August 2, 2007
Plastics hindering recycling efforts
Too many of the light and popular containers are being thrown away
By Denis Cuff, MEDIANEWS STAFF
Light, popular and easy to throw away, plastic water and drink bottles are dragging down California's recycling performance.
In the 1990s, Californians achieved an environmental milestone by recycling four of every five beverage cans and bottles that carry buy-back deposits.
But the state's recycling rate has slipped to three of every five containers, in large part because Californians throw away more than half their plastic bottles, a rapidly growing part of the beverage market.
"It's just unacceptable that less than half our plastic bottles get returned," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. "There is an explosion in popularity of these plastic drink bottles, but more than half of them are ending up in landfills."
California and local waste agencies say they are working on several fronts to improve recycling so the state one day can reach its goal of recycling 80 percent of all beverage containers.
They are targeting not only joggers and hikers who carry the small plastic bottles, but also janitor crews in high-rises. Festivals and sporting events also are being used to get out the plastic bottle recycling message.
Small, single-serving plastic containers has made the challenge tougher.
The percentage of all beverage containers recycled dropped sharply in 2000 when California started counting plastic containers in the state's bottle bill program. The plan, which gives deposit fees back to recyclers who turn in containers, started out in 1986 with a deposit primarily on glass and aluminum containers.
Today, California recycles 60 percent of its beverage containers, but the rate is 47 percent for plastic bottles, compared to 58 percent for glass bottles and 72 percent for aluminum cans.
From a national perspective, California has one of the highest plastic bottle recycling rates.
Only 11 states have bottle bills requiring deposits on beverage containers, and only three, including California, cover plastic water bottles.
"Our recycling volume has increased dramatically, but it has not kept up with sales," said Mark Oldfield, spokesman for the California Division of Recycling. "We want to get the rate higher."
To stoke up recycling interest, California increased its deposit on Jan. 1 from 4 cents to 5 cents on cans and bottles holding 24 ounces or less and from 8 cents to 10 cents on larger containers. Plastic bottles get recycled less often in part because it can be less profitable to recycle them.
Scavengers who collect large numbers of containers can make more money if they opt to be paid for the scrap value of the containers rather than the standard nickel deposit for small containers.
But recycling centers pay less for plastic than aluminum and glass.
Plastic bottles also get recycled less because people often carry the light, portable and soft containers to soccer matches, gymnasiums, parks and offices.
At home, consumers can drop bottles and cans in bins for curbside collection programs that have become popular in Contra Costa, Alameda and other counties.
Away from home, however, there are fewer alternatives to the trash can.
"It seems everyone carries bottled water with them when they're on the go. They often end up throwing them away," said Lois Courchaine, a recycling specialist with the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Management Authority. "We need on-the go-recycling."
Her agency works with restaurants, office and apartment buildings, and schools to sort containers and see they get recycled.
Office workers in high-rise buildings sometimes will put bottles and cans in a recycling bin on their floor, but janitors will dump the bottles and cans along with the trash in a garbage bin on the first floor.
"Time and time again, a recycling coordinator for a company will show me their solid waste enclosure and we find the recycling storage container is empty, and the cans and bottle are in the trash," Courchaine said. "Janitors contracted to clean the buildings may not be familiar with the recycling program."
Her agency steers building owners and managers to work more closely with janitors to get bottles and cans in the right place.
To provide a recycling drop-off place in busy downtown areas, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco and an increasing number of cities have installed a dual trash can and recycling container on sidewalks.
Bottles and cans go in the top where scavengers can collect them so there is room for more containers, said Tania Levy, Berkeley's recycling coordinator.
But some suburbs have balked at installing the containers on busy sidewalks for fear they would look seedy, attract homeless people, or limit space for pedestrians walking by or car doors swinging open.
Walnut Creek experimented with a dual trash and recycling container several years ago, and found that passersby filled it mostly with trash instead of cans and bottles, said Dan Cather, the city's public services manager.
"We were getting a mess," Cather said. "We really struggled with the practicality of it."
Walnut Creek has fared better in its parks.
The city has placed bins for cans and bottles in parks, and young men and women in the East Bay Conservation Corps, a work program, collect and redeem them for cash.
Murray of Californians Against Waste suggests the state should encourage or possibly even require convenience stores to install self-monitored recycling containers outside their stores.
Do-it-yourself scavengers could collect the bottles and cans and cash them in a redemption center, he suggested.
Berkeley is trying to link public events with plastic trash reduction.
The city provides filtered water stations at festivals and street fairs so people can fill up reusable bottles or cups rather than bringing and tossing away single-use plastic water bottles.
"We're talking about a shift in habit. It takes a while to use a reusable water bottle or container," Levy said. "We think this is important to save resources, save energy and reduce waste."
For information about can and bottle recycling, go to http://www.bottlesandcans.com
Contact reporter Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267 or firstname.lastname@example.org.