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Column: How California’s recycling culture may have inadvertently made us even more wasteful

Unless you live in the city of Los Angeles — whose recycling program has been rated the most effective in the country — putting out recyclables at the curb and expecting they will, in fact, all end up being fully recycled and repurposed is a bit like abandoning your pet at certain unfortunate animal shelters with the unshakable belief that he’ll certainly get adopted by someone else.

In both cases, not necessarily. California has been a pioneer in recycling, but takers for our recyclable trash get harder to find, and even redemption-value recycling centers for nickel- and dime-deposit bottles and cans are going under.

Richard Gertman has spent more than 40 years playing midwife to civic recycling programs, like the city of Davis’ pioneering curbside recycling program begun in the 1970s. He’s on the board of the nonprofit Californians Against Waste, which works to keep us from messing up the place with our own trash.

The guru of regenerating garbage has watched how changing markets and materials — like the scourge of single-use plastics — have altered recycling programs, and he sees the best solution is for us to just stop using so much stuff in the first place.

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The programs that you helped to start in the Bay Area — what were they intended to do?

I was a geology graduate student at UC Davis and we set out to recover materials because as part of our earth resources concept on saving materials, not having to extract materials from the earth to make new products, was very important to us.

And there were virtually no plastic bottles [then], so we were going after tin cans, soup cans and that kind of thing — aluminum cans for beer and soft drinks and newspapers, primarily, and then glass bottles in addition to that.

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So this was really about keeping the value of things that had already been taken out of the earth. How did that work on a consumer level at the outset?

We were focused on making sure that the activities of consumers, the buying habits, brought the materials back to us, so that we could make new products from them. We had drop-off centers early on, and people would take the leftover materials — the used containers, their old newspapers — down to the drop-off centers and leave them.

We tried to make the drop-off program as convenient as often as we could, where we could.

You of course know that there was an election for mayor of Los Angeles that turned on the issue of recycling; Mayor Sam Yorty said we couldn’t possibly ask the poor housewives to sort out their garbage.

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And that actually happened in 1960, so it was before we started our current recycling movement. The sorting that was being done prior to 1960 was a holdover from World War II, where there were shortages of all kinds of materials — metals and things.

All of the tin that we were using to make cans came from Indonesia. And when the Japanese overran Indonesia, we lost the ability to make new cans unless we got the old ones back. It was the positive thing you could do for the country to be patriotic, was to recycle.

After the war, we lost some of the demand for those materials. And by the time Yorty came around, his big selling point was, you won’t have to do that anymore.

But people wanted to do it. And we saw the same thing much later, when we switched from multistream recycling [with separate containers for each kind of recyclable] to single-stream recycling [with a single container for everything].

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A lot of people that had been doing both multistream recycling, keeping their cans and bottles separate from their paper, were very unhappy that they were told to throw it all together.

It sounds like a terrific idea — recovering valuable material, recycling, maybe, what’s not valuable. Where, when, how did it go off the rails?

In the late 1980s, a series of things happened, one of which was that there was a garbage barge in New York, from a small community on Long Island that had closed the landfill, and they were looking to ship the waste.

When it got to its original destination, the people in South Carolina said, we don’t want New York’s garbage here. And they didn’t let the barge unload at the port that it was projected to.

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So the barge had to go on a merry chase looking for someplace to unload. And it ended up having to go back to New York to put the material in the landfill that had been closed; they had to reopen it to accept this material because nobody else would take New York’s garbage.

That was a big selling point, that we had run out of landfill space, when in fact, there was one landfill that closed out of thousands across the country. Congress set up the Environmental Protection Agency, and then we did the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act [in the ‘70s], and we had to treat our landfills differently.

That was another impetus for bringing us into the new way of recycling materials as a municipal activity.

But when cities asked their local garbage company to be involved in the recycling program, the garbage companies wanted to collect materials. ... They weren’t in the business of handling the materials and marketing the materials to be reused. They were in the business of putting all that stuff in a landfill. So there was a disconnect between the collection and what happened to the materials, and how they were kept out of landfills. It was mostly just looking for a cheap way to manage the collected material.

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In Los Angeles, the landfills are owned by the county sanitation district. That’s a different dynamic than up here in Northern California, where the landfills are virtually all private. But the private landfill operators do unit pricing; they measure in tons, so they’re looking for tons of waste to bury in the landfill.

So the more stuff doesn’t get recycled, the more they get paid?

Yes, that’s right.

Well, that’s a bad incentive if you’re trying to save the Earth.

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Yes, it is, absolutely. There’s new legislation in the state that that moves in the opposite direction, making it harder to put materials in landfills.

Early on, there was a market for the stuff that we were throwing away — the newsprint, some of the scrap metal. First of all it went to Japan, and then Japan said, we don’t need this. Then it went to China. And then what happened?

More recently, China has decided that it wants to set up its own environmental programs. The Chinese government has decided that they don’t want to accept this garbage from the U.S.: We as a country don’t want to be seen as the dumping ground for the waste from the U.S.

So for all practical purposes, they closed down our ability to sell those materials to China, which was our primary market.

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And by that time, we had already closed down paper mills, we had closed down steel mills, and lost the capacity to manufacture stuff that we were sending overseas to be repurposed from recyclables.

There was a paper mill in Ontario outside of Los Angeles, and there was a steel mill in Fontana, both of which closed because there were mills in China, in Asia. We made it not viable for the local mills to keep using our waste products.

I read that, early on, there were tax credits for businesses that recovered materials and reused them or recycled them. What happened to that incentive?

The credits that we had for a short while have all disappeared. They sunset; we do legislation that has a fairly short life, and when that time is up, unless the Legislature renews it, it goes away.

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There was a point in time when we thought we were doing such a good job that we didn’t need that. And they let all the tax credits go away. But we need them back. We desperately need a tax structure now that favors reopening mills in the United States to use the [recyclable] material.

Do you think that people think, when they look at a piece of plastic, it’s OK for me to buy this because somebody will recycle it and will put it to good use and make it into something else? Has that made us in a way more wasteful, less conscious of reuse?

I think it has made us more wasteful. I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel that because I can recycle this plastic bottle, it’s OK to use the plastic bottle instead of a [reusable] water bottle, for example,

What we don’t tell the public now is that it’s much better to conserve than it is to recycle. How much energy and pollution do we make in mining bauxite to make aluminum cans, versus recycling the aluminum cans, versus using an aluminum container that is reusable? A container that is multiuse instead of single use is a much better option for the environment to reduce greenhouse gases and other pollution.

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We are consciously not telling the public what’s happening in the processing of recyclables. We see that now ... with the system we set up to recycle beverage containers, where people pay a deposit and get the container and then they’re supposed to have a place to take it back. But because our markets have collapsed, many of the locations where we were taking containers back to redeem the deposit have gone out of business. The state isn’t doing anything about that.

If they contract with private trash companies, why aren’t cities insisting that trash companies do what consumers intend for them to do, which is separate this, reuse it, sell it, repurpose it — anything to make it have a second or third life?

In my mind ... the city staff aren’t aware enough of what’s going on. The cities aren’t demanding that their waste haulers give them that information, so it’s just not being shared. The waste haulers who are collecting the recyclables don’t want the public to know what’s happening. And if you’re not processing to that [recyclable-grade] quality, then you’re not meeting the standards of the city’s contract.

I’ve not been able to convince the community to change their contract. I’m guessing this has to do with this is the way we’ve been doing it. It’s always difficult for elected officials to raise the cost of services.

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If we’re going to keep [sending] mixed waste to processing facilities to be sorted and recycled, then it’s going to cost the ratepayers more money. And elected officials don’t like doing that.

It’s such a paradox that as we become more aware of the damage that single-use plastic is inflicting, and want to recycle more and have less impact on the environment, our capacity to do that is diminished.

All I can say is that hopefully we’ll be able to use that very message to say there should be a lot less single-use plastic. We’ve managed in California now, through the activity of a lot of cities and then the state government, to put a ban on single-use plastic bags at the grocery store.

We’ve been on a course up till now of tackling these issues one at a time, product by product. At some point, we’re going to have to stop one-at-a-time processors and move to whole issues.

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Single-use material, whether it’s plastic or aluminum or glass or whatever — we need to stop doing those the way we’re doing them and, either through taxes or bans or other fees, move to multiple-use products instead.

How does that change today, in an environment where we do think first of convenience?

If you talk to the general public, what I hear is the expectation that when I put a glass bottle out to be recycled, a new glass bottle will be made from it. We’ve been reluctant to tell them, no, that’s not happening, because we don’t want them to feel bad, or not feel as good, about what they’re doing.

There has to be an alternative. If I don’t buy my beer in a glass bottle, what what’s going to happen? You can go down to the bar and buy it on tap, but short of that, people are going to continue to buy products in single-use containers because they don’t really have a good alternative.

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You once said that we took our eye off the ball. It all seemed like it was going to work so well. Was that the problem, that everything seemed to be going on autopilot?

I firmly believe that, yes.

What will it take to get us back on track again?

Being able to tell people it’s not working is going to be an essential part of that, because people still think it’s working the way it was working five, six, eight years ago, when it was working well.

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We need to be able to go back and say change is necessary in order to make it work again. That means changing the way consumers buy stuff, in the way consumers recycle stuff, in the way collection companies and processing companies manage the collected materials. And then we have to re-create the markets, the local market for those materials.

We started in the food industry, to eat locally produced food. And we need to do that with containers as well. We’re still going to get products from China. But at least some of these recovered materials we can make into new products here.

The ultimate is that we need to make the public aware of the downsides of consumerism, of buying lots and lots and lots of stuff, particularly stuff they don’t keep very long. We also need to make them more aware of what’s happening to the materials that they don’t want anymore.


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