California Should Stop Accepting Non-Recyclable Plastics in Blue Bins

It causes contamination, inefficiency, and pollution—and validates poor design.

man puts out recycling

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More than a dozen environmental groups representing one million members are calling on the state of California to rethink how it handles recycling. The groups want California to stop accepting non-recyclable items that do not have proven markets. These items contaminate blue bins and make the sorting process more complicated and expensive. It also places an unfair burden on the developing countries to which the recycling is shipped for processing and disposal.

A letter addressed to the Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling suggests that recyclable plastic items be limited to #1 PET bottles and #2 HDPE narrow-neck bottles and jugs. The letter reads: "Any of these items with non-compatible shrink sleeves or other unrecyclable components should be excluded. Items such as clamshell packaging, PP5 materials, or aerosol containers that do not meet California criteria should not be included."

Reducing the number of acceptable items would streamline the recycling process, making it easier and faster for workers to sort. The current practice of taking a broad range of questionable items, also known as wishcycling, isn't doing anyone any favors. These non-recyclable items end up in landfills, either in California or overseas once exported, so eliminating them earlier in the process would be helpful to everyone along the way.

John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director for Greenpeace USA, describes the situation to Treehugger: 

"Once we've been conditioned to believe that plastic should be recyclable, wishcycling is the inevitable result. Cities require recycling programs to accept items that have little value or market. Individuals put unrecyclable plastic waste into our blue bins, either because they are told they can or they believe they should. Meanwhile, recyclers ship waste overseas hoping that it will be recycled, often without seeking verification that it will not in fact be dumped or burned."

This creates a huge problem for developing nations that are ill-equipped to cope with the deluge of non-usable plastic. While 186 countries signed an amendment to the Basel Convention that oversees the movement of hazardous waste around the world, taking effect on January 1, 2021, the United States opted out and continues to ship plastic waste indiscriminately, mostly to Malaysia.

The United States is now the largest exporter of plastic waste to non-OECD countries, and California generates 27% of that waste.

The continued acceptance of non-recyclable items in blue bins validates the plastic industry's ongoing insistence that recycling is a good citizen's duty, rather than a design flaw.

"The plastic industry has worked with food and beverage companies for decades to convince us that all this single-use packaging is ok because it will be recycled," Hocevar says. "Instead of taking responsibility for their products, the industry has sought to put the onus on individuals. If we just learn how to recycle better and stop littering, there will be no problem."

"The fact is that we have recycled less than 10% of the plastic we have produced," Hocevar adds. "Even as companies adopt greener rhetoric about plastic pollution, the volume of waste they produce has continued to grow. To stop plastic pollution, we have to stop making so much of it, especially single-use plastic."

A statewide refusal to accept anything other than what's truly and profitably recyclable would come as a shock to many eco-minded individuals, who like the feeling of satisfaction that comes with filling one's blue bin each week. But it might create the pressure that's necessary to spur companies to redesign their packaging. 

From the letter: "Greenwashing of unrecyclable products stifles innovation to improve product design. It works against market development and negates the need for producers to invest in sorting at material recover facilities (MRFs) and plastic reprocessing facilities."

Hocevar agrees with Treehugger's suggestion that a crackdown might result in a temporary increase in the amount of plastic sent to domestic landfills but pointed out that it's a necessary step along the road to improvement. "The gold standard is not simply to replace single-use plastic with some other type of throwaway material, but to shift to reusable, refillable, and package-free approaches," he said. 

"Today's throwaway mindset can feel entrenched, but many of us grew up valuing reuse," he adds. "Particularly among younger people, we are seeing a return to those values. There is a growing discomfort with the idea of using something for a few seconds or minutes and then throwing it 'away,' particularly for packaging made out of plastic that will be with us for generations."

It would be an uncomfortable transition for many consumers, but as the letter states, it would cease the ongoing deception that makes people think their recycling waste is actually being turned into something useful.