You get a takeout meal, the meal is in a Styrofoam container, in a plastic bag. With the meal, the restaurant placed paper napkins and condiments in plastic packets. You also grab some water in a plastic bottle. After you eat, you look at the waste and make the decision. The plastic bag, Styrofoam container, bottle and packets are all plastic so they go in the recycle bin, the napkins in the trash bin. You give yourself a mental pat on the back for doing your part.
Unfortunately in this example the only product that will be recycled is the plastic water bottle. Per Republic Services, a Fortune 500 and large national waste management company says about 30% of material placed in curbside recycling bins is sent to landfill. Marisa Gan, City of Livermore Recycling Specialist, says in Livermore it is typically 20-22%. The Chabot-Las Positas Community College District did not respond to requests for information on recycling at Las Positas College.
The main reasons items placed in the recycle bin are not recyclable are contamination with food or other substances, not recyclable material or no market for the materials. People tend to put items into the recycle bin that are not recyclable.
“That recycled material should be dry, materials that may be recycled if dry are not recyclable if wet,” Gan said. “Many more materials could be recycled if there was market for the material, but there is limited or no market for many materials”
Plastic is the material that is most often placed in recycle bins. The use of plastic has grown substantially after World War II doubling every decade since then. Plastic is made from fossil fuels and is a product of the Petrochemical Industry and the Oil industry.
The plastic industry, through their trade associations and lobbying groups is credited with increasing the public notion that plastic is recyclable. However, only 9% of plastic is recycled. One reason is that types of plastics cannot be mixed and there are hundreds of types of plastics. The recycle triangle with the numbers is an attempt to help identify plastics that are recyclable. The recycle triangle was a product of the first earth day in 1970.
The problem is consumers are led to believe that any plastic with a number is recyclable. Unfortunately, there is only a market for plastics with a 1, 2, 4 or 5. The most recyclable plastic is labeled with a ‘1’ which indicates Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). It’s mostly found in beverage bottles, but is also used to package other food goods such as peanut butter and salad dressing.
The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPOR) 2017 PET Recycling Reports states that only 29% of the PET bottles were recycled in 2017. The report also shows that there has been a decline in the recycle rate of the PET containers from the peak in 2013. The utilization rate, or the rate the recycled containers are used is 21%. This means that 9% of the PET containers recycled are not used.
LPC and the City of Livermore use the three bin system: one bin for recycle, one for trash and one for compost. Livermore Sanitation picks up the recycle material and ultimately takes it to the Alameda County Industry’s Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in San Leandro.At the MRF, waste is sorted, with non-recyclable material sent to landfill while the recyclable material is bailed into bundles and sent to companies for use.
Returning to the lunchtime scenario, the correct way to dispose would be tossing the plastic bag, styrofoam container and condiments packets in the trash, while placing the napkin in compost. Livermore actually banned styrofoam containers in 2011 and Pleasanton in 2013. However, the bill has yet to be approved in Dublin and Tracy still allows their use as well.
One factor that makes recycling hard is that each locale has its own rules. Livermore and Pleasanton do not recycle Styrofoam, Dublin and Tracy do if labeled 6 or 7. Dublin and Pleasanton do not accept plastic bags, but Livermore does if the plastic bags are placed in another plastic bag and tied shut. Tracy accepts plastic bags and pizza boxes, while in Livermore pizza boxes go in the compost bin. Livermore allows aerosol cans, Tracy does not.
Other materials have a higher rate of recycling. Aluminum cans are recycled 50% of the time. Regular paper clocks in at 48% and newspaper at 78%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Corrugated cardboard boxes have the highest recycle rate of 88%. However, with the increase of online shopping, this number is decreasing as there is a glut on the market of corrugated cardboard for recycling.
The LPC community can help increase recycling by learning the rules of Livermore for recycling while on the college campus and the city you live in. The best way to recycle is not to generate the material in the first place. The use of plastics can be reduced by simple habits such as using a refillable water bottle and filling at the refill dispenser on campus and reducing your usage of single use items. Even disposable silverware can be washed and reused by the consumer.
But why stop there, contact business and request they use more environmentally friendly products for packaging and serving. One company I contacted did switch from Styrofoam packing peanuts to biodegradable packing peanuts, which are compostable. You never know how much power you actually have until you use it.
Alan Lewis is the photo editor of The Express. Follow him @alolewis1.