It seemed like a simple exercise for the Home section: Publish a short weekly feature called "Can I Recycle" that said whether a particular item — drycleaner bag, cereal box liner, milk carton — should go in the recycling bin or the trash can.
But figuring out what's recyclable and what's not proved to be surprisingly complicated. The system seemed to discourage the very endeavor it was trying to encourage. Some plastics were labeled "compostable" but were not, in fact, compostable. Plastic utensils were not marked with recycling symbols but could indeed be recycled — but only if you lived in certain cities.
Why is it all so confusing? And what will it take to make recycling easier?
First, the good news. Los Angeles recycled 211,300 tons of trash through its curbside program in the most recent fiscal year and diverted 65% of its total waste from landfills. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants that rate increased to 70% before by 2013. But how can residents do that when so many products and types of packaging confuse consumers and recycling companies alike?
"Twice a month, if not more frequently, we come across major new products that are using new materials, and we don't readily know what they're made of," L.A. Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar said.
Just one person in Sanitation — an environmental engineer — is tasked with identifying new materials and figuring out if they are recyclable in the four materials recovery facilities contracted by the city. "Poor guy," Zaldivar said. "He cannot keep up."
Zaldivar cited a compostable SunChips bag and the new Dasani and Odwalla plastic PlantBottles as proof that manufacturers and recyclers need better communication to identify what is and is not recyclable.
The SunChips bags are not recyclable, nor are they compostable in L.A.'s curbside bins because the packaging doesn't break down fast enough in the city's industrial composters. The PlantBottles, introduced in the L.A. market in April, were approved for the city's blue bin only this week, after Sanitation could confirm the composition of the plant-based plastic.
Zaldivar said neither company reached out to the city before introducing their products to market, despite L.A.'s status as the largest municipal recycler in the U.S. It was the SunChips bag, he said, that got the department to ponder how it could make the most of manufacturers' good intentions and increase recyclability without stifling business or inviting government regulation.
According to Scott Vitters, general manager of the PlantBottle packaging platform for the Coca-Cola Co., owner of Dasani, PlantBottle representatives met with academicians, World Wildlife Fund officials and leading recyclers in L.A. but not city officials before the bottle hit the marketplace. Vitters suggested a third-party certification system, perhaps run by a credible environmental organization, would help.
There is so much confusion in the marketplace that consumer education is key, Vitters added. Yet that education falls to myriad entities: manufacturers (who label products with recycling symbols at their discretion) as well as the municipalities and individual recyclers handling the materials.
"We've got to do more about reducing consumer confusion from the moment somebody picks something up from the store," Zaldivar said.
Costs coupled with industry apathy account for part of the problem. Manufacturers of toothpaste, stilettos and so much more still haven't figured out how to make more products recyclable.
A larger problem: the lack of uniformity about what can be recycled from city to city. What's accepted in L.A.'s blue bins can be vastly different from what's recyclable in New York or San Diego or even Long Beach because recycling is, in part, a market-driven business. In theory, anything could be recycled — not just obvious items like cardboard boxes and plastic bags, but also that toothpaste tube or a toy that's a combination of plastic and metal.
The question is whether the material has enough value to be worth recycling. Although 1 ton of recycling can generate $25 in revenue and save $40 in landfill costs, some items are less valuable than others. They're less costly to dump than to recycle.
That is why so much of recyclers' equipment is designed to extract the items of highest value first, such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles.
Recycling's gray area is filled with packaging and products made of mixed materials that are costly to separate (think paper envelopes with plastic padding) or low-value commodities that have few buyers (polystyrene peanuts and food containers). Some cities' recyclers can find a market for these materials. Others don't.
To help consumers better understand what can and can't be recycled, the city of L.A. instituted a Recycling Ambassador program in 2006. Modeled after electrical utilities that help homeowners identify potential areas of energy conservation, the ambassadors are seven individuals who visit and educate homeowners by request or by necessity, targeting areas that have a history of badly contaminated bins or low recycling rates. The Department of Public Works also provides residents with stickers they can place on their blue recycling bins that explain what can be placed inside.
Additionally, Zaldivar proposed a system similar to the United Laboratories certification for product safety (the UL symbol you might find on, say, an extension cord) or the USDA's organic label. He said the city is looking for a retail partner to pilot a program that would place blue dots on everything that can go in the blue bin. The questions are: Who adds the blue dot and, even more important, who pays for it?
"Retailers are already required to do a number of things in their stores, so to add another responsibility will take more time, more labor and it would have some sort of impact on cost," said Dave Heylen, vice president of communications for the California Grocers Assn. in Sacramento. Heylen suggested the responsibility of labeling recyclable products or packaging might be better placed upstream, by the manufacturer.
Yet "rarely" does end-of-life recyclability come up in discussions with manufacturers, said Rodney Linn, who sells paper, plastic and cardboard packaging for the packaging distributor Morgan Chaney in Phoenix.
"Our clients want to tell people they're doing their part to save the environment," Linn said, but that discussion is usually about recycled content on the front end, not the back. They might consider packaging made of recycled material, but they care less about whether that material is recycled again. Decisions are largely dictated by cost. "The end user? Where do they take the package when they're done with it? That question is not brought up," Linn said.
So where does that leave recycling? Mostly in the hands of L.A. consumers. Still.