Graduating from plastics: local recycler pushes to do more

in Community/Featured/Headline

The Bomb. Climate change. Bad governing. Men from Mars. Now plastics pollution has been added to the list of things that could destroy the world.

The realities of Earth drowning in discarded plastic are well documented. China has stopped buying garbage from the United States. The price of recycling is going up, driving many of the nation’s cities to throw it away instead. People are not very good at recycling in the first place and are not willing to give up the conveniences of plastics. The ocean is becoming plastic slush, the main culprits being Third World countries with little or no recycling infrastructure.

Is there anything a trash collecting and recycling center on Shoreway Road in San Carlos can do about it?

Maybe. There are signs that Earth Day 2019 will mark a turning away, at least in California, from the classic – and fateful – “one word” bit of career advice to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie “The Graduate”: “Plastics.”

The Shoreway Environmental Center is part of the three-state Recology corporation, recognized as one of the most sophisticated and successful recyclers in the U.S. It diverts 80 percent of its collected waste, far more than the national average. Recology San Mateo County has increased its commercial recycling diversion by 39.5 percent since it was established in 2011, according to Shoreway General Manager Mike Kelly. A drop in the worldwide bucket, maybe, but also maybe valuable as an example of how to do it.

Sophisticated sorting-and-baling machinery is one weapon of the South Bayside Waste Management Authority, a 12-member joint powers agency that operates the Shoreway system, which includes the Material Recycling Facility. The buildings and equipment cost $50 million. “The equipment is state-of-the-art and becoming more so,” Kelly said. “The SBWMA is considering equipment upgrades to improve material handling and sorting.”

Perhaps as important as diversion tonnage are Recology’s education programs, waste audits for businesses and efforts to promote policy reforms by governments and plastics manufacturers. Eric Potashner, the corporation’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs, said that while he admires Dutch inventor Boyan Slat’s quest to scoop up and recycle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “We’re looking upstream” (to keep plastics out of the stream in the first place). The company’s Waste Zero motto “is not about sorting, it’s about changing day-to-day behavior,” he said.

“Businesses and individuals are getting better at it,” Potashner said. Recology helps with its education programs and a new “how-to” website, Better At The Bin.

Recology also is trying to influence government and plastics industry policies. Chief Executive Michael Sangiacomo has pledged $1 million toward a California ballot measure modeled after the European Union laws that require recycled content in all plastic bottles and ban certain single-use plastic products.

Before starting the campaign, Potashner said, “We’ll see what happens with Assembly Bill 1080. The voting public is ready for this movement away from plastics.” Introduced last month, AB 1080 would require that single-use plastic packaging and products be reduced, recycled or composted by 75 percent by 2030.

“We have to stop treating our oceans and planet like a dumpster,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who is author of the bill. “Any fifth-grader can tell you that our addiction to single-use plastics is killing our ecosystems.”

California already is a leader in fighting plastics pollution, being the first state with plastic straw and single-use plastic bag restrictions. Last year, the Legislature passed a law reducing the use of non-recyclable takeout food containers.

In San Mateo County, all cities have ordinances that prohibit free distribution of single-use paper and plastic bags and require a 25-cent charge for a recycled bag.

Recology’s approach with the plastics industry includes Sangiacomo’s offer to meet with the CEO of the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, to offer a partnership on waste control strategies. The meeting was scheduled for last week. The council has a goal of 100 percent recovery, reuse or recycling of plastic packaging by 2040.

Assemblywoman Gonzalez’s fifth-grader is proving to be an effective secret weapon in shooting for that goal, Recology Public Affairs Manager Robert Reed said. “A lot of our outreach is to students,” he said. “They are doing a good job of showing parents how to do it.”

There still are obstacles to Waste Zero, but they are manageable so far, Potashner said. Although China, which just 14 months ago took 50 percent of the world’s trash and turned it into manufactured products, now takes nothing, there are markets in the U.S. and Southeast Asia, he said.

But “recycled paper used to bring $100 a ton; now it’s $30.” Another complication is a new requirement by manufacturers that bales of recycled plastics contain less than one percent impurities. Economics like these have added recycling costs that have led cities in some parts of the country to give up and throw everything in the dump, Potashner said, “but in California it’s mandatory to recycle.”

A reduction in recycling markets could eventually drive up rates, Kelly said. “As the prices for recycled material decreases, rates may increase to the customer.”  In Redwood City, residents pay $12.87 per 20-gallon can per month on their utility bills, according to the city website.

Other recycling barriers include less-than-perfect household strategies. “In California we do a pretty good job of recycling,” Potashner said. “But we still find some things in bins that don’t belong. Plastic bags are not recyclable with food in them. We’re getting too much organics in the blue (recycle) bins.”

Flimsy plastics such as newspaper, produce and bread bags, and plastic air pillows  also require special treatment. They are almost impossible to recycle and they gum up the million-dollar machines that do the sorting. “The best way to handle this material is to place all plastic film together and take it to your local grocery store’s drop-off receptacle, or bring it to the Shoreway Environmental Center for recycling,” Kelly said.

Other tips are can be found at the Better At The Bin website, which was inaugurated in October. “We’ve had 50,000 visits, with an average stay of four minutes,” Reed said. The encompassing message of the site, he said, is that “people can make a difference by voting with their dollars, buying products with little or no packaging with junk plastic.”

Reed’s community relations counterpart at Shoreway, Gino Gasparini, harks back  to that famous word of advice in “The Graduate.” “All wrong.”