Recycling is one of the simple “good deeds” that we perform daily at home or work. The blue bins for recycling and green for compost are “good,” and we celebrate as our discarded materials shift to the green and blue bins instead of the black bin.
Is this shift too good to be true? Have we really performed “good deeds”?
Palo Alto was a founder of “curbside” recycling to increase citywide participation and material recovery. The curbside recycling of the 1970s relied on discrete separations of glass, paper and metals into simple burlap bags. Palo Alto also started local collection of yard trimmings, which were sent to a local municipal composting center. In those days our recovery rate was lower, but the quality of the recovery was high. Paper, glass and metals were recycled domestically with many recovery facilities within California. The compost would be returned to our gardens, keeping these organic materials local.
Then the state shifted the goal from “recovery” to a broader goal of “waste diversion” from landfills. The waste-services industry streamlined “recycling” by creating material-recovery facilities that could do the sorting for you. Along the way, companies that produce consumer products merged papers with plastics and foils, and plastic variations multiplied — actions that complicated recovery.
The scale of these regional recovery and composting facilities — and the vehicles for collection — dwarfs the programs of the 1970s. While the recycling of the 1970s required more attention and work, the current recycling system has made our “good deed” seem easy.
But the near 90% diversion is achieved at the expense of recovery costs. Meanwhile, the relatively local footprint of recycling has shifted to global.
A key to this transformation has been Asia. During the 1990s, China was processing massive flows of mixed papers and plastics from American communities, and diversion objectives were being met. But processing those materials generated enormous pollution, so China recently stopped in 2017 accepting them as part of its environmental-improvement initiatives. Southeast Asian countries stepped in to take the materials created by China’s pullback, but they lacked China’s industrial processing scale, and materials soon were piling up in ports and communities. One representative country, Malaysia, imported about 400,000 tons of plastic waste from the U.S. in 2018 in comparison to 100,000 tons imported 2017.
Greenpeace’s documentation of America’s plastics shipped to southeast Asia gives a glimpse of who receives them. In a rural village, women and children are sorting piles of plastics, making the village vulnerable to fire and toxics. Other research reveals paper recycling and its treatment processes kill and color the rivers, and a vital community and natural resource is lost. Southeast Asian countries lack basic environmental enforcement that would prevent these dark scenarios.
Here is our challenge: How do we achieve “diversion” while preserving the effective “recovery” of the 1970s? We are basically in the dark. Palo Alto’s waste-management company does not reveal the destination of materials to overseas markets. CalRecycle, the state agency overseeing diversion, does not enforce regulations that would ensure that materials sent to southeast Asia are actually recycled, or recycled to acceptable environmental and social standards. A shipper merely states “for the purpose of recycling” on shipped materials — no questions asked — and our city accomplishes its objective of waste diversion.
The irony is that the black bin may actually be “good”: It contents’ fate is known, while the blue bin’s is unknown. A plastic or paper placed in the black bin will go to a regional landfill with the environmental impact kept in America, while the exported plastic or paper placed in the blue bin might create severe adverse impacts to unsophisticated communities in southeast Asia.
These circumstances offer simple principles to our city. A first principle is that Palo Alto’s wastes should not impact any community in southeast Asia more adversely than locally acceptable environmental or social standard. A second principle is that when we do not know the social or environmental impact of our waste, we must presume that the impact is harmful rather than benign.
Applying the foregoing principles generates actions that our city should take. Given we know nothing of the impact of our discards shipped to southeast Asia, the city must presume them harmful, and thereby not acceptable inside our blue “recycling” bins. Some plastics should go in the blue bin — for Palo Alto residents, that’s about 400 tons per year — for those plastics used domestically: the PET plastics (clear water bottles) and the HDPE plastics (cloudy plastic for beverages). The rest of the plastics, about 1,000 tons per year, should not be placed in the blue bin until Palo Alto finds an acceptable domestic recycler.
As for waste paper, Palo Alto residents generate 1,000 tons per year of corrugated cardboard that is recycled domestically; the remaining 6,000 tons per year of waste paper streams should not go in the blue bin until domestic recycling markets are established. The consequence of these principles is a lower diversion rate, which would drop from 90% to about 75%. This is a drop that would be honorable in that it protects the vulnerable communities of southeast Asia.
We also need change at the state level. California should accept and enforce “verified” recycling and not count shipments to an unknown end in southeast Asia as “diversion.” California must also drive new recovery technology, as well as limit the complex packaging that has complicated recovery efforts. This request has been placed for consideration with our assemblyman, Marc Berman.
Our individual actions and choices also have considerable impact: They create much of the waste our city manages. The mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” begins with two actions you can take as an individual: reduce material consumption and reuse or repair items instead of disposing or recycling.
Bob Wenzlau is a founder of Palo Alto’s curbside recycling programs, a board member of Repair Cafe, president of Palo Alto Neighbors Abroad, and CEO of Terradex, Inc. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• A journey of 9,500 miles. Why recyclables are heading overseas to Asia.
• Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of “Behind the Headlines,” now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.
• City staff: Palo Alto needs residents to do better job of sorting, cleaning recyclables
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