SPUR Tours Recycle Central
November 10, 2010
Just because you can recycle it, doesn't mean you should be using it

Just because you can recycle it, doesn't mean you should be using it

San Francisco is successful at many things, but there is one place where we shine above all other cities in the country – our recycling and compost programs.  San Francisco was the first major city in the U.S. to implement a citywide curbside composting program open to all residents and businesses.  Almost a decade after the program's initial roll-out, alongside an ever-expanding recycling program, San Francisco now boasts the highest waste diversion rate in the country – 77% in 2010. This whopping figure exceeded even our own goals for the year, and we’re on track to keep improving next year. (See SPUR's Urbanist article "Toward zero waste" here.) The cooperation of both Recology (San Francisco's waste management company) and the City has created a gold standard for waste management -- one that Cities around the world are eager to learn from and emulate.

SPUR toured Recycle Central last month, providing members with an insider's view of this visionary program. Recycle Central is Recology's state-of-the-art sorting facility located at Pier 96 along San Francisco's eastern waterfront.  Collection trucks endlessly file in, dumping 750 tons of their commingled recyclables on the industrial concrete floor every day.  Large bulldozers then take the recycled material and load it into machinery, which (alongside the admirably hard work of sorters) separates the material into numerous commodities. These sorted materials are then sent all around the United States and the world. Glass gets remade into bottles in the East Bay, aluminum goes by rail to Tennessee to be remade into cans, paper bales head to mills in the Northwest U.S., plastic is shipped to China. These materials are certainly put to much better use than if they had been sent to landfill.

One of the San Francisco recycling program's biggest strengths is that it accepts almost anything that could potentially be recycled. You name it: plastic clamshell take-out containers, coffee cup lids, kid's meal toys, and even CDs and DVDs (including the cases). This is all in addition to the standard items that we typically think of as recyclables: an aluminum can may be reformed many times without the addition of new materials; glass can be reformed into new glass bottles and be back on the shelf with new liquids within six weeks; markets exist for recycled paper, particularly white office paper. Recycling aluminum, glass and paper helps pay for the cost of providing San Francisco's recycling program

Towards the end of the tour while we discussed the various items that one can place in the blue bin, it became clear that Recology ironically does not want many of the materials they accept. Despite the fact that the vast majority of coffee cups and plastic toys do not get properly sorted make into people’s blue bins, these materials are extremely cheap in quality and do not make a good sell to material buyers. Essentially, nobody wants old CDs and DVDs – Recology just accepts them and tries to recycle them because doing so helps San Francisco make progress toward zero waste, a goal set by the Board of Supervisors. Recycling materials that have market value won't pay all the costs associated with collecting, sorting and shipping recyclables, but doing so helps offset some of these costs. But when we are talking about low-quality plastics, what the recycling industry calls "junk plastic," we are not talking about valued material; often the best we can hope for is a new park bench. So we as consumers should avoid purchasing or accepting junk plastic.

The point here is that just because you can recycle something, does not mean that you should be using the product.  For many materials, recycling is not the solution – the solution is avoiding using the product altogether and looking for alternatives.  Instead of a single-use coffee cup, buy a reusable stainless steel one.  Decline taking a plastic bag—which often may have a usable life measured in minutes, and cannot be recycled— and bring a tote.  I can guarantee the workers that spend upwards of five hours each day cutting away plastic bags of that gum up Recycle Central’s sorting machinery will thank you. This all makes perfect sense when you consider the mantra: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."  Recycling should be the last priority.  We can have the most state-of-the-art recycling system in place, but some materials are just not good, and clearly should be left out of the waste stream – especially if we would like to reach our goal of zero waste.

[Photo Credit: All photos by Colleen McHugh]

Tours are open to SPUR members only. Learn more about becoming a SPUR member.

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