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US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports

Oliver Milman, THE GUARDIAN

The conscientious citizens of Philadelphia continue to put their pizza boxes, plastic bottles, yoghurt containers and other items into recycling bins.
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But in the past three months, half of these recyclables have been loaded on to trucks, taken to a hulking incineration facility and burned, according to the city’s government.

It’s a situation being replicated across the US as cities struggle to adapt to a recent ban by China on the import of items intended for reuse.

The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US.

About 200 tons of recycling material is sent to the huge Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says.

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/21/philadelphia-covanta-incinerator-recyclables-china-ban-imports

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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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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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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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We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we’re drowning in it.

Laura Parker, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE

If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America—and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks—their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later.

If the Pilgrims had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, Atlantic waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits. And those bits might still be floating around the world’s oceans today, sponging up toxins to add to the ones already in them, waiting to be eaten by some hapless fish or oyster, and ultimately perhaps by one of us.

We should give thanks that the Pilgrims didn’t have plastic, I thought recently as I rode a train to Plymouth along England’s south coast. I was on my way to see a man who would help me make sense of the whole mess we’ve made with plastic, especially in the ocean.

Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.

Read more at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste-pollution-trash-crisis/

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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 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

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The ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is ballooning

Livia Albeck-Ripka, THE NEW YORK TIMES

In the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, hundreds of miles from any major city, plastic bottles, children’s toys, broken electronics, abandoned fishing nets and millions more fragments of debris are floating in the water — at least 87,000 tons’ worth, researchers said Thursday.

In recent years, this notorious mess has become known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling oceanic graveyard where everyday objects get deposited by the currents. The plastics eventually disintegrate into tiny particles that often get eaten by fish and may ultimately enter our food chain.

A study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports quantified the full extent of the so-called garbage patch: It is four to 16 times bigger than previously thought, occupying an area roughly four times the size of California and comprising an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of rubbish. While the patch was once thought to be more akin to a soup of nearly invisible microplastics, scientists now think most of the trash consists of larger pieces. And, they say, it is growing “exponentially.”

“It’s just quite alarming, because you are so far from the mainland,” said Laurent Lebreton, the lead author of the study and an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a nonprofit that is developing systems to remove ocean trash and which funded the study. “There’s no one around and you still see those common objects, like crates and bottles.”

Read more at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/22/climate/great-pacific-garbage-patch.html

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Recology eyes big boost in composting in Sonoma County

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Carole Carpenter always felt funny about throwing thousands of pounds of used coffee grounds into the garbage.

The manager of the popular Railroad Square café A’Roma Roasters knew the rich brown granules made a great soil fertilizer, a fact she was reminded of whenever customers asked if they could take some home to sprinkle in their gardens.

“It seems like such a waste to just throw them in the garbage,” said Carpenter, who has managed the operation for 20 years.

But with limited kitchen space, no simple way to set the coffee grounds aside for gardeners, and no green bin to dispose of them in, Carpenter just did what was easiest — she told employees to toss them in the dumpster along with all the café’s other food waste.

So Celia Furber, the waste zero manager with Recology, the city’s new garbage hauler, and John LaBarge, a Recology waste zero specialist, sat down with Carpenter last week to see if they could find ways to help the eatery keep more food waste out of the landfill.

It turns out that A’Roma Roasters should have been composting its food waste since Jan. 1, 2017. That’s when businesses that create more than 4 cubic yards of organic waste a week were required under AB 1826 to begin diverting it from landfills. Larger producers were required to start a year earlier.

But the city’s previous hauler, The Ratto Group, did not make it easy to set up the service, Furber said.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8106202-181/recology-eyes-big-boost-in