When a plastic blueberry container gets thrown in the recycling bin in San Luis Obispo County, it ends up in the trash.
Even if they are made of recyclable plastic, clam shells such as fruit containers break apart when they’re compacted in the recycling truck and again when they hit the cement floor of the materials recovery center, according to San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority program director Patti Toews.
By the time the container gets through the machine, it’s no more than little plastic shards.
“It just goes through the machinery and comes down like snow,” Toews said in a Zoom interview. “And it’s garbage.”
The contradiction is exactly why some people said they feel frustrated and confused by the recycling process.
The topic was of interest in The Tribune’s Outspoken project, our effort in this pivotal election year to open a dialogue with voters under the age of 40 to find out what issues most affect their lives.
About 80% of the more than 200 people who responded to the survey identified the environment as one of their top concerns — and for some, that concern came in the form of recycling.
Several people said they wanted “better recycling programs” and others said they wished there was more education on what can be recycled.
One reason for recycling confusion and unsynchronized messaging is that the authority meant to oversee waste management, the IWMA, is not actually involved in the pickup process.
What leads to recycling contamination in SLO County?
San Luis Obispo County diverted 67% of its waste from landfills in 2019, according to the IWMA.
However, within the last five to 10 years, the amount of goods put in recycling bins sent to San Luis Obispo County landfills increased from 11% to around 20% to 30%, largely due to contamination.
“Sometimes, due to wishcycling, especially in residential (areas) … it can go as high as 30% which is a horribly high number,” Toews said.
Wishcycling, she explained, involves assuming that everything is recyclable when that’s not always the case.
Towes said the issue of recycling contamination has only increased as more types of plastic packaging have entered the market.
“Flexible packaging is the bane of our existence,” Toews said while holding up a snack with a thin plastic-sealed package.
The thin, bendy plastic, which is used for a range of food from potato chips to pre-made curry, can often get mistaken for paper, Toews said.
In some cases, even containers that are made of recyclable plastic materials aren’t recycled because they won’t make it through the machinery, such as the clam shell plastic containers Toews described.
“Recycling is a bit frustrating because the info is contradictory and obviously not everything with the recycling symbol is actually recyclable,” Pismo Beach resident Joel Conn wrote in an email to The Tribune.
To understand the recycling process locally, Conn said, he attended a presentation from San Luis Garbage Co., also known as Waste Connections, and took a tour of their Cold Canyon Landfill and Recycling Facility in San Luis Obispo. But he said he was given mixed messages.
During the presentation, Conn said he was was told “the vast majority of us were likely hurting the process by throwing in items that were not recyclable,” but tour guides at the facility said “we could recycle a lot more than is shown on the recycling guides.”
Conn downloaded an app called Recycle Right to sort it out on his own — but he said the app didn’t have information for all types of packaging he looked up.
Another resident, John Patrick of Atascadero, said he supports recycling, but added that the process often lacks clear, concise messaging.
A Cal Poly lecturer, husband and father, Patrick is a person with other things on his mind than trash and recycling.
“There’s so many things competing for our time and attention,” Patrick said in a phone interview. “If I have a spare 30 minutes, I’d rather spend that playing video games with my son than reading up on trash.”
He said information is rarely provided about recycling, and when it is, it’s to inform people of fines, rather than to explain issues.
About a year ago, Patrick said he received mail about the implementation of recycling fines for contamination in Atascadero, but he was never told what was considered contamination before then.
“I feel like they should have come out of the gate with some sort of education campaign that talks about ‘This is what we’re asking you to do, this is why we’re asking you to do it, this is what happens to the county if you don’t comply and this is ultimately going to affect you,’ ” he said.
Patrick who lectures on persuasive techniques at Cal Poly, said most people are receptive to the idea of a unified goal, but “finger wagging” and fines often lead to a negative response.
Clear and often catchy phrases are easier for people to remember and implement into their lives, he said.
“I think of when I was growing up, there was Smokey the Bear. ‘Only you can prevent forest fires,’ ” Patrick said. “McDonald’s has a jingle. Everybody knows ‘I’m loving it,’ so if waste management wants us to behave a certain way, they need to come up with creative things that stick in our brains and tell us what the correct procedure is.”
Along with lack of clear messaging, IWMA executive director Brooks Stayer said tiered garbage rates contribute to contamination.
Throughout San Luis Obispo County, residents are charged the same price for a 32-gallon trash can and a 65-gallon recycling can, or are given the recycling bin free of charge.
Requesting a 65-gallon trash can is double the cost.
The tiered rate method is meant to dissuade use of non-recyclable goods. However, Stayer said it sometimes leads to people using their recycling bin as an extra trash can rather than fronting the cost of a larger gray can.
Los Osos resident Travis Emerson wrote in an email to The Tribune that he recently returned from the U.S. Navy, where sorting and properly disposing of waste was a must. Back home, he said he doesn’t see the same diligence in-part due to the tiered rates.
“I have noticed on collection day, many recycling bins overflowing with non-recyclable waste, while the accompanying tiny trash bin is less than full,” Emerson wrote. “While the hopeful recycling on the customer’s part is admirable, it shows a lack of understanding.”
According to Emerson, the current system provides “a financial incentive to improperly recycle.”
Why can’t SLO County recycle everything?
In San Luis Obispo County, recycling is limited to cardboard, paper, glass, aluminum and a few types of plastics — mostly rigid plastic containers with a neck, also known as plastic No. 1 and plastic No. 2, Toews said.
San Luis Obispo County’s two recycling facilities are fairly limited in what they can collect for two main reasons: the market for recycling and the capabilities of the machinery available.
The market for recycled goods decreased sharply after China stopped buying the United States’ recycling in 2018 due to contamination.
In order to update the two recycling facilities in San Luis Obispo County, it would cost between $10 million to $15 million, according to Toews. She said anything cheaper would compromise the recovery and contamination rates.
Other areas with similar issues have turned to alternative ways to improve recycling.
What are other areas doing about recycling contamination?
San Francisco, a city with nearly three times the population of San Luis Obispo County, diverted just more than half of its waste from the landfill in 2018, the latest annual San Francisco Public Works report said.
The total diversion amount was more than 400,000 tons of recycled and composted waste that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill.
The city has been a model for recycling since 2012, when it reportedly diverted around 60% of waste from the landfill, according to Politico.
Along with their state-of-the-art facilities, San Francisco implemented a trash auditing system.
Before the bin gets thrown into the garbage truck, sanitation workers open the lids of individual trash cans and check to see if everything is where it should be.
People who repeatedly contaminate their recyclables are given educational fliers about what isn’t recyclable, and after a few warnings, they are charged a fee.
Another difference between some of the top recycling communities and San Luis Obispo County is an incentive for better recycling.
According to San Francisco’s Public Works, people who divert their waste from the landfill can receive up to 25% off on their trash bill.
The “landfill diversion discount” is equal to the diversion volume —volume of recycling and compost over total waste volume — capped out at a 25% discount.
As of now, local companies such as the San Luis Garbage Co. don’t offer a discount.
Several residents said they would prefer an incentive program rather than one that polices their trash.
“An incentive program is probably more effective in general than a punitive one,” Conn wrote.
What can be done locally?
Most renowned recycling programs in the nation are in large cities such as San Francisco or Seattle where waste management authorities have a way to enforce recycling rules.
Counties must deal with multiple cities and multiple contract negotiations, which can lead to mixed messaging.
There are five garbage companies that service San Luis Obispo County. Each trash hauler is contracted through the city of the area it serves. In the unincorporated areas, the county contracts with the hauler directly, the IWMA said.
Currently, the individual haulers set their rates and the cities individually approve them, Stayer said.
The IWMA was formed as a joint powers authority between city council representatives from all seven cities in San Luis Obispo County, the county Board of Supervisors and the waste management organization in 1994 to meet state mandates. However, most of the contracts between the cities and haulers were put into place before then — so the agency doesn’t coordinate the hauling process.
In other words, the agency that was created to regulate waste management has no real ties to the curbside pickup where contamination can be stopped before it spreads to the whole haul.
“IWMA only enforces state mandates basically, and if the state doesn’t mandate (it), and even if the state mandates (it), we don’t have a direct connection to the hauler,” Stayer said in a Zoom interview.
“We’re trying to correct that and we’re going through some internal negotiations with all the board members on how we can directly tie to the haulers,” he added.
If the IWMA had a direct connection, it would be easier for the waste management authority to implement what other cities are already successfully doing to reduce recycling contamination. The change would not mean IWMA would be in charge of picking up the trash, but rather that it would have a way to collect data directly from haulers to monitor contamination.
“IWMA would be able to provide consistent universal messaging, education and reporting to all residents in the county and help fill-in the gaps,” Toews wrote in an email.
Residents who spoke to The Tribune said they felt education on recycling would help them the most.
Trash auditing would also be more frequent if IWMA had a connection to the process.
Currently, the San Luis Garbage Company can charge fees for recycling contamination, but Toews said the IWMA doesn’t know how frequently trash audits are made.
“(Auditing) works in San Francisco probably because it’s one city, but it encompasses many people,” Stayer said. “Whereas if we could get seven cities all to agree on this and allow us to do it for them and have consistent messaging, we could work with the hauler directly.”
The IWMA said it is working to change that so it can more easily implement the Short-Lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy which was signed into state law in 2016.
The strategy lays out a long-term plan for improving emissions and reducing solid waste throughout California, including mandating curbside trash audits, according to Stayer.
Stayer and Toews said the strategy was in part the reason that IWMA is trying to reconfigure its role in the local recycling process.
Around 2024, all California cities will begin trash auditing and enforcement, according to the strategy.
Things you can do to help
Check out the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority’s recycling guide at www.iwma.com/what-to-do/curbside.
Bring your own bag to the grocery store. While some grocery stores do not allow this due to COVID-19, when possible, it’s better for the environment to reuse bags.
When ordering food to go or wrapping up leftovers, ask restaurants if they will package your food in containers you provide.
If a grocery store has bulk bins of food, bring your own containers to fill up. Opt to buy from the bulk bins rather than buying pre-packaged items.
If you are buying pre-packaged items, buy items packaged in aluminum or glass as opposed to plastic. According to Toews
, plastic can only be recycled once or twice, but aluminum and glass are able to be recycled over and over again.
Do not use the recycling bin for trash or non-recyclable items.
“When in doubt, throw it out,” the IWMA website reads. However, before throwing out an item, people can search IWMA’s website to see if it is recyclable locally.