The burrito hotspot El Charrito is taking steps to be more environmentally friendly
Kate Cimini, The Californian
Not all plastics are created equal.
The cost of recycling plastics is going up, forcing California recycling plants to reassess and change their guidelines on what items they can accept from customers.
Monterey Regional Waste Management District is feeling the pinch.
The district has hired more workers to process recyclables and found new buyers for its cleaned and sorted materials — and not all of them are paying the same prices MRWMD used to make.
In 2018 China, once the largest importer of U.S. recyclables, and largest importer of recyclable materials in the entire world, imposed stricter guidelines for what it would and would not accept as recyclable material.
As a result, China is taking far less recycled paper than before.
It will now only accept No. 1 and 2 plastics — water bottles, milk jugs, yogurt containers and laundry detergent bottles — when they used to regularly import No. 1 through No. 7 plastics, and has refused to purchase plastic bags entirely.
“(China’s) very rigid contamination rules are nearly impossible for any recycling facility in the world to meet those contamination thresholds,” MRWMD Director of Operations Tim Brownell said. “We’re still able to bale and reduce contamination dramatically, but the amount that they are paying has gone down dramatically.”
Waste Dive, a news site that provides news on waste and recycling for industry executives, monitors the impact of China’s regulations on recycling in the U.S. It lists the impact on the state of California as “heavy.”
“It may have taken longer for the effects to become public than in other West Coast states, but it’s now clear that California is struggling just as much,” WasteDive says.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015, U.S. residents recycled 67.8 million tons of plastic, metal, glass, paper and other items. Annually, Americans use and dispose of over 14 million tons of plastic packaging a year.
That waste has to go somewhere.
With China refusing to purchase the majority of U.S. recycling, facilities have been scrambling to find new purchasers.
Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, India, and even the southeast of the U.S., such as North Carolina and Alabama, have become the primary purchasers for recycling plants like MRWMD, though the plant has taken a hit to the wallet.
“We’ve had to hire more workers to be able to do the separation,” said Brownell. “It’s made the process more expensive. The economics of recycling are changing — it’s more expensive to process and we’re being paid less money for the materials we do process. We’ll have to look at instead of paying people for the materials, charging them for the materials.”
A man carries plastic single-use bags past the State Capitol in Sacramento in August. Starting in July, California will become the first state to ban single-use plastic bags under a new law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. More than 900 new laws are to take effect in 2015. (Photo: AP)
A ban on bags
On the local level, China’s changes are hitting residents at the recycling bin.
“The biggest change on our level is that we’re no longer collecting plastic bags in the recycling,” Salinas Valley Recycles Coordinator Janna Faulk said. “Because China’s not accepting them and we don’t have enough facilities in the nation, none of the haulers want it in their bins.
Also, Faulk said, plastic bags create havoc in the facility.
Once the recycling gets to Marina and is going through the sorters, if plastic bags aren’t tied together — and they often aren’t — they get stuck in the sorting machines and can shut down production.
Items such as glass bottles, plastic milk jugs, clean tin foil or metal cans, paper and cardboard are still perfectly fine to recycle. Doing so helps to reduce the amount of pollution caused by waste dumped in landfills, saves energy and creates new manufacturing jobs in the U.S., per the U.S. EPA.
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Plastic bags such as dry-cleaning bags, tortilla bags and even bread bags can still be recycled at many grocery stores. The website earth911.com lists local stores that will accept and recycle plastic bags for residents.
In response to the plastics crisis, Salinas Valley Recycles, the MRWMD, county workers and other waste haulers on the peninsula created the website whatgoeswhere.info, a site and app where residents can look up what they can recycle in their curbside bin based on their zip code.
“Plastic, glass, metal. If it’s plastic and it has a recycling symbol on it, definitely put it in,” Faulk said. “The biggest thing is it needs to be clean, dry and loose.”
Faulk added that recycling should never be stored in a plastic garbage bag. Those items, she said, are typically tossed in the garbage at the recycling facility because workers can’t be sure the bags aren’t contaminated by garbage.
Anglers working the rocky breakwater near Moss Landing Harbor can expect to lure a variety of fish throughout the year. (Photo: Jay Dunn/The Salinas Californian)
The bigger picture
Although China’s new recycle material import rules are hitting the U.S. recycling industry hard, some say they were necessary.
“The reality is, China is having an impact on recycling throughout the world, but China, to their credit, is doing the right thing environmentally,” Brownell said.
Before enacting its new regulations, China was importing tons of contaminated materials and often disposing of those materials by burning them, negatively impacting the health of its people and its environment. Since the implementation, there have been improvements to air quality and health.
Plastics aren’t solely a recycling issue.
A scientific study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances in December of 2018 showed that 91 percent of all plastics were not recycled, and were otherwise disposed of. The same team previously published on plastic pollution in the world’s oceans in 2015; according to that paper, between four and 12 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.
Plastic can take more than four times the average human lifespan to break down, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
More and more, it is contaminating the diets of U.S. residents, mainly through the ingestion of fish that have eaten microplastics, pieces of plastic less than two inches long.
A 2016 study out of the Graduate School on Public Health at San Diego State University on fish showed ingestion of polluted microplastics causes liver damage in fish, making it harder for them to metabolize drugs, pesticides and other pollutants.
As of yet, however, there has been no way to measure what the ingestion of plastics does to humans a 2017 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization points out.
Scientists can’t ask people to eat plastics for experiments and humans are already soaked in plastics: It is in bottled water, food, our clothing and even the air we breathe, according to dozens of studies, including others published by ScienceDirect and Orb Media.
China’s recycling materials regulations could also help prompt a sea change in plastics consumption.
“This is becoming a broader movement nationally, to look at people’s consumption of single-use plastics,” said MRWMD’s Brownell. He urged people to purchase fewer plastic-wrapped items, or items sold in single-use plastic containers such as water bottles, milk jugs, or individually-wrapped snacks.
“It’s created ripple effects certainly here in our facility, but all throughout the recycling industry,” Brownell said of China’s new regulations. “We were offshoring our contamination and now we have to deal with it in our own facilities and communities.”
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