Where does my recycling go? My takeaways from visiting a local recycling center.

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Last week, I visited a local recycling center in Burbank, California. I was curious what happens to all the stuff we put in our blue bin. What types of items, especially plastic items, do they accept? Are there things we should avoid putting in the recycling. 

Here are my takeaways from visiting the recycling center. 

  1. You should call your municipal recycling center and find out what items they accept. The center I visited takes things made out of cardboard, paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic, so long as it’s labeled with the recycling symbol and the recycling number 1, 2, or 5. Every local municipality can be different, so find out what your local center accepts. 
  2. Not all material has the same value for a recycler. Our local recycling centers rarely do the recycling of materials themselves. Instead they sort recycling and then sell it to companies who use the recycled material to make new products. The material sells for different amounts based on how usable it is in new products. At this Burbank facility, cardboard is the most lucrative material.   
  3. It’s important to know what your recycling center accepts to avoid contaminating the recycling with non-recyclable items. It’s really challenging for people working in the recycling center to remove everything that can’t be recycled, so the end result is that a lot of nonrecyclable items get mixed into the batch the center will then try to sell to recyclers, decreasing the value of these batches. 
  4. Don’t put thin plastic film, like plastic bags or plastic shipping materials in your recycling. Again, check to see what plastic items your local recycling center accepts, but less than 1% accept plastic film. At the recycling center in Burbank, they call plastic film, including plastic bags and large pieces of plastic wrap, “tanglers” because they can get tangled in the machines. They have to spend time removing as many pieces of plastic film as they can to avoid them getting caught up in the machines.
  5. Plastic is on the rise, and it’s not good for our local recyclers. The recycling center I visited had old artwork made in the 1980s from items they received at the time. It was mainly aluminum, paper, and glass, with little plastic. It’s a glimpse back in time before most items at the grocery store were packaged in plastic. Since 1980, plastic by weight in our U.S. waste stream has increased by over 400%. Plastic is challenging to recycle, and less than 9% of all plastic has ever been recycled
  6. Do what you can to use less in the first place. I saw firsthand that the process of sorting our material for recycling takes time, energy and resources. We can decrease this cost on our cities and ratepayers, if we just send less to our waste to be processed, by using less to begin with. Focus on reusable items like reusable water bottles rather than single-use plastic bottles, and buy your food with minimal packaging. The easiest way to reduce the amount of waste in our communities is to use less. 
  7. Producer responsibility will help local recycling centers, and reduce plastic waste. Producers should be responsible for the end life of their products, so that they have to absorb the cost of collecting and transporting the trash their products become, rather than cities and taxpayers. A new law in California, the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act, will help make that happen. Under this policy, plastic producers will be financially responsible for managing the waste their products become. This will also change the incentives that make wastefulness so cheap. When manufacturers are held responsible for their products at the end of their lives, they tend to make different choices when designing those products in the first place: making them more reusable, recyclable and resilient.  

Jenn Engstrom

State Director, CALPIRG

Jenn directs CALPIRG’s advocacy efforts, and is a leading voice in Sacramento and across the state on protecting public health, consumer protections and defending our democracy. Jenn has served on the CALPIRG board for the past two years before stepping into her current role. Most recently, as the deputy national director for the Student PIRGs, she helped run our national effort to mobilize hundreds of thousands of students to vote. She led CALPIRG’s organizing team for years and managed our citizen outreach offices across the state, running campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags, stop the overuse of antibiotics, and go 100% renewable energy. Jenn lives in Los Angeles, where she enjoys spending time at the beach and visiting the many amazing restaurants in her city.

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