It was our absolute pleasure to sit in (virtually, of course) with Co-Owner of ReCREATE Waste Collaborative Natalie Lessa – sustainability consultant and waste collection extraordinaire. Natalie has traveled the globe to ensure everyone, from HBO to your local school district, has access to the 5Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle, rot (and her personal favorite – relearn). She is an invaluable resource in navigating the reality of waste collection in California, and we are thrilled to pass along some of her critical insights as we collectively encourage consumers to insist upon effective recycling programs that make wasting less both easy and actionable.
What types of plastic end up in the landfill regardless of being collected in the blue bin and processed at a waste management facility?
Generally, 3’s through 7s (the number stamped in the small triangle with arrows on plastic products) although for specific recycling rules, check your city’s solid waste website. The biggest issue is stretchy plastic — film plastics like baggies, plastic bags, wrappers, mailers, etc. They clog up the processing system which results in downtime at the facility with the related lost time and money.
So then why does the Sanitation Department promote a list of recyclable products and materials that are not actually being recycled?
Sometimes there isn’t the time, resources, or staffing to continuously update the acceptable materials list. Sometimes staff aren’t aware that changes have been made to the acceptable materials list because it fluctuates based on the ability to sell the recyclables to end-markets (such as when China sharply limited the amount of waste they would import from us with the China National Sword).
Why isn’t everything being recycled that, technically, can be?
It is expensive. Not everyone wants to pay for recycling because we have been taught that it is “free” and “good for the planet.” However, the process of collecting and processing recycling is very expensive, much more than landfill costs in most places. So if commodity prices drop, it makes it difficult for the facility operator or hauler to make money on the product. Better technology is needed for us to recycle everything that can be recycled, and that costs money.
Why doesn’t the Sanitation Department do a better job of highlighting the materials that should be recycled? And put an emphasis on things that should not go into the blue bin.
I think they try, but there are many challenges to educating a community on what is recyclable and what is not. Often the message gets lost or confuses people. We need more engaging, interactive ways of teaching people and need the community to also observe how their behavior plays a part in the system. We all must work together to recycle correctly.
Why doesn’t the Sanitation Department do a better job of opposing compostable plastic?
Compostable plastic came onto the market very quickly and not all facilities have been able to keep up with new material type. It evolved fast, and now cities are trying to figure out the best way to combat the product, but it takes time and a collaborative approach to finding a solution that works for everyone.
What happens when compostable plastics are tossed into the blue bin?
They often end up at the landfill. Most recycling facilities can’t process them, and they do not belong in the blue bin. If there is no compost bin, they should go in the trash.
Would L.A. be more effective at recycling if we didn’t do single-stream collection, and had four smaller bins for plastic, paper, glass and metal?
These types of separate collection programs generally do yield more valuable material because it reduces contamination among the items inside the bin. But switching people away from the “commingled” collection program could prove to be challenging for many reasons. Check out similar programs in the Bay Area and other areas for examples.
What does the ideal recycling system look like? Does anyone do it that way?
One that starts at the bin — where residents are taking responsibility for their actions and not throwing items that are clearly trash into the recycling bin. We need to first have a clean stream of recyclables going into the blue bin. Then, improve technology to begin to accept more items in the blue bin and figure out a way to build more local recycling facilities so that we are not dependent on foreign markets. This could potentially mean that rates increase and people need to support that cost increase to make it happen, which is tough.
What do you think the general public would be most shocked to know about the way our recycling is processed?
That any item with two combined material types cannot be recycled (for example a soy milk container with foil, cardboard, plastic, etc.), an envelope with a plastic window, or an insulated mailer that’s paper on the outside with bubble material inside. These are examples of items that should go in the trash.
Any advice for household recycling with the goal of keeping as much out of the landfill as possible?
If you really want to be a steward of sustainability, consider what you are buying, if you really need it and if there is another way to obtain it (such as with a thrift store, or being creative with things like wrapping presents). We have to reduce and reuse — recycling isn’t the best option, it’s just better than throwing everything in the trash. By not creating waste in the first place you avoid the issue all together of landfilling – waste less!
Natalie Lessa is an independent consultant and is not affiliated with the City or County of Los Angeles nor the waste hauling companies nor processing facilities that handle solid waste for the region. This interview was provided based on her professional experience in the waste industry. For more information, you may contact Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.recreatecollab.com.