Californians Are Caught Up in "Wish Recycling"

Public Domain. MaxPixel

Filling the blue bin no longer does much good for the planet.

California's recycling situation is on the verge of collapse. While many residents continue to fill their blue boxes with enthusiasm, feeling as though they're helping the world, the director of the state's recycling program, Mark Oldfield, says it's little more than "wish recycling."

The first problem is that many of the things ending up in the blue bin are not recyclable. Oldfield told the Los Angeles Times, "It’s amazing what people put in recycling bins. Dirty diapers. Broken crockery. Old garden hoses. Some of the worst offenders are old batteries."

Many of the items in recycling bins are contaminated with grease, food, feces (in the form of newspapers used to line bird cages), and mixed materials, such as paper envelopes with plastic windows. These complicate the recycling process, requiring extra time and labor to separate, and often render an entire batch impossible to recycle. As George Skelton reports for the LA Times, "It doesn’t pay to tear the stuff apart. Off to the landfill."

The other major problem is China's recent rejection of recycled materials from North America. What used to be an easy out for American municipalities to deal with waste is no longer an option. China's rules are now much tighter than before, stating that "if something is one-half of 1 percent contaminated, it’s too impure for recycling."

Prices for recycled material have plummeted, too. A ton of newsprint that went for $100 a year ago is now only worth $5, and it's cheaper to make bottles from virgin plastic than from recycled. This has undermined the state's bottle recycling program. People are supposed to be able to return bottles and cans to a recycling center for 5 to 10 cents apiece, but 40 percent of centers have closed in the last two years because of the low material values.

What's the solution? Well, we wouldn't be TreeHugger if we didn't point readers in the direction of the many articles on Zero Waste living that we've written over the years. Consumers need to take some degree of personal responsibility for the waste they create and figure out alternative ways of shopping that reduce it, especially as it becomes easier than ever to do so.

That being said, we still maintain that the biggest changes need to come from companies that manufacture goods, otherwise our personal efforts are like "hammering a nail to halt a falling skyscraper." Corporations need to be held responsible for redesigning their products to fit within a circular economy. (Read: Why recycling won't save the planet for more thoughts on that)

It's sad to see California's recycling program fall apart in this way, but if companies were mandated to use more recycled content in their containers or accept all of their own containers for reuse, then imagine how things might start to change for real.