Until about four months ago, Peter Truman and his employees would fill 12 recycling bins a week full of glossy paper scraps.
Each blue bin weighed about 350 pounds, estimates Truman, who owns the MPress Digital Printing shop on Potrero Street in Santa Cruz. The company prints books, brochures, postcards, and catalogs five days a week, all while the shop’s press operator blasts classic rock CDs.
One day this past summer, Truman says that a Santa Cruz resource recovery supervisor told him that the city was having issues hauling Mpress’ glossy trimmings, and that it was going to stop accepting them in its recycling collection.
Bob Nelson, superintendent of resource recovery, tells GT that all those tiny paper strands make a stringy mess that spreads all over the city’s facility. Nelson says Santa Cruz had a special route that only picked up print scraps, but as clients dwindled, the operation stopped penciling out.
Truman’s paper scraps now had to start going into the landfill.
He says that the garbage bill more than quadrupled. Truman used to pay about $85 for garbage, and have all his paper hauled away for recycling. He’s now paying $260 a month to fill a giant metal dumpster, but even that isn’t always enough to get him and his employees through the week. Trash day for the print shop is Tuesday. When I meet Truman at the business, it’s a Thursday, and the dumpster is nearly full with what he estimates is close to a couple thousand pounds of once-recyclable paper. That means he’s going to have to pay for an extra trash pick-up on Friday.
At Truman’s other local print shop, which is in Aptos, he says he’s still able to put scraps in his blue bins. There’s a different hauler in Aptos and the rest of Santa Cruz County’s unincorporated area. The county has a contract with GreenWaste, which also hauls garbage, recycling and yard waste for Capitola and Scotts Valley.
What happened next may have been a miscommunication, but nonetheless, the breakdown epitomizes much of the confusion around recycling policy. It was also the part of the whole saga that made Truman most upset. A few months ago, Truman looked into having a third-party recycler come and pick up the paper scraps. But he says a city employee informed him that he couldn’t even let outside recyclers—some of whom Truman says would actually pay him for his scraps—come in to haul his recycling away.
“And the fact that it’s going into our landfill, when it should be recycled paper. Here we are a certified green business, and we can’t recycle our paper,” Truman says.
Nelson says that Truman actually is allowed to have his recycling hauled away by third parties, although he isn’t sure how many would be willing to do it. The rule, he explains, is that Truman isn’t allowed to pay anyone else to take it away. Truman tells GT he wishes he had learned that sooner.
Bewilderment and miscommunications can both be common in the world of recycling.
When Santa Cruz County published a recycling guide in January, the brochure included instructions for a few items, like the Christmas lights and types of glass that many county residents were allowed to put in their blue bins.
The problem was that much of the guide did not line up with the city of Santa Cruz’s policy. That prompted many confused phone calls from residents and ultimately led Santa Cruz to launch an outreach campaign of its own, explaining how city residents are supposed to dispose of everything.
For all of recycling’s overwhelming environmental benefits, one trade-off is that a huge portion of America’s recyclable material gets shipped overseas on industrial cargo ships.
Until a couple of years ago, two-thirds of those exports went to China, which has since closed its doors to recycling from other countries. That change let other recycling-importing countries get pickier about which goods they’re willing to accept, and made it harder for recycling facility managers to get rid of their plastic and paper. For much of the year, the city of Santa Cruz was asking residents to cut back on their paper usage, while baled paper piled up for months on end at the city’s own material recycling facility—known as a MRF for short (and often pronounced murph in the waste management industry).
Santa Cruz did finally manage to sell off all 1,800 of its bales in the fall to buyers in South Korea and Indonesia.
The city’s MRF is next to its landfill, just off Highway 1. There, workers stand alongside a conveyor belt pulling off trash, bags and cardboard as fast as they can manage before a giant V-shaped, mouth-like machine shakes out the bottles and cans, blowing the paper upward.
On a tour of the city’s MRF, Waste Disposal Superintendent Craig Pearson tells me that he’s skeptical that GreenWaste, which is based in San Jose, is actually finding markets for all the materials it accepts in its blue bins, but he won’t say what he thinks is happening to it.
Tim Goncharoff, the county’s resource planner, notes that the county has done audits following the recycling that GreenWaste takes in from its MRF in San Jose to the recyclers it works with. He says that the company has the advantage of scale, since its operation is several times bigger than the city’s.
City and county leaders both take a lot of pride in their own respective recycling programs, but they do share elements in common. The collection rates for the two are comparable to one another, although the county’s rates are slightly cheaper than the city’s.
Neither the city nor the county use general fund dollars to subsidize their waste management programs.
GreenWaste’s MRF in San Jose is not unlike the city’s, but it is more elaborate. It looks like a sorting operation built by Willy Wonka.
A long conveyor belt winds up, whizzes around, zigging and zagging as magnets and bursts of air speed up the sorting process. A small army of a few dozen GreenWaste workers yanks off plastics, cardboard, DVDs, CDs, trash, and other products, including those the machines will miss. As one employee pulls items off, he separates them into nine buckets.
“I wouldn’t want to play cornhole with these guys,” Emily Hanson, the business development and communications director for GreenWaste, tells me after one of the workers tosses a bottle behind his back into a round bin.
After sorting the materials, it’s a different employee’s job to find a buyer. Sometimes that’s easier than others.
The bane of many MRF operators these days are the so-called plastic “clamshells.” Those are the hinged boxes that stores often pack produce into—berries, for example. The logos on the bottoms of many of these containers indicate that they’re recyclable, but most MRFs are having a hell of a time getting rid of the flimsy plastic that the clamshells are made of.
The city has made it clear in recent brochures that it no longer accepts them.
GreenWaste, on the other hand, hasn’t gotten the word out, even though it doesn’t have a market for clamshells right now, either. Hanson is optimistic that the company might find a way to get rid of them, and she doesn’t want to tell anyone not to put something in the recycling, since GreenWaste may be able to recycle them in the future.
Pearson, the waste disposal superintendent, wants people to stop buying plastic clamshells altogether. Standing at the load-in for the city’s MRF, he picks up a cardboard strawberry box and a plastic clamshell.
“And if you see berries in that one or this one,” he says dropping the clamshell and shaking the cardboard box for emphasis, “buy it in this one.
For information on recycling in Santa Cruz visit cityofsantacruz.com/recycleright. For information about recycling in Capitola, Scotts Valley or the uncincoportated area, visit greenwaste.com/santa-cruz-county. To learn about recycling in Watsonville, visit cityofwatsonville.org.