When South Pasadena homeowners recycle, it's as easy as throwing their tuna cans and soda bottles into the trash can along with their food scraps and meat wrappers. It's called mixed waste processing, and it's an alternative way some cities have tried to increase recycling rates.
In 2000, just 6% of South Pasadena's single-family residential waste was being recycled under a voluntary program that had residents sort recycling into a separate container. That percentage shot up to 25% in 2001 after the city decided to let waste and recycling go into one bin bound for a so-called dirty MRF, or mixed-waste materials recovery facility, where sorting equipment and trained workers separate paper, glass, plastic, metal and other commodities on the back end instead of the front.
"We didn't do well with the volunteer system. All the recyclables that went into the trash can were being missed," said South Pasadena public works assistant Diana Harder. "Now the recycling program is automatic. Residents don't have to worry about it."
Nor do they have to pay extra. Single-family households pay $36.49 monthly for the service, about the same as single-family residents in L.A.
The stakes have been high since 1990, when California instituted AB 939, a law that required municipalities to reduce the amount of waste taken to landfills by 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000 or be fined $10,000 a day. Recycling wasn't mandated, but the law prompted cities to institute source-separation programs similar to the one in effect in L.A., where residents are provided separate bins for green waste, trash and recycling.
"We all started the same way with a two- or three-crate system for newspaper, glass and plastic food and beverage containers. That was it," said Dennis Chiappetta, executive vice president of Athens Services, a waste collection, recycling and disposal company based in the City of Industry that serves 19 cities, including Riverside, West Hollywood and South Pasadena. For all the work that residents did, less than 5% of residential waste was diverted from landfills in 1990, he said.
Now, about 40% of what's put in a mixed-waste bin is recycled, Chiappetta said. With yard clippings separated into a green waste bin, landfill diversion in the cities that Athens services rises to at least 50%, and sometimes almost 80%, he said.
CalRecycle, the state agency responsible for regulating disposal and recycling in California, does not keep track of how many cities process their recyclables as mixed waste. But cities of radically different demographic stripes, from West Covina to Beverly Hills, have adopted the approach.
The latter used to ask its residents to sort recyclables into separate bins, but it switched to mixed-waste processing in 2004. Just 13% of Beverly Hills' waste was recycled in 1995. Now the city has a recycling rate of 35% and an overall landfill diversion rate of 78%.
Still, not everyone agrees that mixed-waste processing is a better system. Critics say higher rates of contamination can decrease the value of the recycled materials. The L.A. Bureau of Sanitation prefers its blue-bin system because contaminated materials such as soiled paper cost more to manage, transport and ultimately deposit in a landfill, a spokesman said.
"It's something we grapple with," said Coby Skye, a civil engineer with the environmental programs division of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, which implements the county's recycling program. "It's a trade-off between contamination and participation. The benefit of having everything go in one bin is you have 100% participation whether people want to recycle or not, or whether they know what goes in the right bin or not."