A recent study conducted for Salinas Valley Recycles indicated that 96% of Salinas Valley residents are confident that they know how to separate their recyclable materials correctly, and 95% believe that doing so is important. That’s great news for our community! However, the same study indicated that only 62% know what happens to those recycled items after they get picked up at the curb. We’d like to increase that number, so here’s a quick overview of where it goes – and why it matters.
All the items in the recycling cart are taken to a local sorting facility where a combination of mechanical and human sorting takes place. Items are separated into metal, paper, cardboard, glass and plastics (plastics are further sorted into the various types of plastics). As the materials pass along a conveyor belt, people remove non-recyclable items (trash) for disposal in the landfill. Non-recyclable items also include materials that would be recyclable but are dirty or “contaminated.”
Sorted recyclables are baled, and most are shipped to the Port of Oakland, where they are sent overseas under international purchase agreements. As a nation, each year we send billions of tons of our recycled commodities to other countries to be processed into new products. Due to the lack of recycling processing mills in the U.S., China has been the greatest purchaser of our recyclables, especially plastics. But because we export so much contaminated material, they have become more selective about what they will accept; going so far as enacting bans on contaminated plastics. As bales of plastics are examined for quality, the inspector may refuse a bale or an entire shipping container if they find contamination from food residue or non-recyclable items (like straws) mixed in. Rejected loads are then returned to the U.S., which is a needless waste of resources (i.e. fuel, time, money, increased carbon footprint) for materials that are ultimately being landfilled. What was intended to be helpful to our environment ends up doing more harm than good.
Some of us have become so intent on recycling as much as possible, we err on the side of excess, and end up recycling the wrong things. Now more than ever, it’s important to recycle right by recycling only accepted items and keeping recyclables clean. It’s a fact that if you toss a half-full container of expired peanut butter or an oily to-go container into your recycling cart, it will not be recycled at the recycling facility. They are not going to rinse out your containers for you. So, take a moment to pause and separate the clean part of a pizza box (recyclable!) from the greasy bottom (trash or compost!). It could make all the difference toward having successful and affordable recycling programs that extend the life of local landfills. Salinas Valley Recycles offers free waste assessments, recycling and disposal guides, program assistance, and will soon offer an online application to help you figure out how to properly dispose of waste materials.
Recycling right is being thoughtful about what we place in the recycling cart, but that is not even the greatest thing we can do to help our planet. Reducing the amount of plastics we consume is even greater. Start by switching from bottled water to a refillable stainless-steel bottle and saying “no straw please” when you order your drinks. Making these changes creates less plastic to manage in our recycling programs, and less waste in our lives. Find more tips to reduce waste at ProtectYourCentralCoast.org and SalinasValleyRecycles.org.
Jenny Mitchell | Recycling Coordinator