Black or blue. That is the choice that most Americans have when they throw something away, or recycle. Yet, knowing the correct choice of which to pick is not always simple as plastics in the blue bin and waste in the trash.
With nowhere to ship recycling now that China has stopped accepting recycling boats from other countries, understanding that the “Dos and Don’ts” of recycling is a lot more complicated than “When in doubt, don’t throw it out” is even more crucial.
This optimistic approach to recycling — known as “wish-cycling” — leads to recycling contamination: when non-recyclable items make it into the recycling stream. This can drastically impede waste processing plants according to Patti Toews, San Luis Obispo’s Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) program manager.
Toews said that recycling contamination makes up 30 percent of what gets placed in recycling bins, which was the main incentive for China to refuse boats of recycled goods from the U.S.
China has some of the largest recycling infrastructure in the world, and up until last spring, it facilitated a massive flow of recycling imports from other countries, including the U.S. Now that they have called it off, even San Luis Obispo is feeling the pressure.
With the IWMA, Toews oversees how waste is managed in the county. The little mistakes people make when recycling have a resounding effect on their operations.
One common misconception is that clamshell packaging — like the ones that contain berries at the grocery store confusing — can be recycled, but these are especially problematic in the system Toews explained.
“If you think about when the truck pulls up, it throws your recycling in and immediately impacts it, so it shatters that container,” Toews said. “Then, when it hits the recycling floor, thousands of pounds of waste rain down on it, smashing it even further. Then, a loader goes and scoops it up and throws it up on the recycling line, those pieces rain down like snow through the equipment.”
When it comes down to it, recycling is similar to other businesses in the sense that it is dictated by supply and demand. The demand for things like clamshell packages or thin plastics, for example, is low, meaning that tossing them into the bin is doing more harm than good. This forces consumers and managers like Toews alike to adapt to all of the changes that come their way.
“Honestly, everything’s recyclable if somebody is willing to buy it,” Toews said. “The problem is that there are very few items that people are willing to buy. When we throw a whole bunch of stuff in the cycling cart because we wish it would be recyclable, that’s the problem. So, we have to back up to the homeowner, back up to the curb, back up to the business. You’re really adding contamination.”
For average consumers, the most important decisions that impact waste management happen way before the trash can. Toews estimates that 90 percent of plastics that enter the home are garbage. That means that recycling is helpful, but there are more effective ways to prevent unnecessary waste.
Cal Poly employs people like Anastasia Nicole, the Zero Waste Coordinator, who oversees waste management on Cal Poly’s campus at the top level, to figure out more practical solutions. Nicole suggested that it is best to avoid the complications of recycling and go higher up on the pyramid: reducing and reusing.
“It’s reduce, reuse, recycle: the old hierarchy,” Nicole said. “People will start at the bottom saying, ‘I want to recycle more.’ I say, ‘No, let’s start at the top.’ Reduce first, reuse what you’re buying, and then and then think about recycling.”
For Nicole, reducing and reusing are essential for Cal Poly to meet its zero waste goals. Though the campus fell short of some of its 2020 milestones, Nicole said that their systematic waste diversion is well above the standards of the California State University program. Where the needs are not met, however, are in public trash cans.
“When we look at the public trash — what the students throw away — we’re nowhere near 80 percent recycling. There’s no way,” Nicole said. “That is not on the students though, because students have to eat, and, you know, 7000 students live on campus and have to have three meals a day on campus. A lot of that food is being produced in packaging and the packaging, in general, is not recyclable or compostable.”
According to Nicole, the solution can be as simple as students bringing their own beverage containers or even buying reusable utensils.
However, other students take it one step further to reduce their carbon footprint, like environmental management and protection junior Amanda Gersoff, a member of Cal Poly’s Eco Reps. Eco Reps are a student-run sustainability team that focuses on peer-to-peer outreach by organizing events like beach cleanups, recycling workshops, and the Annual Conversion Diversion Challenge, or ACDC.
“My favorite part about working with Eco Reps is talking to people about sustainability and starting a conversation about things that we can all do to live a more sustainable lifestyle,” Gersoff said. “I feel like a lot of people are really interested in sustainability, but don’t necessarily have all of the resources to help them make informed decisions.”
Just because international and local policies on recycling have changed does not mean that living an environmentally friendly lifestyle is impossible. When it comes down to the details, understanding the simple daily decisions can help make waste management more efficient for the community.
“If I had my druthers, no one would recycle anything, because we wouldn’t buy this trash to begin with,” Nicole said. “Let’s all move toward just reducing this out of our life.”