Seabirds eating plastic. Recyclers struggling. This is what California’s waste crisis looks like
With China no longer a market for our disposables, the stuff we recycle increasingly winds up in landfills anyway. Localities across California are struggling to cope—and hoping not to undo the decades of work that made household recycling a habit.
It was more than a year after the seabird died and washed up on a California beach before Jessie Beck prepared to reveal its last meals. Holding its stomach over a laboratory sink, Beck snipped open the slick tissue. With a series of plinks, the stomach contents slumped out onto the metal sieve below.
Inside were the remains of seabird food, like hooked squid beaks the size of fingernail clippings. Mostly, though, Beck found hard shards of plastic, soggy cardboard, styrofoam, and a maroon hunk of mystery meat that looked like beef jerky—until Beck cracked it open. Its innards were pure white: more styrofoam.
The gray bird, called a Northern Fulmar, may have died in the waters off California during its winter migration. And it’s possible that the bird’s garbage-filled meals played a part in its death. But Beck, a scientist with the non-profit group Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, isn’t one to speculate, and she isn’t investigating what killed it.
Instead, the bird is part of a larger project to monitor plastic pollution, 4 million to 12 million metric tons of which wash into the ocean around the world every year. Fulmars are known to snack on this trash, particularly when they’re hungry. And when they die and wash up on shore, about 70 percent of them bring some plastic back with them every year.
Looking in these birds’ guts is how Beck studies the plastic bobbing on the ocean’s surface and tempting hungry animals. That plastic and cardboard crowding out the squid beaks and seaweed in the dead bird’s stomach are a sign of a global garbage crisis that California hasn’t escaped.
Too much trash
Californians generated about 77.2 million tons of waste in 2017, according to the most recent calculations from CalRecycle, California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Of that, about 44.4 million tons ended up in landfills in 2017. CalRecycle estimates that the other 32.8 million tons, about 42 percent, was sent to recycling or composting, or was just never tossed in the first place.
The numbers are a problem because they mean the state is far from reaching a statewide goal to reduce, recycle, or compost 75 percent of waste by the year 2020. And the outlook isn’t good. That’s in part because cheap natural gas is spurring investments in manufacturing of virgin plastics, which a CalRecycle report said could “undermine source reduction efforts, undercut prices for recovered plastics, and exacerbate plastic litter and marine pollution issues.”
There’s also a major shakeup to the international recycling markets, which affects California because it exports about a third of its recycling, according to CalRecycle estimates. Historically, the bulk of California’s recycling exports went to China. But in 2013, China temporarily scaled up inspection and enforcement against imports of contaminated recycling. And in 2017, China announced new restrictions on imports and tighter contamination standards for materials including mixed plastics and unsorted paper.
“That started sending recyclers and recycling markets into a tailspin here,” said Kate O’Neill, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley and an expert on the international waste trade. Since then, countries including Thailand, Vietnam, and India announced plans to ban scrap plastic.
O’Neill, for one, hasn’t lost hope. “Waste is a challenge we can meet,” she said. She hopes the race to find a plastic substitute will take off, and that manufacturers will cut back packaging on consumer goods. But any systemic change, she knows, will take time. “You’re talking about slowing down and stopping the Titanic,” she said.
In the meantime, recyclers and local governments across the state are struggling to cope with a rapidly changing market for recyclables. And they’re trying not to undo the decades of work that made consumer recycling a habit.
The upheaval in recycling markets means plastic and, especially, paper are piling up for recyclers like Richard Caglia, corporate development officer for the Caglia Family companies, including the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station in Fresno.
“The market is in a state of flux,” Caglia said, and weathering it has meant raising rates for some of the recycling haulers and cities they work with, including Fresno. “So far, we’ve been very fortunate to survive it.”
The Cedar Avenue facility accepts about half of Fresno’s residential recycling, as well as recycling from surrounding areas. Caglia’s trying to find someone who wants to pay for his bales of mixed paper. Right now, he has roughly 4.2 million pounds of it stockpiled, and that has Caglia worried about fires. Central Valley summers are hot, and every so often people toss something that could spark a fire—like lithium ion batteries—into their recycling.
“Even though we try to keep our materials spread out as far as possible, it’s the nature of the business—something could go wrong anytime,” he said. “We actually have 24-hour-security now doing nothing but fire watch.”
In spite of the shakeup, the City of Fresno hasn’t raised its garbage fees or changed which recyclables it collects from residents—at least not yet, according to Alicia Real, recycling coordinator for the City of Fresno. “We’re at that tipping point right now,” Real said.
For now, though, Real said it’s the non–recyclables people really need to stop tossing in the blue bin, things like dirty diapers, garden hoses, clothing, styrofoam, and kiddie pools. That’s why Fresno is running a “Keep Fresno Clean” campaign. Its webpage is headlined by a woman clutching a garden hose and a man holding a diaper sporting a smiling poop emoji (neither hose nor diaper is recyclable).
The goal is to curb what Real calls wish-recycling. “Most people are trying to do the right thing,” she said. “They look at a product and say, ‘Oh, this is made from half-plastic and half-metal,’ this should be recyclable, and so they throw it into the container.”
Caglia appreciates the effort but thinks more work is needed. Garden hoses are a particular nightmare. “Powerful machinery has a tendency to wind things up pretty tight,” Caglia said, and the whole plant can come to a standstill for a wayward hose to be cut loose.
Culver City is in a similar predicament. Once, it could sell off its recycling for about $25 per ton, according to Kim Braun, the manager of environmental programs and operations in the public works department. But now, recyclers are having a difficult time finding buyers for most of the city’s plastics except for beverage bottles and detergent containers.
As for yogurt cups, plastic packaging, laundry hampers, and plastic clamshells, Braun said that those types of mixed plastics will end up in a landfill one way or another no matter what residents do. “They’re going to put it in the can to go to the landfill at the front end, or the processor is going to put it in the landfill at the backend,” she said.
These days, Braun estimated, Culver City has to pay about $25 per ton to get processors to take its curbside recycling off its hands. While rates haven’t increased yet for residents, she said to expect new, higher fees in July 2020. Still, Braun hasn’t changed what Culver City picks up at the curb in response to the international recycling shakeup. She doesn’t want city residents to have lost the habit by the time the markets, she hopes, recover. “People are confused enough as it is,” she said.
The problem with wish-cycling
Keeping trash out of the blue bin has become a matter of survival for companies like San Jose-based GreenWaste Recovery, which collects and processes trash, recycling, and yard waste from parts of the Bay Area and Central Coast. In a recent stark example, one glitching computer temporarily closed off an entire market for recycled materials, leaving even fewer options for buyers.
On a sunny July day, crushed glass glittered on the ground as the facility’s manager, Ricardo Lopez, gestured at what looked like a mountain of trash. “This is the recycling,” Lopez said. Rolled up carpet, an oven mitt, pizza boxes, and dirt littered the pile. An empty propane tank lay on its side nearby. All of that trash will have to be removed before the good stuff—empty plastic bottles and jugs, glass, aluminum cans, and clean paper and cardboard—can be baled and sold. “They’re giving me a bunch of crap on the front end, so it makes it that much harder to process it,” he said.
GreenWaste has invested more than $10 million over the past two years, including on new sorting machines and staffing to weed through all that junk. As the recycling moves through the processing facility, its first stop is a machine that spreads it evenly on a conveyor belt so employees don’t have to dig to pick out what doesn’t belong. A car mat, a jug with car oil in it, and a giant sack that once held “Wild Potatoes” all ended up on this pile.
Then the recycling travels through a series of screens to separate out cardboard and glass before it hits an automated sorting machine that pulls out garbage like latex gloves and diapers. After a pass through yet more screens and automated sorting machines, employees pick through the final paper and plastic streams on conveyor belts to remove any contaminants that snuck through.
This particular day, there was more to worry about than usual: the automated sorting machine wasn’t working. That meant those manually sorting the recycling had to pay more attention to stray diapers, and couldn’t keep as much cardboard out of the paper bales as they usually do.
The result? Lopez had to tell his broker not to sell any bales to Indonesia—which has made headlines for sending back contaminated recycling—until they fixed the problem. “That one layer of missing quality control has completely changed the makeup of my product,” Lopez said. “That’s why I told the buyer, ‘Hey, listen, I can’t make your spec so let’s wait on shipment until I have my machine up and running.’ That’s how delicate the situation is now.”
Is recycling correctly enough?
Tossing a container into the bin doesn’t guarantee a buyer even when Lopez’s machines are working perfectly. He points to the black plastic containers for rotisserie chicken from the grocery store with a number “1” stamped onto the bottom. “There’s zero market,” he said. “Just because it has a number does not mean that it’s recyclable or that there is a current market.”
He blames marketing spin from the packaging industry. “But they wouldn’t be selling this if [we], as consumers, weren’t demanding it.”
Are consumers demanding it, though? Not Beck, who, even as a scientist with her hands in the guts of the problem, can’t avoid making plastic waste. As she scrubbed down the industrial cutting board the birds rested on during their necropsies, she revealed what is more discouraging than all the plastic trapped in the birds’ downy gray carcasses.
“It’s more demoralizing to go to the market and be like, ‘Oh, if I want to buy anything, it’s going to be a plastic,’” she said over the cutting board.
Around the lab were signs that Beck and her fellow scientists are trying to shrink their garbage footprint. Used and washed ziplock bags hung on a wooden dowel to dry. In the musty cold room from which Beck’s colleague wheeled out the cart of bird carcasses, a huge bucket overflowed with crumpled, soiled purple gloves they plan to send back to the glove company for recycling.
But going to the store is just a reminder of the scale of the plastics crisis. “I’m going to have to contribute to the problem—just by participating in the normal economy.”
Coming next: A look at legislative solutions to the recycling crisis.