UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, July 2019

Recology Rises to Meet the Recycling Challenge—and You Can Too

You have likely heard reports in the news that recycling—a practice that has long been a cornerstone of sustainability efforts—may be in jeopardy due to China’s ban on importing waste from other countries around the world. It is true that, as of January 2018, China no longer accepts most plastics, mixed paper, and other materials for processing into recycled goods. But fortunately there are still markets for high quality bales of recycling, and we can help produce them by putting effort and attention into how we dispose of waste at the bins. San Francisco’s Recology, UCSF’s recycling service provider, is committed to keeping recycling alive and is implementing measures to encourage customers to support its success. At UCSF we can all contribute to the solution by doing some simple things when sorting our waste. Read on to learn more.

Current State of Recycling Presents Problems
According to an article in YaleEnvironment360 this March, China has taken in 70 percent of the recyclable waste produced by the U.S. for the past quarter century. The ban it implemented last year was largely due to the abundance of soiled and contaminated materials it was receiving and unable to process. (Contamination occurs when incorrect items are included in recycling or when correct items are sorted the wrong way.) China’s response was to impose a 99.5 percent purity standard for materials that is almost impossible for exporters to meet. 

What does the ban mean for us here in the U.S.? The above-mentioned article cites increased costs to consumers for recycling, closures of recycling facilities, plastic waste being sent to landfills and incinerators, recycling programs no longer collecting certain items, and even cities ceasing to recycle altogether. Another March article in The Atlantic poses the question “Is this the end of recycling?” and reports that municipalities across the country are throwing their recycling away, pointing out that the situation is made more serious by the fact that Americans are creating more waste than ever. 

So, is it really the end? Do we just throw in the towel? Not so fast.

San Francisco’s Recology Doubles Down on Recycling Efforts

Instead of abandoning recycling efforts, San Francisco’s Recology—which also services many cities and counties in California, Oregon, and Washington—has decided to invest in improved recycling infrastructure and programs to help residents recycle better. According to a video for the company’s Better at the Bin outreach campaign, which was launched in 2018, Recology is investing millions in new and proven technologies and developing new markets for recycled materials. One noteworthy investment is a $14 million upgrade of Recycle Central at Pier 96, which means better sorting and less contamination of materials, allowing for better finished bales of recycling that can be marketed. 

Recology’s Public Relations Manager Robert Reed says that so far their investments in state-of-the-art recycling equipment and encouraging San Franciscans to be better at the bin have reduced impurities in finished bales to about 1 percent, meeting the standards of the marketplace. For example, because it is producing very high-quality bales of recycled paper, Recology is able to move all of them, sending them to paper mills in the U.S. and Canada. It even makes cardboard bales that meets China’s new standard, so there is the option of sending cardboard to China.

Reed also shared that through a lot of hard work they have also expanded existing markets and developed new markets, both foreign and domestic, for other materials. Bales of recycled plastics go to mills in California, on the East Coast, and in Southeast Asia. Bales of aluminum cans are shipped to foundries in the U.S. Bottle glass goes to San Leandro and then to Modesto, where it’s made into new glass bottles. 

Be Part of the Solution and Think Before You Throw

When it comes to creating those high-quality bales of recycling, it turns out it’s largely up to us. Recology’s new slogan is “Together We Can” and their video claims that “success depends on all of us doing a better job of sorting our recyclables.” One critical thing we can do to keep recyclables clean enough to sell is to keep liquid and food out of the recycling bin. How? Here are a few easy actions to take:

  • Empty cans, bottles, and containers fully before recycling.
  • Make sure no food scraps or food-soiled paper go into the recycling; put all food scraps and food-soiled paper in the green bin.
  • Keep recycling loose in the bin; do not use a plastic bag to hold recyclables.

A June article in the San Francisco Chronicle notes that six items people try to recycle but shouldn’t are: padded shipping envelopes, coffee bags, shiny food wrappers, broken glass, toothpaste tubes, and Styrofoam. Reed adds that wire hangers and loose plastic bags and other loose flimsy plastics such as plastic wrap also should not be put in recycling.

Beginning July 1, UCSF will be fined for having more than 10 percent contamination in its recycling—as well as more than 5 percent in its compost and 25 percent in its trash—due to a new San Francisco ordinance for large waste generators. It could incur large fines and is encouraging an “all hands on deck” effort in the UCSF community to follow recycling guidelines and improve waste sorting. At UCSF remember to put paper coffee cups into recycling (empty them first) and any thin transparent plastic into the garbage/landfill bin. UCSF Health is ready to educate staff regarding the ordinance and all the opportunities for recycling in the clinical areas. “We’re asking to be invited by all heath system departments to present at their staff meetings and shift trainings to educate as many staff as possible,” says Gail Lee, Sustainability Director. “They can invite us through .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).”

As consumers, there is also a lot we can do even before we get to the bin. Recology’s Better at the Bin message is to first reduce waste and then reuse what you can before recycling and composting everything else. Adding a 4th R—Refuse—to “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” is key. Refuse single-use plastics, plastic bags, and plastic water bottles. Reed reminds us, “We live in a market-based economy. Consumers have a very powerful voice in this discussion. Send a message to the marketplace—refuse plastic.”

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