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Why What You Recycle May End Up In The Trash

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Workers at the Sacramento Recycling and Transfer Station sort through materials to separate contaminants from recyclables.

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

At the Sacramento Recycling and Transfer Station on Fruitridge Road, three forklifts with whiny motors work in unison to move bundles of materials while on the other side of the building, a piece of heavy machinery rumbles as it moves a mountain of cardboard.

Above it all are catwalks and ramps and two miles of beltway carrying tons of paper, aluminum and plastic up one belt and down another. During each shift, 45 employees pluck out contaminants and throw them away, or, if they have value, toss them in a bin.

Contaminants are the things Waste Management, which operates the facility, can't turn around and sell.

There is little demand for plastic containers with a three, four or five on the bottom, according to Erin Treadwell with the city's Recycling and Solid Waste Division.

"Three through five don't have a market,” she said. “There's not a manufacturer of any scale at this point that we know of, or that Waste Management, who is our processor and who markets these things, is telling us is capable or ready to take these plastics at this time and convert them."

A worker at the Sacramento Recycling and Transfer Station uses a forklift to move bundles of materials across the building.Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Treadwell said the city encourages residential and commercial customers to consider the materials they bring into their homes and businesses in order to increase the volume of what can be recycled. The city also encourages manufacturers to consider the markets for recyclables and use more of those materials that can be processed into new products.

Waste Management sends the city a share of the profits from the sales of recyclables. The share decreases as the percentage of contaminants increases.

Both the company and the city say China's decision in 2018 to no longer accept recyclables with a high contaminant level has severely impacted the entire recycling market.

Paul Rosynsky with Waste Management said there are times it will notify the city that certain items will be thrown away.

"That's true,” he said. “Just because it says recycling doesn't necessarily mean it is recyclable."

To minimize contaminants, local Waste Management supervisors have asked the city to remove from its online list of recyclables: hardcover books, envelopes, shredded paper, paper packaging, egg cartons, yogurt containers, toys, plastic pots and plastic foam trays.

The company concedes that some egg cartons and other products may be of value, but that the number of collected containers that aren’t recyclable would outweigh the benefit of including them on the online list.

Rosynsky said Waste Management did accept plastic foam for a time, but it stopped because it could take up to a year to collect enough to be useful.

“At the same time, the businesses that accepted the pressed polystyrene became more strict in the type and condition in which that pressed polystyrene was acceptable,” he said.

The company has begun looking at methods to collect food waste. Under Assembly Bill 1826, passed in 2014, any business that produces more than four cubic yards of waste will be required to arrange for organic waste recycling beginning January 1, 2019. The volume requirement decreases to two cubic yards by January 1, 2020.

The city council is expected to vote Tuesday night on a contract extension with USA Waste of California, a division of Waste Management, to pick up and dispose of garbage and recycling from city owned and leased buildings that will increase the annual cost from $1.2 million to $1.6 million in the next five years.

It has no bearing on which materials will be recycled.

Cardboard is moved from one area to another in the Sacramento Recycling and Transfer Station.Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

Bob Moffitt

Sacramento Region Reporter

Bob reports on all things northern California and Nevada. His coverage of police technology, local athletes, and the environment has won a regional Associated Press and several Edward R. Murrow awards.   Read Full Bio 

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