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The Garbage Maven: Talking trash (and recycling)

Now you see it. Now you don’t. It’s an adage that applies to many things in our ultra-efficient society, most notably trash. The average American makes a lot of it — about 5 pounds per day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

That’s a lot of chicken bones and pasta boxes that are bagged up and tossed in a bin, never to be thought of again. Add it all up, and it’s almost 1 ton. Per person. Per year.

Like a lot of self-identified greenies, I’ve been trying to clean up my act. I not only compost and recycle, but also have transformed my purse into a filled-to-bursting receptacle for reusable bags and stainless-steel drink bottles and other eco-accessories that polish my halo.

Still, I wanted to know exactly how trash-y I was, so to kick off a new Home section column on household garbage and recycling, I conducted an obsessive-compulsive exercise. For one month I monitored exactly how much garbage I was sending to a landfill. And I let all the recyclables I’d ordinarily throw in the blue bin pile up in the corner of my kitchen.

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I was hoping to learn what sorts of trash I make most and to see whether I could profit from changing what I did with it all. Was there some alternative to paying $36.32 a month to L.A.'s Bureau of Sanitation so it could haul the stuff away?

I started by calling the 800 number on my bill but was told I could get a reduction in fees only if I had a low income.

“There is no way to contest the fee for light use?” I asked, as I already was generating less than a third of the average trash for a household of two.

“No,” I was told, $36.32 was just what I had to pay. Click.

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The city rolled out a pilot program called RecycleBank last year, providing residents with a financial incentive to increase the amount of trash that’s recycled and diverted from landfills from the current average of 65% to 70% by 2013. The program assesses the level of recycling in an entire neighborhood and distributes a share of the recycling proceeds back to participants.

But that pilot isn’t in my neighborhood, and the Bureau of Sanitation won’t comment on when, or if, RecycleBank will roll out to the city as a whole, so I decided to provide my own incentive and consult a private recycler.

I wanted to know: How much were my recyclables really worth?

For the first couple weeks of Project Garbage, my collection was a random assortment of newspapers and newspaper bags, spaghetti sauce jars and junk mail. It was all easily contained. By Week 3, it was beginning to overflow with the occasional plastic water bottle and Chinese takeout containers. By Week 4, the bin was positively exploding with recycled kid homework and glossy magazines, a wine bottle (or two), a whipped cream canister and a repurposed grocery store bag I used to house Items of Questionable Recyclability: candy wrappers, soy-milk Tetra Paks, coated paper Metro tickets and compostable plastic.

Then I sorted everything by type and weighed it. My total haul, excluding the food scraps to be composted in my backyard: 51 pounds of recyclables.

Most of the weight was paper — 31 pounds of the Los Angeles Times, 5 pounds of cardboard and 41/2 pounds of magazines, scrap paper and junk mail. The next biggest culprits, by weight, were glass jars and bottles, at 81/2 pounds. Plastic bottles were 11/2 pounds. Metal weighed half a pound.

I had questions, so I invited the Bureau of Sanitation to my house. I was confused about some things and suspicious about others, specifically envelopes, Kleenex boxes and other paper-based products with bits of plastic attached, as well as metal lids that seemed to be lined with plastic. Were they really being recycled or were they picked off the conveyor belt at the downtown recycling center, only to be buried at least 30 miles away in one of five landfills north and east of the city?

A sanitation official said window envelopes and Kleenex boxes could be placed whole in the blue bin; the paper-washing process separates the paper and plastic. Cardboard, such as a cereal box with a plastic liner, also can be placed into the recycling bin whole.

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The plastic mesh bag that held my Clementine mandarins, the white plastic thing that’s tied around my newspaper and the crinkly plastic ramen noodle and lollipop wrappers that don’t have a recycle number on them — they all had to be trashed. I had a single piece of compostable plastic from a tray of lemons, an example of the corn-based containers increasingly being touted as more eco-friendly. It can’t be recycled in the blue bin, however, because its makeup isn’t specified with a triangled number, like you typically see on petroleum-based plastics, and so it can cause confusion for recyclers. And some of the newfangled compostable plastics can’t be thrown in the green bin and composted because they take far more than three months to break down — too long for the city’s composting operation, according to the sanitation official.

Tetra Paks, those boxes made of cardboard, foil and plastic that contain soups and soy milks, are not recyclable in L.A. now but could be by spring. The city of Torrance, meanwhile, has been recycling them for years.

Disposable coffee cup lids, plastic caps on soda bottles and metal lids on glass jars are all recyclable, as are most food jars, plastics and plastic foam packaging and clamshell takeout containers. L.A. just wants them free of liquid and somewhat cleaned — preferably wiped with a rag that was already in the trash, so you’re not generating additional garbage or wasting water.

Although one-third of the items thrown in the blue bins are actually deemed refuse and diverted to a landfill, almost everything that can be recycled through the city and can generate a profit is being recycled. The city saves about $60 to recycle a ton of material instead of sending it to a landfill — a figure that includes revenue from recyclables as well as money saved by reduced disposal costs. Of the refuse that I collected in one month, only 3 pounds were actually trash. That felt good.

I was still annoyed, however, by the $36.32 city garbage fee. So, one morning on my way to work, I hauled bags of my sorted recyclables to South Coast Fibers, a private recycler off San Fernando Road in L.A. It took everything I brought and, with the exception of the plastic bags and plastic foam containers and Tetra Paks, weighed the haul.

I was feeling smugly satisfied until I cashed out. My monthlong experiment and the hours I’d spent sorting, driving and weighing recyclables yielded $4.13.

Ultimately, what I learned is that trash costs. Whether that cost is environmental or fiscal, it eventually trickles down to the individual. Recycling is good, but reducing waste is even better. My goal for 2011 is to generate zero garbage. In the months and columns to come, we’ll find out how possible — or impossible — that will be.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com


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