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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.

3 Simple Tips to be Plastic Free this July and Beyond

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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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!

Why (and How) to Talk Optimistically About Recycling Right Now

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.

The the full story by Karen Bailey on Waste 360 here.

A Lot of the Stuff We Throw in Those Recycling Bins Is Really Just Trash

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.

Read the full story at KQED Science here.

One Thing You Can Do: Know Your Plastics

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.

Read the full story by Eduardo Garcia and Henry Fountain on New York Times site here.

Recycling crisis: China doesn’t want our waste. Now what?

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.

Read the full story by Lisa M. Krieger online at Mercury News here.