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Op-Ed: Berkeley declares war on throwaway culture

Annie Leonard & Martin Bourque, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Any American school kid can recite the common wisdom for tackling our massive plastic trash problem: reduce, reuse, recycle.

But it’s not that simple.

Addressing plastic pollution has to focus far more on reducing and reusing. It is simply not a problem we can recycle our way out of.

People assume that when they toss plastic packaging into a bin, it will get collected, recycled and finally transformed into another plastic product. This is a convenient fiction, actively promoted by the plastic industry.

The reality is that much of the plastic tossed into bins ends up in landfills, or it gets shipped overseas to countries that lack infrastructure to deal with it properly.

Plastic was never recycled at a high level, and it’s even worse since 2018, when China closed its doors to imported mixed plastic waste. U.S. recyclers have shifted exports to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, but those countries lack the capacity to handle the volume we’re sending, which has brought them new environmental problems.

Moreover, despite our willingness to move plastic waste around the world, only about 9 percent of the plastic ever made has been recycled. We just keep making more of the stuff. If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn’t immediately reach for a mop — you’d first turn off the tap. That’s what we need to do with single-use plastics.

Berkeley recently passed a law that moves us a step closer to that, and it’s something that should be replicated across the country. The ordinance does not simply ban plastic foodware, leaving businesses to replace it with other throwaway materials: It rejects throwaway culture altogether.

Beginning immediately, Berkeley will require that accessory items such as utensils, straws, lids and sleeves be provided by request only and that food vendors have compost bins for all customers. In January 2020, the city will also require that all disposable takeout foodware be Biodegradable Products Institute-certified compostable and that vendors charge 25 cents for hot and cold takeout cups. If a customer brings a reusable cup, the charge is not applied. And by July 1, 2020, the ordinance will require that all eat-in dining be on reusable foodware.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/opinion/9250139-181/leonard-and-bourque-berkeley-declares

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Needles found at Recology recycling centers in Sonoma County at alarming rates

Alexandria Bordas, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Joseph Essig has encountered more hypodermic needles on the sorting line at Recology Sonoma Marin than at any other recycling center he has managed in previous years. So many, in fact, that the number of needles he’s seen is too hard to quantify.

On heavier days, sorters count hundreds of needles passing through the lines in a single shift. In one particularly bad period last year, he said his team was filling 50-gallon containers of hypodermic needles every six or seven weeks.

Not only is the exposure to needles dangerous to the health of workers, Essig said it is also costly and time consuming. The sorting line is immediately shut down each time a needle is spotted, he said, stopping the work flow. For every hour work is stalled, it costs $600, the company estimates.

“It was getting to the point where we were seeing needles nightly,” said Essig, the company’s operations manager.

Recology officials say too many people are using recycling bins to dispose of used needles and other “sharps” — medical devices designed to pierce the skin, like syringes, lancets and pen injectors.

It is a dangerous problem for the workers who use their hands to sort waste placed in the blue recycling bins. Most people do not realize that there are humans touching their recyclables to prevent them from going into the landfill, said Celia Furber, Recology’s waste zero manager.

“Whatever people put in recycling bins, we have human sorters sifting through all of it,” Furber said. “They are extremely hazardous to workers.”

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9246444-181/needles-found-at-recology-recycling

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How to make sure your recycling gets recycled

Maggie Koerth-Baker, FIveThirtyEight

Local recycling information: 2018 Recycling Guide, or 2018 Guia de Reciclaje

So now you know: Throwing all your recycling into a single bin ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Single-stream recycling may be more convenient, but, as we reported last week, it’s also to blame for a huge increase in contamination that makes your recycling unrecyclable. You think you’re saving the planet, but you’re actually just adding to the landfill.

Since that story came out, many readers have contacted me asking for tips on how to reduce recycling contamination. I went back and spoke with a couple of my sources, and there are definitely some steps you can take. Remember, though, some contamination is intrinsic to the way single-stream recycling works — you’re unlikely to fix the problem of crushed glass shards mingling with paper and plastic on your own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help.

1) Learn your local rules

Recycling programs are not all the same. Some accept glass. Others don’t. Or you might be able to recycle one kind of plastic but not others. And that’s not even counting all the things that say they can be recycled on the packaging but that cannot be recycled via your home recycling bin. Don’t assume you can intuit what is and isn’t accepted. Cultural osmosis and reading the labels on packaging isn’t enough. You’ll have to go ask your specific recycling provider, said Bernie Lee, a commodities research analyst with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade association.

Yes, he means call up your city’s information hotline, or the county recycling center, or the company actually processing your recycling and ask what they do and don’t take. That sounds onerous, I know. Unfortunately, sometimes the public has to do the hard work when corporations and private services drop the ball. Recycling companies and municipal programs “really failed on education” as single-stream recycling became more popular, said Brent Bell, a vice president at Waste Management Inc., a national recycling hauler.

I heard that same thing from multiple sources. Recycling programs across the country apparently switched to single-stream, mailed out a glossy flier once, and expected that that would be enough for users to get it right. This has turned out to be an incorrect assumption. Like a lot of readers I heard from, I had always figured that if I didn’t know whether a thing was recyclable, I was better off putting it in recycling than in the trash. But the phrase you’ll hear from recycling experts is now “when in doubt, throw it out.”

2) Clean the food off

If you’ve got a can of soup or beans, rinse it out before you put it in the bin. Same goes for milk jugs, beer bottles, butter tubs, all of it. Those containers don’t have to be sparkling clean, Lee told me. No need to wash with hot water and soap, in other words. A cold swish will do the job. If they aren’t rinsed, the food scraps from cans and bottles could end up getting onto paper products, and that makes the paper harder to recycle.

“Paper makes up a majority of the residential recycling stream per tonnage,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, all that paper doesn’t fetch a super high price on the resale market. So contamination makes this huge proportion of your recycling even less valuable, upping the chances of nobody buying it and it ending up in the landfill. Rinsing away all the organic material is a relatively easy added step that can make a big difference.

3) Break down your boxes

Cardboard use has gone up 8 percent in the past five years, according to research by USA Today. But cardboard recycling has not kept pace. Online retail is a big part of both those trends, Lee told me. When we buy stuff on Amazon and other websites, we not only end up with more boxes being shipped to our houses, we’re also dealing with more boxes-inside-boxes — packaging nesting dolls.

Shoving those boxes into the recycling bin without breaking them down is not a good way to get them recycled. It’s harder for machines to process un-broken-down boxes, Lee said. And those boxes have things like tape and glue and labels attached — all of which are contaminants. (Also, stuffing the bin full of still-3D boxes means there’s less room for other recyclables, which then end up getting put into the trash instead.)

Instead, break boxes apart, pull off the tape, and get out the box cutter. Sorting machines work better if cardboard arrives in pieces no bigger than a standard sheet of paper, Lee said. And you can just cut off the parts with sticky labels and throw them out. Even if that feels like creating more waste, you’re probably really increasing the amount of material that gets recycled.

4) Consume less

Unfortunately, a lot of contamination isn’t caused by you directly. Which makes it hard for you to individually fix. Case in point: labels on plastic bottles. Those exist for a reason, Lee said. Drink companies have figured out that they have to get the right color and appearance on their labels or sales suffer. But the plastic used in shrink wrap or glued labels isn’t always recyclable, which can mean the bottles they’re stuck to are also trash — even if the bottle, itself, could have been recycled.

Companies are concerned about this issue, Lee told me. But there’s often a fundamental mismatch between what recycles best — a plain brown box — and what sells best — a box covered with glossy images.

And this is where we have to remember that our waste problems can’t be solved by recycling alone. Using less and reusing more should come first. For example: Glass can be a big problem in single-stream recycling. Crushed in trucks, the pieces grind into plastic and paper, making those things harder to recycle. Even whole, glass is often unprofitable to haul away and melt and repurpose — some recycling systems won’t even accept it for that reason. But if you buy stuff that comes in glass jars, you can wash those and re-use them at home. In that situation, the case for reusing the container is better than the case for recycling it.

Source: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-to-make-sure-your-recycling-gets-recycled/

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The era of easy recycling may be coming to an end

Maggie Koerth-Baker, FiveThirtyEight

For those of us who spent most of our lives painstakingly separating plastic, glass, paper and metal, single-stream recycling is easy to love. No longer must we labor. Gone is the struggle to store two, three, four or even five different bags under the kitchen sink. Just throw everything into one dumpster, season liberally with hopes and dreams, and serve it up to your local trash collector. What better way to save the planet?

But you can see where this is headed.

Americans love convenient recycling, but convenient recycling increasingly does not love us. Waste experts call the system of dumping all the recyclables into one bin “single-stream recycling.” It’s popular. But the cost-benefit math of it has changed. The benefit — more participation and thus more material put forward for recycling — may have been overtaken by the cost — unrecyclable recyclables. On average, about 25 percent of the stuff we try to recycle is too contaminated to go anywhere but the landfill, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade group. Just a decade ago, the contamination rate was closer to 7 percent, according to the association. And that problem has only compounded in the last year, as China stopped importing “dirty” recyclable material that, in many cases, has found no other buyer.

Most recycling programs in the United States are now single stream. Between 2005 and 2014, these programs went from covering 29 percent of American communities to 80 percent, according to a survey conducted by the American Forest and Paper Association. The popularity makes sense given that single-stream is convenient and a full 66 percent of people surveyed by Harris Poll last October said that they wouldn’t recycle at all if it wasn’t easy to do.

Some experts have credited single stream with large increases in the amount of material recycled. Studies have shown that people choose to put more stuff out on the curb for recycling when they have a single-sort system. And the growth of single-stream recycling tracks with the growth of recycling overall in this country.

But it also pretty closely tracks with skyrocketing contamination rates.

Read more at https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-era-of-easy-recycling-may-be-coming-to-an-end/

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Sebastopol is first to embrace countywide zero-waste campaign

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sebastopol has become the first local city to sign on to a campaign that would commit residents and businesses to reducing the community’s waste stream to zero by the year 2030 — part of a countywide bid to curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment while preserving the region’s limited landfill capacity.

The ordinance approved by the City Council calls for individuals to cut their own garbage production by at least 10 percent a year. It also sets the stage for future policy decisions governing single-use products, composting and recycling, officials said.

“Zero waste is our future, along with electric cars and electric bicycles,” veteran City Councilwoman Sarah Glade Gurney said Wednesday.

The city’s resolution was part of a package of measures approved unanimously Tuesday night as a lead-off to a countywide zero-waste campaign championed by the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

The City Council also expressed support for an ordinance that would ban polystyrene food service containers and require food vendors to use biodegradable or recyclable food wares — another campaign being promoted by the county waste agency.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8851069-181/sebastopol-is-first-to-embrace

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Green-waste options mulled for Santa Rosa apartment dwellers

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Most [apartments], perhaps 90 percent, do not yet have a food waste option, Migliore said. But a number of complexes have begun testing organic waste programs, including the Coddingtown Mall Apartments. Some residents had installed their own small compost tumblers on their porches, so there was clearly an interest in providing the service, said Harry Brown, one of the property managers.

When Carlos Calzontzi lived in Chico, he and his wife had a little house with a garden and a compost pile where he would throw most of his kitchen scraps.

It felt good to return those nutrients back to the Earth and fertilize the soil to help grow vegetables for his family.

But when the retired city maintenance worker relocated last year to Santa Rosa to be closer his kids and grandkids, he moved into an apartment complex that at the time had no green-waste disposal option. The Coddingtown Mall Apartments, like most apartment complexes in the county, provided its 230 units with garbage and recycling service, but no bins for organic waste.

So he threw his leftover avocado pits, unused vegetable chunks and bread scraps into the garbage, where they went to the landfill.

“We felt bad because we knew all of that could be used in the garden,” Calzontzi said. “We care about the Earth.”

Organic material makes up about 34 percent of the material that Californians throw into landfills every year, according to a 2014 study by CalRecycle, the state waste management agency.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a 2014 law meant to improve organic recycling efforts, in part by requiring businesses like restaurants and food processors to have an organic waste program. But multi-family apartment complexes were exempted from the law.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8680335-181/green-waste-options-mulled-for-santa

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Commercial compost operation proposed in Santa Rosa

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County is getting closer to once again having a large-scale commercial composting operation.

Staff at the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which is responsible for recycling operations in the county, is recommending partnering with Renewable Sonoma in a new composting operation in Santa Rosa.

Renewable Sonoma is owned by Sonoma Compost, the organization that operated a compost yard atop the Sonoma County landfill from 1993 to 2015, when it was shut down over water quality concerns.

Will Bakx, co-owner and CEO of Renewable Sonoma, said the new venture seeks to create a renewable energy and composting facility next to the Laguna Treatment Plant on Llano Road southwest of Santa Rosa.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8462923-181/commercial-compost-operation-proposed-in

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Republic Services to buy Santa Rosa trash hauler, recycling center

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Republic Services, which has operated the Sonoma County-owned Central Landfill west of Cotati since late 2010, is the nation’s second largest waste firm.

Its expansion in Sonoma County could position it for a head-to-head competition with Recology for future hauling business, according to local solid waste experts.

Republic Services, the national solid waste giant that runs Sonoma County’s landfill, is in the process of acquiring a Santa Rosa garbage contractor and its recycling center in a move that could further shake up the region’s garbage industry.

Industrial Carting, along with its Global Materials Recovery Services recycling operation, both located on Santa Rosa Avenue south of the city, is selling to the Arizona-based company, according to Lee Pierce, a consultant for Industrial Carting, and Leslye Choate, a Sonoma County government official who is handling paperwork related to the deal.

Neither company would elaborate on the acquisition or disclose the terms of the agreement.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8386238-181/republic-services-to-buy-santa

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California wages war on plastic

Rosanna Xia, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

It took years of activist campaigns to turn the plastic bag into a villain, and hard-fought legislation to reduce its presence in oceans and waterways. Now, environmentalists and lawmakers are deploying similar tactics against a new generation of plastic pollutants.

There are drinking straws, which as a viral video shows can get stuck in a sea turtle’s nose. The hundreds of thousands of bottle caps that wind up on beaches. And the microfibers that wash off polyester clothes, making their way into the ocean, the stomachs of marine life and ultimately our seafood.

Each is the subject of statewide legislation under debate in Sacramento, as California again considers new environmental law that’s at once pioneering and controversial.

Their action comes as plastic takes center stage as the environmental concern du jour.
There could be more plastic by weight than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050, according to a widely cited World Economic Forum report. A recent UC Davis study sampled seafood sold at local markets in Half Moon Bay and found that one-quarter of fish and one-third of shellfish contained plastic debris.

Read more at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-california-plastic-pollution-20180528-story.html

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California has a recycling crisis. The only way to solve it is to stop making so much trash

Times Editorial Board, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Californians use — and then toss — a tremendous amount of paper and plastic packaging material every day: takeout coffee cups and lids, cereal boxes, wine bottles, plastic bags, clamshell food containers, and on and on.

It’s hard for even the most militant environmentalist to avoid contributing to this waste stream, given the inescapability of products wrapped in some sort of disposable material. Even fruits and vegetables that are naturally encased in durable, compostable wrapping will be trundled up in plastic bags in the produce aisle for the trip home.

Those disturbed by the amount of trash they produce have been able to assuage their guilty consciences by making sure every potential recyclable item ended up in the blue recycling bin. Surely there could be no long-term environmental toll if every empty plastic soda bottle and chipboard six-pack carrier was diverted from the landfill and remade into a cozy fleece jacket or an organic chemistry textbook.

What a lovely story. Too bad it’s about as true as a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Recycling has never been the solution to the problem posed by empty beer cans, plastic takeout containers and other single-use items, just a way to mitigate the effects enough to pretend that all this waste is not really wasteful. But reality is becoming harder to ignore now that the foreign market for our trash is collapsing. Hallelujah to that, as it might just be the impetus needed to force society to confront the disposable culture that is trashing the planet.

Read more at http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-recycling-crisis-20180526-story.html