More waste is going to landfills, less is recycled. What's going on?

ByMichael Finney and Renee Koury via KGO logo
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
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Bay Area garbage companies crack down on improper recycling with violation notices and fines.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- We celebrated Earth Day with tree plantings and beach cleanups, as an environmental crisis looms. Statistics show tons more waste is going into landfills -- not less as California had optimistically planned. At the same time, the state's recycling rate is dropping - not rising to meet a lofty goal.

The state agency CalRecycle attributes much of the increased dumping on the booming economy. New construction in particular sends tons more debris to the landfills, as does more commercial activity, and more packaging.

The state also has seen a decline in recycling centers for redeeming bottles and cans. To top it off, China stopped buying all but the most pristine of our recyclable materials, leaving California to steep in much of its unwanted materials.

"A year or two ago, China got fed up with getting stuck with stuff that wasn't really worth recycling,'' said Jim Iavarone, co-owner of Mill Valley Refuse Service. He says garbage haulers now are stuck with it instead.

Now Bay Area cities and counties are trying to figure out ways to reverse the trend. And it seems there are as many ideas for improving recycling as there are cities making decisions.

RELATED: Richmond city council votes to allow fines for 'contaminated' recycling

Most, however, are turning to everyday citizens to change their ways, rethink their garbage, start sorting and even pay up if the materials they throw out aren't good enough for the blue bin.

"We used to get paid for recycling,'' Iavarone said. "Now we're paying to get rid of the recycling. And if the state doesn't figure out what to do with it, build our own processing plants, stop shipping it for other countries to deal with, it'll all end up in our landfills."

The state seemed to be on track for waste diversion -- until recently. CalRecycle figures show the amount of waste going to landfills was declining over the past decade -- until about 2013, when it began inching back up. About 30 million tons of waste went to landfills that year.

By 2018, that figure rose to nearly 39 million tons to the landfills. The state's recycling rate dropped from 50 percent in 2014 to 44 percent in 2016, the latest CalRecycle statistics show.

Garbage companies are putting some of the blame on average citizens, saying they are contaminating recycle carts. Half-full food containers, motor oil, plastic film and garbage threaten to ruin whole loads of otherwise recyclable materials.

"I feel like i'm careful, just cans and bottles,'' said Michelle Perrin of Richmond. She echoed many in her community who were stunned when their garbage company, Republic Services, began ticketing residents in West Contra Costa County for recycling the wrong way.

Many said they did everything right, and still got tickets.

This month, the Richmond City Council voted unanimously to allow Republic Services to audit customers' recycling carts and tag them with violation notices that come with a hefty fine of $27.75 - without a warning first. On Monday night, the City Council in the tiny town of Hercules also approved Republic Services' recycle fines.

Garbage companies in other cities tag carts for contamination too, but they issue warnings before any fines.

In Oakland, California Waste Solutions issued a staggering 33,000 violation notices last year. Violators first receive a letter with a photo of the offending item. They can only be fined after three violations within six months.

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However, of those 33,000 citations, officials said no one received a fine last year. The city instead has ramped up education efforts - in part by issuing all those citations. And the city says the result is cleaner materials.

In Palo Alto, the city has issued a plea to residents to sort their materials more carefully.

"Don't put any goopy wet, don't put any food, let's keep the blue bin clean,'' said Phil Bobel assistant director of public works.

The city's garbage company, GreenWaste, leaves dozens of citations on carts every week, Bobel said. However, instead of a fine, GreenWaste gives customers the chance to clean out the cart or have it dumped as garbage for a $30 fee.

Bobel said the city is aggressively protecting a diversion rate of over 90 percent.

"We don't want to send the wrong message. We want everybody to keep recycling."

To that end, he says, GreenWaste was directed to accept all kinds of plastic and metal products - even items like toys and clothes hangers that other jurisdictions treat as garbage.

"We say don't throw it out. Leave it to us, sort of professionals, to find a way to recycle it properly and keep it out of the landfills,'' he said.

Palo Alto went a huge step further in efforts to combat pollution - directing GreenWaste to trace where its recycled materials actually end up.

"We want to make sure it meets our social and environmental goals,'' Bobel said. That means making sure the materials don't end up overseas where children may be exploited in separating or processing materials, he said. It also means making sure the items are actually re-purposed or reused.

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In Marin, Mill Valley Refuse's Iavarone is pursuing another idea. He wants to have customers stop placing all recyclables into one bin every week. He says the mixing is a major culprit in causing contamination.

"Food squishes out and mixes with other materials in the recycle can and contaminates everything,'' he said.

Iavarone just completed a test of "dual-stream" recycling. That's when customers separate their recyclables, like in the old days, putting paper out one week, and cans and bottles the next.

He admits some folks didn't like the new arrangement.

"Yes, it's more work on the homeowner, on the resident, and less convenient,'' he said.

But it kept his materials much cleaner. No more food residue or broken bottles ruining the paper. And it made customers think twice before recycling anything other than cans, bottles and paper.

"If we want to achieve these really zero waste goals, that's the kind of investment we need to make."

Public hearings will begin next month on Iavarone's dual stream proposal. And Palo Alto is now beginning to track where recyclables are really going. We're asking readers and viewers what which idea you think is best. Are fines the way to go?

And can better recycling lead to a better bay area? We'd like to hear your recycling stories - and solutions.

Take a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.