This monthly column is written by Kendra Bruno, aka Compost Girl, who is the waste prevention specialist for the city of Napa. To submit questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently returned from a personal trip to a couple of places Environmental Nerds consider to be some of the meccas of the movement: Portland and Seattle. Though a personal trip, I was a recycling nerd and checked out a few stadiums in Seattle and new programs in Portland.
It was impressive to see what other meccas besides the Bay Area are doing while simultaneously recognizing that all of us are struggling with the same issues and confusion regarding recycling and compost.
I decided to have a candid conversation with a Seattleite who views recycling as a “good thing” but openly admits that “it really doesn’t add any benefit or enjoyment to my life” – “at least not immediately. I know it’s good for the environment and stuff.”
For identity purposes, we will call him Barret. Barrett had a lot to say about recycling and composting in general, including the following frustrations:
1. Separating products at the three stream bins (compost, recycling, trash) takes longer than just dropping it into one bin and as a consumer I want it to happen as quickly as possible.
2. Why are not all locations the same? Every location has a different system and different products and it’s frustrating.
3. It should be standardized.
4. It should be as easy and simple as possible.
I wanted to give some uncomplicated explanations to his points while providing some recycling background without getting too granular.
No. 1: SIGH: Multiple bins versus one. I hear it quite often: Why can’t I just throw everything into one bin? Isn’t someone paid to sort out the recyclables anyways?
- First, whatever you throw into the trash bin heads to the landfill. We do not sort out recyclables from the trash in the City and County of Napa (and you will find only a handful of cities that do in the state – it’s financially and safety wise terrible).
- Imagine sorting material that has diapers, dog poop, and more to get the recyclable items out. Sounds pretty gross and dangerous, right? Additionally, that once-clean piece of paper is now icky gross and is no longer recyclable.
- By separating your recycling into a different stream, you are helping to keep your neighbors safe (individuals sorting the recyclables at the facility), the recyclables clean, and saving taxpayer money (imagine the cost associated with digging through trash versus just recyclable items).
No. 2. Different Systems
- Unfortunately, due to the large variety of options out there, businesses purchase service ware based on what fits financially, the overarching mission, and/or what is available through their supplier.
- Additionally, what is accepted in recycling and composting programs changes from municipality to municipality. For example, in the City and County of Napa we can put soiled paper in our compost carts, but Upvalley residents and businesses cannot, yet. Check out NapaRecycling.com for the full list of accepted items.
No. 3: Standardization (a recycling nerd’s dream)
My first wish to a found Genie? Standardized bin colors, packaging materials, materials purchased, signage, have a required closed loop system and ensure it worked seamlessly in the recycling and composting programs across the U.S.
I know, I am the coolest. Unfortunately, no genie so the following is true:
- The chasing arrows symbol is not regulated by any state or federal agency. Though it is associated with being recyclable, it actually stands for the type of plastic resin it is made out of. There are (currently) six different types of resins used in the composition of plastic materials and seven numbers: 1 – 7. If the plastic manufacturers reduced to producing only 1-4, recycling would be so much easier.
- Compostable items: If compostable items were easily identifiable through a new regulated compost symbol, large lettering, or a specific color, life could be less complicated.
No. 4. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) I remember first hearing the phrase in high school—a bit crass, but straight to the point and works well for recycling.
- Standardization would help keep it simple. Due to the lack of regulations for manufactures, recycling becomes complicated; and successfully diverting reusable materials from landfills falls on the individual and municipalities. In short: we taxpayers pay for the long-term costs of cheap plastics and unsustainable materials—from actual disposal fees to negative environmental impacts. Producers never have to pay those extended costs and so are not forced, financially or otherwise, to make sustainable changes.
We have seen in specific places, such as sports arenas, successful greening of the field (pun intended). The Oakland Coliseum was the first major sports venue to implement a composting program back in 2005. Now we see AT&T Park (San Francisco) and CenturyLink (Seattle) with 95 percent diversion rates – which means 95 percent of the material generated at the stadium is being recycled or composted instead of goimg to a landfill. This is due in large part to excellent purchasing (only recyclable or compostable items) and sorting the materials after every game.
You also have the NFL Philadelphia Eagles stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, using 100 percent renewable energy and the new NBA Sacramento King’s arena, Golden 1 Center, being the first Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) stadium in the world.
So it is possible; we just have to create a functional system.