Margaret Gainer: You and I can fix recycling contamination

It’s understandable if you’ve been confused about what is and isn’t recyclable. New packaging is continually being introduced to consumers, and too often the information on the package about recycling or composting is misleading. For starters, avoid buying what you’re not sure is recyclable! Prevent the waste in the first place, at the point-of-purchase.

I reached out for advice from recycling collection expert Richard Gertman, who has designed, monitored, and evaluated recycling collection and processing systems in several California cities. For CalRecycle, he and Susan Kinsella, co-authored Single Stream Recycling Best Practices Implementation Guide. 

Many of the cautionary recommendations and best practices to prepare local governments for the challenges of co-mingled, single stream collection went unheeded locally. Richard emphasizes that “Collection is not recycling; and landfill diversion is not recycling. Modern recycling collects feedstock materials for manufacturing systems, and thus must effectively support manufacturers’ needs to meet production specifications.”

Therefore, we need all players in the total recycling loop to responsibly take action to reduce contamination of recyclables:

Producers of difficult-to-recycle products and wasteful packaging must redesign their products and packaging to reduce waste and to make them easier for the public to identify recyclability. Producers must stop their greenwash marketing practices to mislead consumers about recyclability and environmental impacts. Several bills are working their way through the California state legislature, including AB-842, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, to require producer responsibility for their wasteful products and packaging. The time for them to be responsible for the waste they create is long overdue.

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Local governments control the recycling system by contracts. Contract provisions determine the recycling collection and processing services to be provided, and specify the results to be achieved. In the same way that recycling contracts specify collection service requirements, they should also specify processing and marketing requirements, with input from the industries that will use the recovered resources in the manufacture of new products. 

Our local governments are the key to ensuring that our recycling system operates at its best. They set clearly delineated contract goals and standards that will be used to achieve an ongoing, healthy system, and they design systems to maximize public participation. Single stream collection systems increase the need for continuous public education. Contracts specify who will be responsible for ongoing public education and how contamination repeat violators will receive swift feedback. Contracts specify frequency and what type of reporting requirements will be most helpful to maintain a quality system. 

Humboldt County quarterly convenes a state-required Solid Waste Local Task Force (SWLTF) to develop goals, policies and procedures to guide the County’s Integrated Waste Management Plan, including recycling collection, processing, and marketing. 

The SWLTF has formed a Contamination Ad Hoc Committee to meet more frequently to determine improvements and corrections to recommend for local government contracts; countywide, coordinated outreach to the public, picture-based communications, signage, and other urgent actions to fix the recycling contamination problem. It’s essential that newly elected city councilmembers and members of the Board of Supervisors become familiar with and understand the contracts for recycling collection, processing, and marketing. 

Collectors and processors in Humboldt – Recology and Humboldt Sanitation – recover recyclable materials efficiently while making it as easy as possible for the greatest number of residents to participate. They sort collected materials to meet the specifications of the manufacturers who use them, while maintaining economic efficiency in their own processing operations. 

Processing contracts should specify that the contractor report on the market and end use of each commodity and grade recovered. When this information is shared with the community, residents learn the impact of their role in the system. Both Recology and Humboldt Sanitation welcome community groups to see their operations.

Recycling manufacturers use the recovered materials to make new products that meet the high quality specifications their end-customers demand. The public also needs to learn more about the new products made from their recycled materials. The greater the transparency and communication throughout the total recycling loop, the better opportunity for improved quality and authentic recycling. 

The economic development staff of our cities and county need to be more engaged in creating local end-use markets for locally collected materials. Integrating recyclable materials as feedstock in local manufacturing is critical for developing the Circular Economy. When our materials are transported to distant countries and they do not meet the manufacturers’ specs, they are landfilled, illegally dumped, or further sorted by people in unhealthy conditions.

Consumers – You and I must first develop a preference for purchasing recycled products and packaging to both support a circular economy and to support resource conservation.

Second, then we set the appropriate recyclables out for the collectors to send back through the system. When confused, follow the rule: “When in doubt – throw it out” to not contaminate and maintain the quality of the recycling system. If you have time, “When in doubt – give a shout” and contact your collector or local government to confirm the recyclability of the material in question. 

Both Recology and Humboldt Sanitation websites have clear instructions about what is recyclable and what is not:

Be sure to keep food waste out of your recycling container. Lastly, we are back at the first point. We must all calibrate our thinking and our habits to the priority order of Reduce first, Reuse second, and Recycle/Compost last. 

This hierarchy is more than a refrain memorized in elementary school. It is the foundation for sustainable materials management to reduce climate change and create a healthy circular economy. 

We have replaced “reduce” with the term “Waste Prevention” for consumers to avoid waste in the first place – at the point-of-purchase. For one example, rather than buy your apples or carrots in a plastic bag, take your own plastic bags for produce. Look for returnable beverage bottles and the options with the least amount of packaging. Tell your store manager that you want less plastic and less packaging. 

Since we stopped separating our materials, many of us have lost touch with how much and what types of waste we generate. Do a waste audit at home and at the workplace. Get in touch with your waste. 

Contact [email protected] to learn new habits for reducing waste in the first place.

Margaret Gainer is the president of Zero Waste Humboldt.


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