Plastic Free July Week 4 – RECYCLE

This is week four: RECYCLE in our series of weekly blog posts about Plastic Free July.

Unfortunately, the current options for recycling plastic in the United States are more limited than in the past. For this reason, the previous three options for dealing with plastic, ie, REFUSE, REDUCE, and REUSE, are better than actually putting your plastic items into a recycling bin, since only a few plastic items can be reliably recycled.

How did we get here?

For years, the United States depended on China to recycle the plastic that recycling centers collected. However, in 2018, China stopped taking our plastic, because 30% of this material was non-recyclable, was contaminated with other items that made recycling difficult, was never recycled, and ended up polluting China’s land and oceans. When China stopped taking our plastic, the United States turned to other countries, many of which also implemented bans on this imported plastic waste as it became clear that it was not possible to actually recycle the material. It is estimated that 20-70% of the plastic intended for recycling overseas is unusable and is discarded, which ends up polluting those countries’ land and water. 

Trash mountains
When China rejected U.S. recycling materials, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries were quick to follow suit.

When China imposed this ban on our plastic waste, as well as some types of cardboard, glass and paper, the recycling industry in the US was “upended”. In the past, recycling programs generated income from selling recyclable materials. However, as a result of the import bans from other countries for our plastic waste, the current economics for most recyclable materials require cities to pay to dispose of them. This includes El Cerrito.

El Cerrito’s Recycling Programs

El Cerrito operates a curbside recycling collection program (where recycled materials are commingled and separated by a processor outside of El Cerrito) as well as a Recycling + Environmental Resource Center (where recycled materials are separately collected by category and marketed directly to processors). Because of the new recycling policies from China, the demand for recycled materials is significantly reduced, making the economics of processing recyclables go from a net revenue generating activity to a net expense for the city. The materials collected from both of these programs are now generating little or no revenue, and recycling processors are now charging to accept materials. 

On June 18, 2019, the city council approved a contract with Napa Recycling and Waste Services (NRWS) to accept the commingled recyclable materials collected from the City’s curbside recycling program, based on their analysis that NRWS provided the best value for the materials collected, which include many plastic containers. The materials are sold by NRWS to processors in the US as well as Malaysia and Mexico. Although NRWS is able to process the recyclable materials from El Cerrito, they are charging the city to do so. 

If you do need to recycle plastic, either at the El Cerrito recycling center, or in your curbside recycling bin, here are some tips:

    • Make sure the plastic is clean and dry. Dirty recyclable items in the recycle bin will contaminate the other material, making all of the material impossible to recycle.

El Cerrito Recycling Center
In response to Covid-19, there are additional restrictions on accepted materials

  • Curbside Recycling Bin
    • Plastic Materials accepted – Empty, Clean and Dry
      • Bottles & jugs: all CRV containers; all numbers & colors; rinsed & empty, leave caps on
      • Rigid non-bottle plastics, such as: Tubs & containers (e.g. yogurt, margarine); Buckets, pails & crates; Clamshell trays & deli containers (please rinse and dry); Laundry baskets
      • Check this link to get the most up to date information
    • Plastic Materials NOT accepted
      • Styrofoam or other polystyrene (#6 EPS plastic), PVC (#3 plastic), plastic bags or plastic film / wrap / flexible packaging, plastic straws, plastic utensils, and other small (under 2″ x 2″) plastic items.
      • Check this link to get the most up to date information

Other recommendations:

  • If you can’t avoid a disposable container, consider non-plastic materials that CAN be recycled
    • Buy products in either glass or aluminum, which are high value recyclable materials, rather than plastic
  • Use / request compostable foodware items (such as single use take-out containers) 
    • If the foodware is made of a paper product, such as paper plates, paper napkins, paper cups, and paper bags, it can be put in the city’s Green Waste curbside bin even when soiled with food. (Separating food from plastic containers and cleaning them is an extra barrier to the successful recycling of these materials, whereas compostable items can be soiled with food .)
    • See this link for complete details about what can be put into the Green Waste Bin

Background & Resources:

Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How do We Fix It?

An excellent article from Columbia University’s Earth Institute’s blog “State of the Planet, dated March 13, 2020, which explains the history of plastic recycling in the United States. Much of the background information presented above is from this article

June 16, 2020 El Cerrito City Council Meeting

A link to the June 16, 2020 Resolution to execute an agreement with El Cerrito’s new recycling partner, Napa Recycling and Waste Services, which discusses where they send their material to be recycled

December 17, 2019 El Cerrito City Council Meeting

Agenda Item No 6.A

Proposed East Bay Sanitary Garbage & Green Waste Collection and Post-Collection Rates and Integrated Waste Management Fees — Effective January 1, 2020

“… the Chinese government has placed increasingly tight restrictions and bans on the amount and type of recycled material Chinese manufacturers can accept. These restrictions have caused dramatic and volatile changes in the market for recycled materials. As a result, single-stream curbside recyclables have been commanding little or no revenue, and in many communities a surcharge which is comparable to a disposal fee. Since FY 2016-17, the City’s Recycling Program has seen a loss of more than $240,000 in recycling revenue and new recyclables processing and transport costs projected to be approximately $324,000 in FY 2019-20 and FY 2020-21. These negative trends in the recycling markets are universally expected to worsen into future years.”

Robin Mitchell for the Environmental Justice Committee