'Wish-cycling' does no favors, Recology says

03/13/2019

When in doubt about the best bin for your paper or plastic, the counterintuitive solution may be the trash can.

Last week, the Rotary Club of West Marin met with a specialist for the waste collector Recology Sonoma-Marin and were shocked to discover the nuances of what can and cannot be processed in the area—standards that differ from those in the waste company’s headquarters in San Francisco, which has some of the most advanced infrastructure in the country.  

The club’s biggest concern was the to-go silverware and cups sold by local businesses that are labeled compostable. Like the vast majority of the composting facilities in the country, the facilities that service West Marin cannot in fact break down those wares, according to Garen Kazanjian, the “waste zero” specialist who presented at last Wednesday’s club meeting. 

In fact, much of the to-go silverware and cups have to instead be sent to the landfill, since their plastic content contaminates the recycling stream.

This is especially confusing for visitors from San Francisco, where most of these so-called compostable wares—a relatively new industry whose products vary widely in composition—can indeed be composted. The Blossom Valley Organics North facility in Vernalis, which processes the compost generated by the city, is one of the largest in the state and gives compostable plastics more time to break down—sometimes over a year. 

But the Novato facility Earth Care that processes the green waste collected in West Marin only give materials a maximum of 90 days to break down. That’s not enough time for plastics labeled compostable, Mr. Kazanjian said.

Speaking at Toby’s Feed Barn last Wednesday, Mr. Kazanjian pointed to the coffee cups labeled “compostable” sitting on the table. “For the landfill,” he said with a wince. All-paper products are the best products to use, as they can be recycled, he said; generally, paper cups made for beverages contain some plastic, and need to go to the landfill. 

Nor would rate increases for West Marin solve the problem. “With some items, the trade-off of higher rates means we can accept more,” Mr. Kazanjian told the Light. “With other items though, there simply is no economical way to process them, which is currently the case with plastic lined paper containers.” 

The best solution, he offered to the Rotary Club, was for residents to change their consumption habits: bring your own mug, glass or stainless-steel containers and canvas bags when you shop or eat out. 

Educating yourself about what belongs in which bins, he added, also helps by increasing efficiency at the company’s recycling and composting facilities, which have had to make some serious adjustments to keep up with China’s new “National Sword” policy. 

Which bin?

Mr. Kazanjian and Madeline Hope, a zero-waste educator for the county and a longtime Inverness resident, detailed rules of thumb and common mistakes residents make when discarding waste.

For most coastal residents, the green bin can take a lot—coffee grounds; paper, such as napkins and pizza boxes, that are soiled with food; meat, egg shells, greens. Bolinas residents have stricter rules around what can go in green bins: the local Resource Recovery Center processes all of the town’s green waste, and only accepts yard waste. (Food grown in the garden also gets a pass, however.)

As far as the recycling bin, plastic is preferable when it’s hard. Flimsy plastic bags cannot be recycled and cause grief at Recology’s recycling facility in Santa Rosa, where they constantly gum up machines. Putting recycling and compost in plastic bags is another no-go: if the machines don’t manage to split them open, the whole thing ends up going to the landfill. 

Mr. Kazanjian said the most important thing is to make sure recycling is “clean and dry.” Food, as one could guess, is one of the largest culprits of contamination.

For glass, “We like bottles and jars,” Mr. Kazanjian said. “Glassware, though, is a separate type of glass, as are windows, which both melt at a different temperature. It’s best to put those in the trash.” 

And paper? Generally, it’s best to put any paper with a plastic coating in the trash, though milk cartons and magazines are okay. 

It’s surprisingly complicated, Mr. Kazanjian admitted. “Our trademark is diversion, and sometimes I get yelled at for saying this, but when in doubt, it really is better to put it in the trash,” he said. “You aren’t doing anyone any favors by ‘wish-cycling,’ as I call it.” 

New standards

Fred Stemmler, the general manager of Recology’s Sonoma-Marin branch, last fall reported a drop in total revenue by 5 or 10 percent as a result of China’s crackdown on contamination in plastic and paper recycling. (Before the changes, China recycled about half of the globe’s plastic and paper products.) Recology has made significant changes throughout its West Coast service area in response. 

In San Francisco, the company invested $33 million in new equipment and infrastructure over the past three years. Recology spokesman Robert Reed said the company was already achieving a low of 4 percent contamination for the plastics processed by its San Francisco-serving facilities, compared to most waste disposal companies in the country, which average around 20 percent contamination. Since last year, Recology is down to 1.5 percent, nearing China’s standards of 0.5 percent. What they can’t sell to China goes to other countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Vietnam.

For Recology’s Sonoma-Marin chapter, addressing higher standards has looked like more employees and more hours. The chapter has doubled the number of employed sorters at its Santa Rosa recycling plant—there are now two consecutive eight-hour shifts a day, six days a week.  

But Celia Furber, the waste zero manager for the north bay, said the chapter has a diversion rate of only 40 percent—a figure Recology is working hard to improve. Per the company’s agreement with the county, it must divert at least to 50 percent of waste from landfills—the state’s minimum standard, though new legislation has much more ambitious goals. 

By contrast, in the area that Recology services in San Francisco, the diversion rate is 88 percent.

Yet Ms. Furber cautioned residents not to despair over the diversion rate for West Marin, saying the method of calculating diversion routinely brings in lower numbers and that San Francisco is an “all-star model.” She also noted that many residents and farmers in the area take care of their own compost, accounting for more diversion.

Mr. Kazanjian said his primary job is to work with commercial entities—the largest producers of waste—in the Sonoma-Marin chapter to help increase diversion from landfills. Under state law, businesses that generate a specified amount of waste per week are required to arrange for recycling and composting services.  

In 2014, A.B. 1826 established a new tiered implementation schedule for composting specifically: In 2016, businesses generating 8 cubic yards per week of organic waste had to arrange for composting services; in 2017, businesses generating just half of that—4 cubic yards per week—received the mandate. As of this January, businesses generating 4 cubic yards per week of any waste at all—not just food waste—have to pay for composting services.

In collaboration with Marin County, Recology’s zero-waste team is auditing commercial businesses one by one, looking through the garbage to see how they are sorting and teaching them better habits. 

Mr. Kazanjian keeps a positive outlook. “Changing habits is hard, but people understand the big picture: zero waste. Recycling and composting is great but, ultimately, there is still a generation of materials,” he said. “In West Marin, more so than anywhere, people really understand that every little thing that’s being produced is contributing to the problem.”

 

Recology’s website has a database of about 1,000 product brands and which bins they belong in. Visit recology.com/recology-sonoma-marin/santa-rosa/what-goes-where/.