Maggie Gainer: How we got here – the early development of recycling

Zero Waste Humboldt emphasizes waste prevention strategies at the point of purchase and materials reuse. However, we regularly receive inquiries about recycling collection, which materials are recyclable, and how to avoid contaminating the recycling cart at the curb. 

An average of 25 percent of recyclables collected at the curb in Humboldt County are contaminated and landfilled. 

This series is an attempt to explain the changing conditions that have caused this much contamination and what we can do to make it better. 

After 50 years of modern-day recycling in Humboldt County, it’s time to evaluate.

Background: how we got here

Earth Day 1970 mobilized a growing public awareness about air and water pollution, dwindling natural resources, loss of wildlife species, and impacts to human health. 

Among the first outcomes from Earth Day’s teach-ins, litter walks, and the national news spotlight on the need for environment protection were grassroots recycling drop-off centers in many college towns. 

Of those early recycling centers that continued to grow, the staff and volunteer crews were strictly trained in quality over quantity. Only the correctly sorted materials could be accepted from the public to maintain the quality required by the buyers’ strict specifications for recyclables in their mills and manufacturing facilities. 

At the Arcata Community Recycling Center, the critical need to supply the markets with consistently high-quality loads was more serious than for most recycling programs because of the high cost to transport the low-value commodities long distances to market. 

Recycling loads that exceeded the contamination percent allowed were downgraded to a lower price-per-ton and recycling income could not cover the transportation cost to market.

 In the 1980s, Californians’ concerns about insufficient landfill capacity for ever-increasing waste generation, shifted the original purpose of recycling from natural resource conservation to the pressure for “landfill diversion.” 

By 1990, California cities and counties were required to meet diversion goals of 25 percent by 1995 and 50 percent by the year 2000.  This pressure for landfill diversion changed the emphasis in recycling operations from marketable quality to quantity of tons diverted from the landfill.

The local government urgency to report increased landfill diversion attracted the investment of the largest garbage hauling and waste management companies in the U.S. 

This was a period of constant experimentation in recycling collection truck design, containers and methods for household set-out at the curb, and processing to prepare materials for the grade-specs required by the markets. The goals were to increase public participation in recycling, and increase efficiency of collecting increased tons of recyclable materials.

Next week: Changes in recycling collection, processing and marketing; the content of our waste; the causes of recycling contamination and actions you can take to reduce it.

Margaret Gainer is president of Zero Waste Humboldt. [email protected];          facebook.com/ZeroWasteHumboldt







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