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?
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.
The month of July is “Plastic Free July!” Help be part of the solution to single-use plastic pollution with these three simple tips on how to be a part of this growing movement!
- Skip the produce bag. While California has banned the single-use bag from check out, those pesky produce bags are flimsy and can easily carry with wind. Most produce has a protective layer and those that don’t, have no need to be in a flimsy throwaway bag. Refuse the bag while our shopping OR purchase reusable produce bags. They come in many sizes and materials.
- Go for a reusable cup. Yes, we all have reusable water bottles, but what about that cup of coffee, boba tea or juice? Keep an extra cup or mug at work, in your car or in your backpack so you always have on hand when you’re getting that afternoon pick me up!
- Bring your own utensils. For those on the go, refuse the single-use plastic utensils and bring your own. Investing in a set of reusable utensils such as those made of bamboo can help save possibly millions from piling up in landfills as these items are difficult to recycle and thus not accepted in our recycling program.
Have other ideas on how to reduce plastic use? Share them with us!
Be optimistic about the road ahead because real change is afoot, and we are standing on the edge of a defining moment.
I firmly believe recycling is a cornerstone of sustainability, creating a circular economy and providing for a growing population on a finite planet. Yet, I have to admit that even I am struggling to remain upbeat in the face of what seems like a relentless stream of negative press around recycling.
Every day my news feed has another story on a town shuttering its recycling program or temporarily landfilling its recyclable materials until recycling markets improve. While sensational headlines like “Is this the end of recycling?” are part ploy to draw readers, the truth is that times are extraordinarily tough: industry experts are saying these are some of the worst markets possibly ever. Everywhere I go, from meetings with local elected officials to weekend BBQs, I am being asked what is up with recycling. Recently I was directly asked, “How do we talk optimistically about recycling right now and should we?” And I wanted to offer my best response to help fuel the positive side of the conversation.
First, let’s set the record straight: recycling is not dead, it’s not going away, and with few exceptions, your materials are still being recycled and mostly through domestic markets. The communities cited on the news that are landfilling recyclable materials are the exception, not the rule. Only about one-third of our scrap materials are exported, which still leaves the majority of recycling happening in the U.S., creating domestic jobs and supporting local economies.
For most Californians, it’s a no brainer. Toss all your recyclables into a big blue bin, a truck comes to take it, and it all somehow gets recycled.
But it turns out this easy-as-1-2-3 scenario is at least part fantasy.
Much of what’s in our blue bins is simply trash — meaning, it doesn’t get recycled, but ends up in landfill. Last week KQED’s Brian Watt spoke about the issue and what can be done about it with Mark Murray, who directs the advocacy group Californians Against Waste.
The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
You have said consumers have been lulled into thinking almost everything is recyclable.
Mark Murray: Well there’s been such a desire to divert material from landfill, and there has been a lack of appreciation of the difficulty consumers have in figuring out the details. So programs have erred on the side of saying, ‘Just throw it all in the bin.’ But we know that not all that material is recyclable.
Ever notice those recycling symbols, the triangles with the numbers inside, on plastic packaging and containers? I always assumed they meant the plastic was recyclable. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Those numbers are resin identification codes, and they tell what kind of plastic the item is made from. And not all plastic is created equal.
Identifying what types of plastics are recyclable can be challenging because plastics do not always carry a resin code and because not all recycling programs are equal, either. Generally speaking, though, some categories of plastic are more widely recyclable in the United States.
Recycling used to be a money maker but now it’s costing us, and growing our landfills
With probes and clipboards, Chinese inspectors tour Bay Area recycling centers at least once a month, testing our trash to see if it meets their new high standards.
Until recently, almost all of our vast piles of plastic and paper refuse were sold and shipped overseas, promising a new life for much of what we so blithely tossed away.
Now much is rejected as wet, dirty or worthless – a reversal that has turned our once-reliable recycling world upside down, as prices plummet and the cost of cleanup soars.
At least we know the newspaper believes in some recycling.
Recently, editorial writers recycled a tired, old argument that environmental regulation is bad for business.
California proved that wasn’t true for emissions controls and renewable energy. We’re now economic leaders thanks in part to those regulations.
The newspaper now wants to use the same evidence-free argument against legislation to reduce and recycle plastic waste.
They got it all backwards.
The good news is, our collective efforts to reduce, reuse, recycle and compost have made San Francisco the most successful big city in America at reducing what goes to landfill.
The bad news is, plastics have become a huge issue for all of us. “60 Minutes”recently aired a powerful segment on plastic waste and its impact on the environment, along with the (as yet unsuccessful) efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A portion of that feature was filmed at Recycle Central at Pier 96 in San Francisco, which is Recology’s largest and most technologically advanced recycling facility.
For decades, Recology has captured plastic materials through our recycling programs in California, Oregon and Washington state, and marketed much of that material for reuse, principally throughout Asia. In other words, we had a place to send plastics.
However, a number of global policy reforms — most notably China’s National Sword program, which banned mixed plastic imports — have closed nearly all end markets for many plastic products.