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Dear Wally Waste-not,

I heard rumors about the items in curbside recycling just ending up in the landfill and I get confused about what can be recycled. While I continue to put in the effort to separate recyclables and put only clean stuff in the bin, I still wonder if it’s worth the time.  Is the recycling system broken?


Broken-hearted Recycler


Dear Broken,

There are some direct and immediate benefits to using your recycling bins properly, which include having less trash at the curb, and paying less for trash disposal, so it’s still worth the effort to recycle right and keep those resources out of the landfill. But let’s address your question: The recycling system is in a constant state of flux and evolution, so it bends but it doesn’t break as long as we all continue to participate.  Here’s how we can ensure that the recycling system continues to work:

1) Recycle everywhere.
Recycle at home, work, school and play.  If recycling bins are available, use them to the best of your ability.   If it’s empty, clean and dry, it’s ready to recycle. Focus your efforts on recycling the basics like bottles and cans, paper and cardboard.  

If recycling isn’t available where you are, ask the business, landlord, parks department or school to make recycling more convenient. There are laws like AB 341 that make recycling mandatory for all businesses and multifamily residences, and AB 827 that requires recycling bins to be conveniently placed wherever there is a trash bin. Organizations like Salinas Valley Recycles offers services to help those businesses and landlords comply with laws and maximize the available benefits and cost savings of diverting resources from the landfill.

2) Buy recycled products.

Create demand for recycled products, to support a strong post-recycling resale market. Recycling is a business that follows a supply and demand model. When there is no market (demand) for the recovered resources, the recycling companies often stockpile those resources until there is someone willing to purchase it. This can create quite a backup and logistics challenge, and those curbside recycling services become more costly to provide.

Metal and glass can be recycled infinitely without degrading in quality, so those resources are in higher demand. Buying products and packaging made from glass and metal, and recycling them when they are no longer useful, has a direct and positive impact on the recycling system. Products made from recycled paper are easy to find and to identify, so make your paper choices “recycled content” and look for “post-consumer recycled content” as the best choice to buy recycled.

Plastics are more perplexing. There are many different types of plastics, and not all are readily marketable, so it’s best to avoid buying them in the first place. When you are buying products packaged in plastic, look for those that use recycled plastics. There are also many products available that are made from recycled plastics, like backpacks, shoes, toys, outdoor furniture and decking material, to name a few. When you have a choice between buying products made from virgin materials or recycled plastic, buy recycled.

3) Embrace innovation.

Who remembers the first “separate at the curb” system that had us sorting metal cans, glass bottles and paper into different bins?  Long before that, there was the soda bottle return at the grocery store, and it goes back even further to when the milkman would deliver milk in glass bottles, and pick up the empty bottles on the next delivery. When commingled (mixed) recycling started, it was a big learning curve. Could we really put paper, metal, glass and plastic all in the same bin? Yes! 

When the recycling resale market got a little pickier about what they would accept, things got a little trickier. Some recycling facilities don’t want black plastics, and no one in our area wants film plastics (plastic bags) in their bins. We know it’s confusing! To help answer the question, “Can I recycle this?” the recycling programs in Monterey County got together to bring you the What Goes Where? free recycling app.

Keep asking those challenging questions, because that’s where innovation and progress begin.  When something new comes to your city or to your curb, embrace the challenge and the change as progress that will help keep our community a clean and healthy place to live. It takes all of us!

Wally Waste-Not