Earth Day: ‘Recycling,’ as well as what can be recycled, is in flux
Special to the Sierra Sun
“Recycling,” as a word, means different things to different people.
“The issue is the definition of ‘recycling,'” said Jeanette Tillman, the sustainability manager for South Tahoe Refuse and Recycling. “(Recycling) doesn’t always equate to recycled.
“(And) even when you recycle plastic, it has an end life,” she added. “At some point it stops being recyclable and is no longer usable.”
Several things need to happen before “recovered” plastic from the Lake Tahoe basin or Truckee can be recycled: the plastic needs to be separated, then someone needs to purchase it, clean it and process it. After processing, the recyclable plastic is made into resin, and, finally, the resin is used to make something usable.
Only after the plastic forms “a new product” can it be considered recycled, “having been used before and then put through a process so that it can form a new product,” according to the Cambridge English Dictionary.
According to the EPA, “Only 8.7% of the plastic produced was recycled in 2018.”
What happens to ‘Recovered plastic’
The largest waste management company in the nation, Waste Management, picks up waste from the Nevada side of North Lake Tahoe, and the recycling is transferred to its Material Recovery Facility in Sacramento for separating. Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal picks up waste, and Eastern Regional Landfill separates recycling for the California side of North Lake Tahoe and Truckee. South Tahoe Refuse & Recycling Services picks up and separates it for the southern part of the lake.
The “recyclable” plastic recovered from the Tahoe basin and Truckee can be purchased by Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento, or other processing facilities, and they prepare the plastic to be sold again. A chemical company can then purchase it from Ming’s and create resins from the recovered plastic.
In its contracts, Waste Management is responsible for separating the plastics, preparing them for purchase and finding a buyer. Kendra Kostelecky, of Waste Management, explained, “Our focus is the diversion piece of it, but if someone doesn’t buy, it there’s nothing we can do.
“There’s not going to be a demand for recycled plastics if it’s not economical.”
With petroleum prices hitting record lows in 2020 and new plastic resin being produced on the cheap, the market for recycled resin is shrinking.
Banking on more plastics
With the electric vehicle boom and vehicles getting better gas mileage, there’s less demand for gasoline. According to the New York Times, “Demand for oil is collapsing, and despite a deal by Saudi Arabia, Russia and other nations to cut production, the world is running out of places to put all the oil the industry keeps pumping out.”
One way to maximize the massive amount of money spent in creating the petroleum infrastructure is to build plastic resin factories. Yale Environment 360 states, “the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are pouring billions of dollars into new plants intended to make millions more tons of plastic.”
“There’s too much plastic in the world. There will always be a byproduct that needs to be incinerated, put in a landfill or sent to another country,” said Tillman, the sustainability manager. “The best thing to do is not to buy it.
“Because markets fluctuate daily, what’s recyclable is always changing,” Tillman added. “We don’t restrict people in what they put in the recycling. If it’s plastic and if it’s clean, just get it to us and we will give it the best chance it has to become something else.”
Plastic recovered by a local Material Recovery Facility won’t be recycled if there is liquid, gel, significant food waste or other debris inside; there’s no practical process to make resin from a specific plastic; the Material Recovery Facility can’t separate it effectively; or there’s no market for the recycled resin type.
For example, Keuric DrPepper K-Cups are heavily promoted as recyclable on its website. The K-Cup may be recyclable, but unless the consumer separates the coffee, the filter and the foil from the plastic cup, the Material Recovery Facility can sell the resin type, and manage the small size of the cup, they aren’t recycled.
Because of the way Waste Management separates recycling, anything that falls through the 2-inch square opening in a steel screen gets sifted out. This includes lip balm, cigarette butts, broken glass, the K-Cups and other small items that can contaminate a batch of plastic.
Truckee and South Lake hand sort recyclables.
“That K-Cup is really hard, and so few people are able to separate it,” said Tillman. If people would separate it, the plastic has a chance to be recycled.
According to Placer County, the K-Cups have “coffee grounds inside,” and even if they didn’t, the Truckee Material Recovery Facility doesn’t recover No. 5 or 7, the resin types these cups are made from.
At the time of a 2020 research study by Greenpeace, not one of the United States’ 367 waste management facilities surveyed were capable of processing the plastic cup.
Fighting single-use plastics
Besides campaigns to reduce plastic straw use, Keep Truckee Green implemented reusable takeout and leftover containers. Prior to COVID-19, restaurants were quickly getting on board. They also partner with Take Care Tahoe, and one of its missions is to reduce plastic bottle use with the Drink Tahoe Tap campaign and enabling consumers to find filling locations with the Tap app.
Erica Mertens, administrative analyst with Truckee and Keep Truckee Green, said to “focus on reducing and reusing.” And when recycling, “don’t leave food or liquid in the containers.”
Mertens spoke about how instrumental the Sierra Watershed Education Partnership (SWEP) is in efforts to reduce waste.
“They do the environmental outreach at the school level,” she said. “So many of our initiatives start with the students and when they are interested in things they are the best teachers at home. … it trickles up to their parents.
“Our whole single-use foodware ordinance stemmed from kids coming to Town Council for probably two years in a row talking about straws and Styrofoam (polystyrene).”
Drafting the single-use reduction ordinance has been put on hold during the COVID-19 crisis.
In the city of South Lake Tahoe, a Styrofoam ban was put in place in October 2018. In the ordinance, the distribution of plastic straws and plasticware is only available upon request.
Regarding people figuring out how to recycle plastic, Tillman said, “The generation that’s growing up with the climate impact knowledge is not happy. They don’t want the Earth destroyed. They have a huge foundation to spring from, so much information that we didn’t have 30 or 40 years ago. I’m excited for the innovation, but we can’t wait for that. As individuals, we need to be cognizant about what we buy, what we throw away and where it’s actually going.”
So how can consumers support the recycling process?
Robinson stated, “We can all be thoughtful about our purchases: Do we ‘need’ it? Does it contain post-consumer content? Can it be recycled? Reducing waste is the most effective way to reduce our impact on the environment; recycling is farther down the list. When it is time to discard products and packaging, make sure to only recycle those items that are acceptable in your community’s program. Finally – remember to place your items in your recycling cart loose (not in plastics bags).”
Michelle Gartner is a freelancer writer who lives in the Tahoe area.
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