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Thursday, April 3, 2008 | If you live in Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose or San Francisco, you can toss a yogurt cup, compact disc case or plastic utensil into your recycling bin.
But if you live in San Diego, Chula Vista or unincorporated San Diego County, not so fast, pal. That plastic goes in the trash can.
Soda bottles and laundry detergent containers can be recycled in all California cities. Most large cities in California have found uses for the other, less common plastics: Grocery bags, foam packaging, milk cartons and yogurt cups. Some send them to China, some have found local businesses who want to reuse the material. But around San Diego, those miscellaneous plastics still go to the landfill. The city of San Diego estimates that its residents discard 60,000 tons annually of miscellaneous plastics and film plastics, which include garbage and grocery bags.
That’s less than 3 percent of the overall garbage stream in a city that sends 1.9 million tons of waste to the landfill each year. But San Diego and other local governments have been unable to tap into the same plastic recycling markets as their counterparts across the state.
“The recyclers here haven’t developed the market yet,” said Wayne Williams, San Diego County’s recycling and solid waste planning program coordinator. “It’s a great idea, we should be doing it, but the mechanism to get it done is costly and at a lower priority.”
Plastics are identified by the type of resin they use, numbered one through seven. Most plastics carry No. 1, which is used to make soft drink bottles. Other common plastic containers, such as laundry detergent and juice bottles, carry No. 2. That’s as far as many local recycling programs go.
Local programs do collect and recycle any plastic container that has a redemption value: the nickel or dime surcharge added to beverage containers. But many miscellaneous types of plastic, which carry Nos. 3-7, don’t have refund value and aren’t recycled locally. Dry cleaning bags, cups, container lids, utensils, packing peanuts and compact disc cases all go to the landfill here, even though they carry that little recycling emblem on the packaging.
Other municipalities in the state require their contracted waste haulers to collect those miscellaneous plastics and keep them out of landfills, even if it’s not profitable to do so. But in the San Diego region, local governments and waste haulers say recycling plastics with code Nos. 3-7 isn’t feasible. Different municipalities offer differing reasons why they don’t recycle them.
San Diego doesn’t do it because the cash-strapped city pays for recycling service. (Most cities charge residents a direct fee for trash collection; San Diego uses general fund money and doesn’t bill residents monthly.) Recycling more plastic would cost more, and the city doesn’t have the money, said Stephen Grealy, the city’s waste reduction program manager.
Chula Vista and San Diego County don’t recycle miscellaneous plastics because they don’t believe waste haulers have found a market for the plastics. Yogurt cups don’t have a refund value, so their only value is as scrap. Using fresh petroleum is cheaper for a company than collecting and melting down yogurt cups, said Lynn France, Chula Vista’s environmental services program manager.
“It can be done, but no one wants to pay the price to have it done,” France said. “You hate to tell residents you’re going to take a product and then lose it later if it’s not a strong market.”
Across the state, other cities have found outlets for their miscellaneous plastics. Los Angeles sends plastic No. 6, which includes cups, plates and grocery store roasted chicken containers to an interior molding manufacturer in Stockton. San Francisco sends plastic Nos. 2, 4 and 5 to a Bay Area company that makes plastic lumber used outdoors.
Those plastics include everything from detergent bottles (No. 2) to shrink wrap (No. 4) to medicine bottles (No. 5).
Those cities have required their waste haulers to collect miscellaneous plastics and keep them out of landfills — even though recycling them may not be profitable. If you want to do business with the city, you have to recycle miscellaneous plastic.
Neil Guglielmo, manager of Los Angeles’ solid resources citywide recycling division, said increasing oil prices have made the market for recycling miscellaneous plastic more attractive. But even if recycling the miscellaneous plastic is not profitable, Los Angeles still requires it and has since last July.
Waste haulers profit from recycling other materials, Guglielmo said, such as metals and cardboard. While recycling miscellaneous plastic may eat into those profits, he said the city uses its leverage to require across-the-board plastic recycling.
“If they want to get business from the city, they have to be willing to accept all materials,” he said.
Steve South, president and CEO of EDCO, a local waste hauling company, said he wasn’t aware of any local manufacturers that accept miscellaneous plastic. A market exists, he said, but it’s in China.
“A lot of products can be recycled, you just need to make sure the markets are sustainable,” South said. “We’re still looking for the stability in the market to make sure there’s consistency on an ongoing basis.”
Other cities that collect miscellaneous plastic send a portion to China. South could not explain why EDCO or local cities have struggled to tap into the Chinese market. But he and some other local recycling managers questioned whether the plastic shipped to China is being recycled there or simply discarded.
“I would want to look at where those plastics go — and how much of what they ship (to China) ends up in the trash,” France said. “I can make the edict, but what good does it do if it ends up stockpiled somewhere?”