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Are our recycling bins too big?

Uploaded: Sep 27, 2020
Are our recycling bins too big?

That seems like a weird question. We want to recycle, so why would we want smaller bins? Another way to think of the question is: Are we too good at recycling?

Most of us love to recycle. A recent survey of almost 3000 people across the West Coast found that more than 95% of residents recycle, with 92% saying it is important to them. Most are also happy with their recycling service. We certainly have great service here in the mid-Peninsula. Palo Alto takes a wide range of items in its blue bins and recycles every week. Mountain View, Menlo Park, and other cities offer simple, easy-to-use (single-bin, curb-side) recycling. We recycle because it’s good for the environment and we want to keep things out of the landfill. We compost for the same reason.

It works. A “significant majority” of studies have shown that recycling and composting are beneficial for the environment, conserving resources and reducing pollution. (1) For example, David Allaway, a senior policy analyst in Oregon’s Department of Environmental Science, reports that the EPA’s WARM tool shows that in 2016 Oregon’s recycling and composting reduced statewide emissions by about 5%.

So how can our bins be too big? There are a couple of separate issues.

Recycling (and composting) can cause us to ignore the bigger benefits of reducing and reusing.

In last week’s blog post, I wrote that plastic cups were considered okay to use at an event because “Well, they are recyclable.” My suggestion that we use paper cups wasn’t a whole lot better. Why not ask people to bring their own cups? Recycling can distract us from reducing our use of disposables.

Composting can be similarly distracting. Allaway reports on a very successful food-waste reduction initiative at Oregon State University. Food waste in a dining hall was reduced by more than 70% with clear messaging. But when composting was introduced, food waste went right back to where it had been. Composting somehow made the food waste okay.

While composting and recycling do help to reduce emissions, the vast majority of emissions come from the production and transportation of goods before they ever get to the consumer. This chart from a presentation by Allaway shows that “upstream” emissions are about 20x the post-consumption or “downstream” emissions.

Upstream emissions for materials are 20x the post-consumer emissions. (Source: 2018 David Allaway presentation)

Even with near-perfect recycling of materials, the overall contribution of materials in this inventory would be 38% instead of 40%. While these numbers may have been considerably refined since this 2006 analysis, it’s clear that reducing and reusing materials has a much greater impact than recycling them does.

Our capacious recycling bins are distracting us from a more important goal.

Aspirational recycling adds cost and may worsen pollution.

We love to recycle, so much so that we have a tendency to optimistically recycle things. That may be because we don’t know what is allowed or because we figure the recycling service will sort it out anyway. Either way, these micro-decisions are costly. The facilities end up needing more sophisticated sorting services, taking them down more to untangle unexpected items from machinery, and dealing with lost revenue due to contaminants they are unable to remove.

Contamination is a big problem. It’s partly the result of complex and inconsistent rules for recycling. For example, sometimes #1 and #2 are considered to be recyclable plastics, but sometimes not. Mountain View, for example, does not allow so-called thermoform plastics like clamshells to be recycled, even if made from #1 plastic, while Palo Alto allows virtually everything, even film plastics if they are bagged.

Thermoform plastics are not often recyclable, regardless of the type of plastic they are made from.

As a result, Palo Altans are probably “aspirational recyclers” everywhere they go because of their home habits. But Mountain View residents also struggle. According to Mountain View’s 2019 Materials Waste Characterization study, only 35% of the plastics in the blue bins are actually recyclable. Sure, some of that may be visiting Palo Altans, but the rest? Mountain View residents and visitors don’t seem to know that these rigid plastics, film plastics, and more are not recyclable in their city. (And just for the record, carpeting and ice packs shouldn’t be in there either!)

Only 35% of the plastics in Mountain View’s recycling bins are recyclable (those are shown in blue). (Source: 2019 Materials Waste Characterization study)

It’s not only we residents who are aspirational when it comes to recycling. Our waste processors may be as well. Recycling works best when there are verifiable and ideally domestic markets for the materials. (2) But cities may aggressively pursue other markets because residents want to recycle more. These markets are not especially stable. As the price of oil has dropped, virgin plastic has gotten relatively cheaper. If a market in Asia dries up because it can no longer compete with new materials or because they have a surplus of recycled material, chances are suddenly much higher that your “recycled” plastic will end up in the ocean than if it had bypassed recycling and gone straight to a landfill in the US.

Our optimistic approach to filling our large bins is adding cost and may be worsening pollution.

Recyclable products are not always the lowest-impact.

If we focus on “recyclability” too much when we do need to buy things, we may be choosing a higher-impact option overall. I started buying tuna pouches instead of tuna cans about a year ago after I read this article on the lifecycle emissions of each. The chart below shows that in a good number of comparisons found in the scientific literature, “recyclable” packaging has a greater overall environmental impact (those are shown in red).

Recyclable packaging and containers are not always better for the environment than non-compostable (Source: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)

The situation is even starker for compostable utensils. Nearly all of the comparisons show they use more resources and have greater impact over their lifecycle than non-compostable utensils.

Compostable foodware is generally worse for the environment than non-compostable (Source: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality)

Plastic straws are another interesting one. If you choose to use a steel, glass, or even bamboo straw, you need to be prepared to use it (and not lose it) 50 or even 100+ times.

This may not be news to many of you. But how are we supposed to intuit lifecycle emissions? There is no easy way to know which products have lower-impact life cycles than others. As a result, even though we know that the marketing is often deceptive, we go with “recyclable” or “compostable” because it’s all we’ve got.

Our roomy recycling bin encourages us to opt for “recyclable” items, which may be the worse choice.

Is there a better option?

A large, low-cost recycling bin is an invitation to recycle. You may have heard of capacity-induced demand. When we add lanes to highways, we get more traffic. When our recycle bin is big and cheap, we don’t think twice about putting things in it. We certainly prefer it to our more expensive and perhaps smaller trash can. This roomy, inexpensive option can lead us to forget about reducing and reusing, to recycle “optimistically”, and to disregard lifecycle impacts.

If we have less room to recycle, we might push back more on waste. Have you bought something recently that was packaged with styrofoam pieces for protection? Or have you opened a box to a flood of styrofoam peanuts? It’s a nuisance because there is nowhere to put the stuff. As a result, you try to avoid styrofoam when possible, and may even prefer shippers that don’t use it. A smaller recycling bin could work the same way. Instead of looking for recyclable items, we might instead look for options that create less waste overall.

In that vein, I also wonder if Palo Alto should accept fewer types of recycling. It seems like a downgrade. But if Palo Alto were to stick with “bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs”, it might reduce confusion and mistakes, lower costs, and encourage better consumption behavior. Palo Altans do not like to throw things in the trash!

The reality…

Many of us are busy people, especially right now. Accurately comparing the lifecycle emissions of what we are buying is way beyond us. How long do you really want to stand in the yogurt aisle debating between a plastic or a glass container?

Your guess is as good as mine…

Furthermore, opting not to buy disposable items is a problem if that is all we are offered.

We can’t be expected to analyze our purchases and our trash so much. “Just sell me the right thing and I’ll buy it,” you may be thinking. I am, anyway. I would love for the manufacturers to be building things to last, making them easy to repair or refill, reducing packaging, and generally designing for low-impact.

In the meantime, we can keep our focus on reducing and reusing, and use our purchasing power to nudge vendors in that direction. We aren’t going to compost and recycle our way out of our environmental impact.

Palo Alto is going to roll out a campaign soon to nudge us in the direction of generating less waste. I hope we can have some good discussions on what’s working and what’s not.

Notes and References
1. This and much other information in this blog is from a 2018 talk by David Allaway, a senior policy analyst in Oregon’s Department of Environmental Science.

2. When recycling is done in places like Asia, there is a much greater likelihood that non-recyclables in the mix will end up in the ocean. It is also harder to verify recycling when it’s done at a distance.

Much more plastic ends up in the ocean from Asia and Africa than from the US.

3. This is a good overview of what the plastic numbers mean.

4. You can read some about the economics of recycling in the Sacramento Bee (2019). The numbers have gotten much worse as we’ve moved to a single bin and added many more types of materials. Sorting costs have gone up and the value of the resulting materials have gone down due to contamination. I hope to do a subsequent post on this topic.

Current Climate Data (July/August 2020)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard (updated annually)

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What is it worth to you?


Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 27, 2020 at 7:42 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "When our recycle bin is big and cheap, we don't think twice about putting things in it."

^ only way to justify smaller recycling bins is to reduce consumer demand and consumption of items packaged in recyclable containers, otherwise the stuff will most likely be tossed into regular dumpsters or in a worst scenario...littered.

> "If we have less room to recycle, we might push back more on waste."

^ Given typical American consumer habits and to quote Al from 'Home Improvement'...."I don't think so Tim."

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Sep 27, 2020 at 8:17 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

Is there a better option? There is. Learn to relax your standards, and not get so uptight about the littlest things. A large, low-cost recycling bin is a good thing.

Posted by Native to the BAY, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 28, 2020 at 6:48 pm

Native to the BAY is a registered user.

Grocery store carts at places like, Costco, Safeway, Whole Foods should be reduced in size to no larger then than a hand basket on wheels. Walmart, Target and other mega stores too. Garbage in garbage out. Like being charged for using bags we should be charged for using store carts �" the charge cost should go toward purchasing and producing sustainable, affordable housing in Palo Alto.

Posted by Trash Monitor, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Sep 28, 2020 at 6:55 pm

Trash Monitor is a registered user.

Re: Piazza's Shopping Center. What became of littering laws and Native American crying near a busy, congested roadside . Lot's more trash on PA's streets, gutters, deserted and other commercial parking lots. Tons of discarded face coverings, latex gloves and fast food wrappings from our late night, totally essential workers. All forced to sleep and dine in their cars between long commutes and their work shifts. Housing now!!!

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 28, 2020 at 7:04 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

As far as disposable and eco-problematic plastic containers are concerned (for those old enough to remember the home delivery milkman)...why not integrate and utilize reusable containers (i.e. glass) that can be sterilized and duh...reused?

By charging a deposit (e.g. a CRV fee), I imagine a sizable number of consumers would return them for either re-use or rebate.

And if worse comes to worse, the indigent could harvest them for reimbursement.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 28, 2020 at 7:11 pm

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> " Lot's more trash on PA's streets, gutters, deserted and other commercial parking lots. Tons of discarded face coverings, latex gloves and fast food wrappings from our late night, totally essential workers. All forced to sleep and dine in their cars between long commutes and their work shifts. Housing now!!!"

^ Still no excuse for littering...just use the garbage receptacle.

Posted by Sheri, a resident of Midtown,
on Sep 28, 2020 at 8:34 pm

Sheri is a registered user.

No good deed goes unpunished.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 28, 2020 at 10:28 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Native: You are absolutely right imo. At the place where I used to work, they introduced smaller plates at the cafeteria and food waste dropped by around 15%. Smaller carts is a great idea, but how would you get store buy-in? I also want grocery stores to move red meat to behind the counter... There are so many things a grocery store could do if it were focused on helping customers to reduce emissions. But I'm not sure a tax exists that would align that sufficiently well with a profit motive. WDYT?

@Trash: You know the Crying Indian was a creation of the fossil fuel companies to use recycling to keep people buying disposables? "People start pollution. People can stop it." neatly shifted responsibility from the manufacturers to the customers.

@Lee, have you tried Straus milk? They say more than 80% of their bottles are returned (it's a $2 deposit). I wonder if that nets out better than the plastic jugs.

@Sheri: Ha, yeah, it feels that way sometimes. FWIW, what most impressed me when writing this was (a) How bad Mountain View people are at recycling plastic -- only 1/3 of what they recycle is actually recyclable!! and (b) How much we are focusing on a tiny part of the problem. We spend so much effort on the emissions after we buy the thing, when the part that comes before is 20x bigger.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 8:27 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

Problem partially Japan, scientists have discovered an enzyme that consumes discarded plastic wastes.

Bottle it up (in a recyclable glass container of course) and sell it to more plastic recycling bins cluttering up the driveway.

Web Link

Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Sep 29, 2020 at 9:50 am

Steven Nelson is a registered user.

REDUCE, Reuse, recycle. Hum, so that particular chant has a quantitative basis. Sweet. Teach it to your children (and other 'just learning' about the science of Garbage).

In MV I do wonder about the large size of recycling bins. They are not REDUCE, and Reuse bins. I am getting myself into the habit of better quality recycling also. I strip off the labeling materials on type 1 and type 2 plastics. And I even strip off the captive cap bands and throw away the plastic caps. Tear off the paper from metal cans.

If we had a smaller / cheaper 'Higher Quality Recycle" bin, my family would use it. Like we use the smallest / cheapest Trash bins available.

Posted by Lee Forrest, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Sep 30, 2020 at 11:43 am

Lee Forrest is a registered user.

> "@Lee, have you tried Straus milk?"

^ Yes...a very good product & available at many local markets.

I was unaware of their offerings in glass bottles with a deposit.

We will be going that route from now on.

Posted by diesel, a resident of another community,
on Sep 30, 2020 at 12:27 pm

diesel is a registered user.

Great article. My wish is that we could reduce waste from take-out containers. In this current world, we're doing more takeout meals rather than dining in a restaurant with washable plates and utensils. Each meal means at least one container into trash or recycling, often 2 or 3 containers. I read that one startup is trying to get reusable containers into use, but this is a need crying out for a solution.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Sep 30, 2020 at 2:43 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@diesel, I agree, and you aren't the only one frustrated by this.

FWIW, there are a number of companies making reusables for takeout and a number of places trying them out, both universities (e.g., Oregon State) and cities (e.g., Durham). The way they tend to work is a customer buys or puts a deposit on a reusable container when they make a purchase and then returns it later in a conveniently located drop box (and gets their deposit back).

Some to check out include: Go Box, Forever Ware, and Cup Club. Universities and even Palo Alto schools are making the switch to reusables, and the City of Palo Alto aims to ban single-use disposables for takeout in 2025 (page 184).

The posts I linked to above have some suggestions for what to do in the meantime (e.g., refuse incidentals like utensils, order things like burritos that need less packaging).

Posted by Asklee, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Oct 1, 2020 at 9:05 am

Asklee is a registered user.

The Mountain View Recology contract is up for renewal next year. Can someone explain why Recology San Francisco or the city of Palo Alto has no problem accepting plastics that Recology Mountain View cannot accept? Notably the thermoform or clamshell plastic and black plastic take out containers. Films and bags are no problem for those cities but not in Mountain View or Sunnyvale.

Posted by Ranvapa , a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 4, 2020 at 11:09 pm

Ranvapa is a registered user.

@Sherry, Thanks for mentioning Straus.

It would be great to see more of this packaging model. If re-usable packaging becomes commonplace, these solutions may be able to better compete with single use plastics on price and convenience.

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