Let’s say you just grabbed a Vanilla Latte, a Protein Bowl, and a bottle of Frappuccino from Starbucks. You finish them, and, like any good progressive Californian, you throw your cups, lids, and containers into the proper recycling, compost, and landfill bins. You figure, as most people do, that this will all be sustainably handled and reused in line with San Francisco’s famed Zero Waste policy, which was supposed to see S.F. producing no landfill trash by 2020.
So each of the items you just tossed now begins its own journey into the waste-industrial complex. Here in San Francisco, Recology will collect the cardboard-cup sleeve and send it off to a paper mill, where it will be recycled and reused. Same goes for the glass Frappuccino bottle, which Recology will ship to San Leandro for a thorough scrubbing before it gets melted down in Modesto. It will be reincarnated as another fully functional glass bottle, back on shelves in as little as six weeks.
But your latte cup, its lid, and the plastic bowl are unlikely to be recycled — even if you threw them in the blue bin. Believe it or not, your Starbucks plastic lid is not recyclable. The latte cup is lined with another type of plastic that isn’t recyclable, either, nor is some of the plastic on which your food was served. Further, even the things that are recyclable still might not get recycled — and you might never know it.
That’s because the state of recycling in America is literally in flames.
A recent disruption to the international recycling trade has left some U.S. cities incinerating all of the bottles, cans, cardboard, and plastic that their residents put out for curbside recycling — and the people who pay for recycling and trash pickup generally have no idea this is happening.
Until the beginning of 2018, China had been the destination for much of the world’s recycling, but its government realized that accepting other countries’ garbage and recycling had become less lucrative and was starting to trash their environment. The Chinese declared a ban on nearly all foreign recyclables, a policy they pugilistically called “National Sword,” which left many cities around the world without a place to export materials for recycling.
The United States is not handling this transition well. The New York Times found last year that much of Oregon and Washington simply send their recycling to landfill and forget about it. Several cities nationwide have given up and stopped recycling altogether. In the most disturbing example, the Guardian reported in February that Philadelphia just hauls its many tons of plastic to an incinerator and burns it, with the side effects of asthma and increased cancer rates for nearby residents.
Many well-intentioned Americans still dutifully separate our Starbucks containers, plastic water bottles, and gobs of Amazon packaging into the blue recycling bin, unaware that a global recycling crisis will divert these things straight to the trash dump or incinerator. Here in San Francisco, our official city waste management firm Recology has had to develop an entirely new approach to an altered recycling landscape.
“San Francisco is leading the response to National Sword,” Recology spokesperson Robert Reed tells SF Weekly.
Recology handles a staggering 700 tons of curbside recycling every day, and they estimate that about 80 percent of this is paper and cardboard products unaffected by China’s ban. Same goes for glass, aluminum, and tin, which can still be repurposed at mills right here in the Bay Area. But all the water bottles, detergent jugs, and other single-use plastics we go through require new solutions that Recology is now trying to model for the country.
The company says it’s finding different buyers willing to repurpose that plastic. But the fuller story lies with a number of process overhauls that target “contamination” — the grease on your pizza boxes, the coffee spilled all over the newspapers, or other impurities that the old lax Chinese system tolerated, but newer recycling buyers will not accept. And it’s every bit as much on us as it is on Recology to be more effective at cleaning our recyclables, laying off the plastic water bottles, and kicking the habit of single-use plastic products.
Courtesy of Recology
At Recology’s Recycle Central warehouse on Pier 96, your recycled materials are separated, sorted, and scrunched into bales (just like hay). Bales of similar materials get compressed into giant, rectangular bricks that can be shuttered around on forklifts and stacked onto trucks or cargo ships. The new mills and manufacturers that buy our recycling, some as far away as Indonesia and Southeast Asia, demand that these bales show impurity or contamination rates of less than one percent.
“San Francisco is known internationally for producing high-quality bales of recycled materials,” Reed insists. “This put San Francisco ahead of other cities and countries when China announced it would no longer accept bales of recycled paper and bales of recycled plastic from foreign countries with more than 0.5 percent impurities.”
It is an article of faith among most cities’ recycling coordinators that 0.5 percent contamination is an unreachably high standard. The Grocery Manufacturers Association insists that figure is “near impossible” to achieve, and several other cities’ waste managers have agreed.
Recology is having none of that defeatist mentality, and tries consistently to hit that magic 0.5 percent number. Doing so would meet China’s new stricter standards, allowing San Francisco to export our recycling to that country again, but as of now, Recology says they’ve gotten down to 1 percent. A year ago, it was five percent. (For comparison purposes, Sacramento County’s contamination rate at that time was 25 percent.)
It certainly helps that trash and recycling collection for the entire City and County of San Francisco is streamlined through a single vendor that implements consistent systems and upgrades. In places like New York City, a patchwork of hundreds of competing waste management companies make uniform policies exceedingly difficult to enforce.
But our Recology-only model can also inspire mistrust. In 2012, a lawsuit and scandal showed the degree to which Recology had misrepresented just how much of the city’s waste was being diverted to landfill from recycling.
Back then, San Francisco’s recycling and composting successes were the envy of every city that cared about sustainability. A Zero Waste program announced in 2003 set a high bar: By 2020, the city would produce no trash whatsoever, just compost and recycling.
It seemed as though we were actually doing that. In 2012, Mayor Ed Lee touted how the city was sending 80 percent of its waste away from landfills and into environmentally progressive compost and recycling programs. San Francisco was named the “greenest city in North America” at the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival, and The New York Times would go on to call us “the Silicon Valley of Recycling.”
The Silicon Valley comparison may have been a little too apt, as it turned out the books were cooked to inflate our recycling percentages. A Recology whistleblower charged that the company had been fudging its diversion rates — which is to say, how much waste was going to recycling and how much was going to landfill. As detailed in a 2014 Bay Guardian article, Recology misclassified construction waste as if it were recycling, even though that construction waste was going straight to a dump in Solano County, adding countless thousands of pounds to its recycling totals.
To be fair, the same whistleblower also made all manner of fraud and embezzlement charges against Recology, most of which did not hold up in court. But a jury found that Recology was making false claims on its diversion rates. The company was forced to pay $1.3 million back to ratepayers for bonuses they’d earned, and the “80 percent diversion” claim was effectively retired.
The city still keeps track of diversion rates, and these are available online. Under a revised and more honest standard, the good news is that the city has achieved a still-commendable 60-percent diversion rate. The bad news is that rate has been almost flat for the last 10 years, with only incremental improvement.
Zero Waste remains a goal among city planners, but 2020 is barely six months away. As you can see by the fact that you still have a black bin, San Francisco continues sending waste to landfill. While the city has made waste progress with styrofoam bans and charging extra for plastic bags, Mayor Breed has admitted Zero Waste by 2020 is absolutely not happening. At September’s Global Climate Action Summit, she announced a considerably more complicated and opaque goal of reducing waste “by 15 percent and landfill disposal by 50 percent by 2030.”
What does that even mean? Recology’s Reed says regulators and waste-management companies are “moving away from using landfill diversion as a yardstick of program success. The new paradigm is waste reduction and less to landfill.”
Household recycling was popularized in the 1980s, and the practice is showing its age. We’re still not even very effective at it, as experts estimate that only 9 percent of U.S. plastic is recycled, anyway. Recycling, as we currently do it, is a legacy practice, and even the old tree-hugger phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” is being sent out to the trash yard.
“‘Refuse’ is the new ‘recycle,’ ” San Francisco Department of the Environment spokesperson Peter Gallotta says.
He doesn’t mean “REFF-yoose” in the sense of trash; he’s saying to refuse items sold in single-use packaging. The department’s new preferred motto is “Reduce / Reuse.”
“That’s how we can put a stop to plastic pollution and litter on our streets, and also reduce what ends up in landfill,” he says.
Yes, the word “recycling” has been removed from the unofficial motto of the modern sustainability movement. This reflects the realization that we can’t just recycle our way out of this environmental mess, we have to start producing less stuff. There is an onus on us, the consumers, to stop buying so much single-use crap like plastic utensils, straws, and to-go Starbucks cups, especially as people become aware of just how much plastic ends up in the ocean. (Greenpeace estimates that it’s approximately 10 percent of the 300 million tons the world produces annually.) And the system is flooded with non-recyclable plastic, because some of that stuff has been recycled so many times that it no longer has value.
“Plastics aren’t really ‘recycled’ like glass or metal, but rather down-cycled,” says Chance Claxton, co-founder of a Sausalito-based company called U-Konserve that makes reusable straws, containers, and other replacements for throw-away plastic items. “They degrade each time and turn into a lower-quality plastic product with less recycling value, which eventually heads to landfill.”
Claxton points out that excessive packaging is the big culprit.
“Forty percent of plastic produced is packaging, used just once and then discarded,” she says.
Courtesy of Recology
One of the most insidious factors in Americans’ terrible recycling habits is that we’ve been tricked by big brands into thinking that products and their packaging are environmentally friendly, when they absolutely are not. Brand names like Odwalla and Naked Juice, who are owned by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, respectively, market products to look healthy and sustainable, but they’re often sold in single-use packaging that is not entirely recyclable. If you don’t see the little recycling symbol triangle with a number from one through seven embossed on the packaging, that plastic probably cannot be recycled.
Plastic straws are also too small to be recycled, and San Francisco’s plastic-straw ban has properly shamed that single-use product to “straws on request only” status at many local establishments. (It takes effect in July.) Disability advocates have complained that the straw ban is discriminatory, although there are companies that make reusable silicone, stainless steel, and metal straws.
And don’t even get sustainability advocates started on plastic bottled water.
“Stop buying water in plastic bottles,” Reed tells SF Weekly. “Switch to a metal water bottle. It can save more than $200 a year because you are no longer spending money on water in plastic bottles.”
A cool innovation in solving the plastic water bottle scourge has come from an unlikely place: nightclubs. The Midway switched to refillable water bottles earlier this year, reducing its plastic consumption by two-thirds. Parent company Non Plus Ultra plans to extend that practice to the Old Mint, which it also owns. Across town, the Fillmore music hall has switched to serving water in more recycling-friendly aluminum cans.
Other big brands are moving toward more sustainable packaging — or at least, they claim they are. One of the most notorious faux-sustainable scams is at Trader Joe’s, where produce is often elaborately and unnecessarily boxed in excessive clear packing. Trader Joe’s has issued statements and press releases claiming they’ll cut down on that sort of thing in 2019, but they’re only doing it because enough of their shoppers squawked, proving how consumers have the power to encourage more responsible packaging.
“Don’t buy three zucchinis on a styrofoam tray packaged in Saran Wrap,” Reed advises. “Buy loose fruits and vegetables at a local farmers market.”
Recology offers a clearinghouse of tips and advice on its new Better at the Bin website, a trusted source to resolve any debates on which ambiguous items belong in which bin. To clarify a few of the more commonly missorted items: Egg cartons go in the recycling, while used pizza boxes and paper take-out boxes go in the compost. To make things even more maddeningly complicated, the soft paper variety of clamshell to-go boxes belong in the compost bin, while plastic clamshell to-go boxes are generally not recyclable.
Those plastic to-go boxes and Starbucks-type lids cause relentless headaches for Recology, and not just because they aren’t recyclable. They contain food waste, which can contaminate cardboard, paper, and other things which could have been recycled if not for the mess. Reed counts soy-sauce packets and candy-bar wrappers as other repeat offenders that do not belong in the recycling, and whose food waste ruins many a batch.
“People are encouraged to help keep liquids and food out of recycling bins,” Reed says. “Doing so is key to protecting the quality of recycled paper and cardboard inside recycling bins.”
Particularly in the Amazon era of increased consumer cardboard and throwaway Starbucks beverage containers, that food and drink waste is particularly perilous. A small amount of coffee or unfinished wine can ruin disproportionate volumes of cardboard or paper.
“In San Francisco, 80 percent of the material inside recycling bins is either paper or cardboard,” he explains. “Recycling one ton of paper saves 17 trees, and we need trees now more than ever. It’s important that we empty all bottles and cans before recycling them, and shake out food containers before tossing them in the blue bin.”
The removal of food contamination from recyclable materials is a big reason why Recology just pumped $14 million into upgrading Pier 96’s Recycle Central facility with state-of-the-art machinery to help get our contamination rate lower than one percent. These upgrades include computer-controlled optical sorters, which Recology is the first company in North America to use.
“We invested $14 million in modern recycling equipment at Recycle Central,” Reed says. “Components include seven optical sorters. Three are from France and employ the latest technological advances in optical sorting.”
Additional features also include 14 sorting stations, more than any recycling facility in the U.S. Recology has added modern equipment to mechanically separate cardboard and glass from other materials, specialized presses that separate paper from plastic containers, and a new modernized glass-scrubbing system. Their contamination is getting a whole lot lower, but consumer behavior is a bigger driving factor in handling waste sustainably.
Photo by Jessica Christian
Lost in the discussion of America’s worsening recycling situation is that we are getting much, much better at composting. A separate Recology facility for composting makes effective use of our improving knack for composting. Believe it or not, San Francisco now produces more compost (800 tons daily) than recycling (700 tons a day).
“Recology opened a $19 million transfer station in December 2018 to receive and transfer compostable material,” Reed points out. “The new facility provides updated infrastructure that will allow San Francisco to boost tons of food scraps and yard trimmings collected for composting, from 800 tons a day to more than 1,000 tons a day.”
That’s not insignificant in a city that generates up to 5,000 tons of waste per day. But for all of these high-tech, whiz-bang solutions, these systems only work if regular people clean and sort their waste and recycling properly. Small amounts of coffee, tomato sauce, or other liquids can completely gum up the works on a recycling line, and send large batches of perfectly good recyclables to landfill.
Plastic bags are probably the worst offenders, clogging the machinery around twice a day at Recycle Central and representing one of the facility’s biggest pains in the rear. Their still-ubiquitous use guarantees that plastic bags will remain a serious problem.
“Globally, we consume one million plastic bags a minute,” a resigned Reed says.
The recycling industry has had these flaws all along, but consumers never really knew about it because America’s recyclables were still flowing abroad. Now other countries are refusing our recycling, which might make you wonder if there’s any point in actually bothering to recycle. But waste management officials insist we shouldn’t give up on the practice, we should just clean and sort our recycling a little better.
“The most important message we want residents and businesses to know is that they should keep recycling,” Gallotta says.
“All the reasons to recycle still exist,” Reed tells SF Weekly. “Recycling keeps materials out of landfills, saves trees, provides materials for manufacturing, and cres green jobs. In fact, recycling creates 10 times more jobs than either landfilling or incineration.”
This talk of supposed green jobs should remind us that recycling is a business. Recology and other waste management companies don’t just manage recycling out of civic duty, they do it because there’s an after-market value to those empty containers. Consumers, on the other hand, generally recycle because we want to feel better about saving the planet, and it’s sort of an existential crisis that our learned recycling habits may never have been that effective.
As for your Starbucks packaging, that chain has promised to make all their cups and lids recyclable or compostable, and to phase out plastic straws next year. Even if they make their cups and containers recyclable, the waste management industry is still suddenly struggling to find places to have it recycled. San Francisco is doing some nice, small-bore improvements with our nightclubs’ water bottle refills and our newfound attentiveness to composting. But the planet is having a plastic meltdown, and we need to use less of that stuff while the recycling industry sorts through it.