoot us a note below!

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Top 5 Recycling Misconceptions

We receive a lot of questions about recycling and what is and is not accepted into our programs, so we’ve decided to answer the top five questions that come across our emails, phone calls, and on social media in one place.

  1. Plastic Bags – Plastic bags can get caught in our recycling facility machinery and are NOT accepted in the recycling. If you collect your recyclables in a bag,  empty the contents into the cart, but put the plastic bag in the garbage. Try and avoid plastic bags and all flimsy plastics as much as possible by bringing your own shopping and produce bags, or by purchasing items with minimal or no packaging.
  2. Black Plastic – We use optical sorters that use the reflection of light to identify the type of plastics to separate them. Black plastic doesn’t reflect light and cannot be sorted by the scanners and can end up contaminating other materials. So please put black plastic in the garbage.
  3. Wet or food-soiled paper products (paper towels, paper plates, pizza boxes) – Any paper product that has been soiled with food or liquid needs to go into the compost. Only clean paper products like office paper, newspaper, magazines, and cardboard (that’s flattened) belong in the recycling.
  4. Aseptic Containers – These are the shelf stable containers for non-dairy milks or soups and are  found in the grocery aisle.  Aseptic containers are made with multiple material types including paper, plastic, and aluminum. Our facility is not able to handle containers with multiple material types and thus aseptic containers go into the garbage.
  5. Batteries – Batteries contain toxic materials and need to be disposed of properly. Please never place batteries into ANY of your carts or bins. Information about how and where to dispose of your household batteries can be found at: rethinkwaste.org/batteries

Remember that materials are only recyclable if they can be turned into something else and as long as there is a market for the materials. Historically, most mixed paper and mixed plastics went to China for processing and manufacturing into new products. China recently changed their standards to stricter contamination limits and import bans have made it more difficult to market these materials.

Have a question about what does or doesn’t belong in your blue recycling cart? Shoot us a note below!

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Temporary Closure of Buyback at Shoreway

The buyback portion of Shoreway Environmental Center’s Public Recycling Center (PRC) will temporarily close effective Friday, August 16 at 4:00 p.m. 

The recycling markets have significantly changed recently and as a result, the largest independent recycling company in the state, rePlanet, abruptly closed all 284 of its buyback centers throughout California on August 5, 2019, including three in the RethinkWaste service area. The unexpected and unforeseen closures created an overwhelming response to RethinkWaste’s San Carlos PRC, resulting in an unprecedented number of customers and volume of collected CRV containers to our facility. While our PRC recently completed a layout update to allow for a few more vehicles to queue in the buyback area, the percent increase does not match up with the increases in vehicles experienced in the last week. 

 “The safety of our community members and area is always our top priority and the long lines along Shoreway Road places our customers, the driving public, pedestrians, cyclists, employees of our facilities and neighbors and vendors at risk when arriving or departing the facility area,” said Joe La Mariana, RethinkWaste Executive Director. “We appreciate the public who use the CRV program now and in the past. We will assess market conditions and necessary program costs during this temporary closure period and look to the state for assistance in helping resolve this situation. Earliest possible date to resume buyback operations at the PRC is early October.” 

Please note that the Public Recycling Center will remain open Monday – Saturday, 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. to accept a wide variety of drop-off items (at no charge) from the public including excess cardboard, latex and oil-based paint, batteries, cooking oil, fluorescent lights and more. To see a full list click here.

RethinkWaste sincerely apologizes for the inconvenience and encourage people in search for alternate local buyback locations to visit RecycleStuff.org

Recycling Piles Up in Bay Area After China Bans Most Plastic Waste

For years, American consumers believed that when they were putting out their recyclables on the curb, they were doing their part to help the environment. Much of this waste ended up in China, but after the country said last year that it would no longer accept plastic and other incoming waste, cities have scrambled to find a new way to dispose of the materials. How are Bay Area cities dealing with the problem of plastic and what legislation is in the works to address the problems?

Listen to the full segment hosted by Scott Shafer on KQED News here.

Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret

A Guardian report from 11 countries tracks how US waste makes its way across the world – and overwhelms the poorest nations

What happens to your plastic after you drop it in a recycling bin?

According to promotional materials from America’s plastics industry, it is whisked off to a factory where it is seamlessly transformed into something new.

This is not the experience of Nguyễn Thị Hồng Thắm, a 60-year-old Vietnamese mother of seven, living amid piles of grimy American plastic on the outskirts of Hanoi. Outside her home, the sun beats down on a Cheetos bag; aisle markers from a Walmart store; and a plastic bag from ShopRite, a chain of supermarkets in New Jersey, bearing a message urging people to recycle it.

Read the full story by Erin McCormick, Bennett Murray, Carmela Fonbuena, Leonie Kijewski, Gökçe Saraçoğlu, Jamie Fullerton, Alastair Gee and Charlotte Simmonds on The Guardian here.