Q&A: Bin There, Done That…Probably Shouldn’t Have

Trash truck

Jybe’s editor recently had a chance to (virtually) sit down with a former corporate account manager at Athens Environmental Services, for a Q&A about some of the intricacies of our recycling and waste systems. It seems like there’s an exception for every trash collection rule, so we tried to cover some of the most frequent questions most of us have been wondering about.

Interview on Sustainability with Environmental Professional

What types of plastic end up in the landfill regardless of being collected in the blue bin?

The majority of plastics that aren’t being recycled are 5, 6, 7 [the small number imprinted in the triangle on the bottom of plastic products]. These plastics are blends of other plastics or styrofoam that can no longer be broken down into a pure form. 

For example, the black to-go containers that we previously recycled — nowadays they aren’t processed any further. Other examples are: plastic take-out packaging, soft-sided amazon packages (not cardboard boxes), single-use plastics like coffee cups, lids, straws, utensils, strawberry containers, yogurt cups and plastic wrap. 

Why does the Sanitation Dept. promote a list of recyclable products and materials that are not actually being recycled?

This is a great question; I personally feel it is easier to have people create the habit of recycling all items into one bin. I think we are at the beginning stages of a more elaborate recycling program now that we are responsible for our waste due to the China Green Sword Policy [A 2018 law that severely limited the quantity and quality of recycling that China would agree to import]. This policy reduces the volume and contamination levels of recyclable materials it imports for reprocessing. 

And, why isn’t everything being recycled that, technically, can be?

There is just no market for it. No one wants to buy the recyclables. As with anything, there needs to be a chance to make a profit, and a majority of the “recyclables” require a lot of manufacturing cost creating low margins for a return on investment. 

What percentage of the material collected in the blue bins ends up going to the landfill because it’s wrong or contaminated?

These are all estimated numbers, but the bails that are shipped to other countries are very clean — about 98-99% purity. This is the legal standard in order to have  other countries accept our recycling. But looking at the City of L.A., the amount that is getting sorted and recycled is estimated at closer to 55-65%. And in the other cities it can be as low as 30-40% making it through the recycling process.  

So why doesn’t the Sanitation Dept. do a better job of highlighting the materials that should be recycled? They could at least educate us about the major things that shouldn’t go in the blue bin. 

I would say funding and staffing; but with any city project, it takes time to implement change on a community level. Many haulers like Athens, Waste Management, UWS or Republic are now responsible for educating the general public. With any behavior change, it takes time to reach everyone and it really does come down to the individual doing their part. 

States are still adapting to the changes brought on by China and other countries putting higher standards on what kind of waste they’ll take — which is understandable because, in China, there are examples of villages that were previously farm land but are now literally overrun by recycling waste. 

Why doesn’t the Sanitation Dept. do a better job of opposing compostable plastic?

I am not sure about this one. I know each city has its separate rules and regulations about what can be disposed of. I know the cities of Burbank, Norwalk and L.A. communicate this very well. They host monthly meetings and educational outreach regularly. I think the miscommunication really comes from businesses marketing their products as “compostable.” 

There is a specific process to break down these materials that’s available in very few U.S. cities.

What happens when compostable plastics are tossed into the blue bin?

It gets sorted out into the trash and shipped to the landfill where it won’t decompose because it doesn’t have the right conditions. IF it does decompose, it will create methane gas inside the landfill, which is one of the largest contributors of Greenhouse Gases. I believe landfills are the 2nd  or 3rd largest contributors of GHG in California. 

Are there any kinds of equipment or technology that would make us better at recycling that we simply don’t have access to?

The Sun Valley MRF (A Multi-Reuse Facility is a processing center for recyclables) is the most up-to-date, and I know there’s interest in exploring new MRFs. I haven’t looked at other countries recently but, from my last understanding, I know Germany was developing new equipment. 

Would LA be more effective at recycling if we didn’t do single-stream collection and had four smaller bins for plastic, paper, glass and metal?

100%! But the education and behavior changes would need to happen. 

What does the ideal recycling system look like? Does anyone do it that way?

It has been a while since I’ve checked, but last I remember, the leaders are Germany and Korea. Korea has been sorting all recyclables by classification and number. They won’t take your recyclables if they are not properly sorted. Households have one container for each classification of material. Germany has machines in front of stores that provide you with cash for recycling bottles. 

 What do you think the general public would be most shocked to know about the way our recycling is processed?

How deep would you like me to go? There are a lot of things that go into recycling from our land usage, the impact on living standards, transporting waste around the world and the infrastructure required to process recyclables and bury our waste. 

People would be shocked to see the destruction of villages overseas that are covered in our recycling. They’d be shocked at how much energy is needed to recycle something that barely got used for a few minutes. They’d be shocked by how poorly people are paid. And the romantic notion that we’re being virtuous by tossing our plastic yogurt cup in a special bin isn’t true. 

Any advice you can offer for being better home recyclers so we keep as much out of the landfill as possible? 

Stop buying plastic! Choose reusable items. Shop local, and stop consuming so much. We are a throw-away society that doesn’t think about the life of our products. 

On the other hand, maybe we should begin asking our businesses to look into more sustainable packaging, but that in itself will take time. Definitely possible though. 

We couldn’t agree more with this last suggestion!

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