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Are Rossmoorians supposed to recycle plastic bags?

Keeping track of recycling rules can be a challenge

News photo by Dan Rosenstrauch
The new retrofit design at Mt. Diablo Resource Recovery in Pittsburg includes process upgrades and new equipment to increase throughput, recovery, purity and overall system efficiency,

John Moe said he has been recycling long before it was commonplace. He’s come a long way from the days of his childhood when garbage was simply burned. Most of the garbage produced in the 1950s, he said, burned easily.

That isn’t the case anymore, said Moe, president of First Mutual and “Green Rossmoor” columnist for the Rossmoor News, especially given all the plastics in the modern waste stream. And he knows recycling, done properly, has become an increasingly complex pursuit.

“It’s got so many components to it, and it’s hard for some people,” Moe said. “I think we need to help (Rossmoor) residents more about what needs to be done.”

There also has been ongoing confusion about what plastics Rossmoor residents can recycle.

“Whether they’re being recycled at a given time is dependent on the markets,” said Kimberly Lam, municipal manager for Republic Services in Pacheco, which collects residential and commercial garbage, recycling and organics in Walnut Creek (and thus Rossmoor).

Recycling plastics

“Soft plastics,” including some kinds of plastic bags, are on the list of what Republic accepts under its contract with the Central Contra Costa Solid Waste Authority – known as RecycleSmart. That agency contracts with Republic Services for collection in Walnut Creek, Danville, Lafayette, Orinda, Moraga and adjacent parts of unincorporated Contra Costa County, and with Mt. Diablo Resource Recovery in Pittsburg, to process recyclables. The existing contract, covering all these areas, runs into 2025.

The plastics that can be recycled, Lam said, include produce grocery bags, dry-cleaning bags and single-use grocery bags (but not the thicker reusable plastic bags, which are sometimes collected in bins outside grocery stores).

“Given the market situation right now, they won’t be missed if not placed in the recycling container, but that could change as market forces change,” said Judith Silver, senior program manager with RecycleSmart.

Recycling market changes

Those recycling markets – for many materials – took a big hit in March 2018 when China, through its “China Sword” initiative, adopted much stricter contamination standards for the 24 types of waste products it would accept from countries around the world for recycling.

Until then, about 70 percent of the plastic recyclables generated by the United States were sold and shipped to Chinese processors. Now, a small fraction of the former volume of American recyclable plastic is being shipped to China, because the material can’t (yet) economically be cleaned to meet China’s new, more stringent standards. The loss of that market has created some storage backlogs in the United States and has resulted in more plastics being dumped into American landfills.

The tighter regulations have forced recyclers such as Mt. Diablo Resource Recovery in Pittsburg – where much of Walnut Creek’s recyclables go – to improve the quality (including cleanliness) of the recyclables they process.

Kish Rajan, chief administrative officer for Mt. Diablo Resource Recovery, said new, technologically advanced machinery is being installed at the Pittsburg facility, complete with optical material sorting, autonomous robotic material sorting, up-to-date operational data and analytics systems.

The upgraded technology is expected to not only produce more marketable product but also benefit ratepayers, help Mt. Diablo Resource Recovery meet state and local regulatory requirements for recycling, and benefit the environment.

“Our new processing facility will feature the most modern and innovative technologies in the recycling industry to ensure we are optimizing our performance,” Rajan said.

The need to comply with state and local recycling laws is another key reason processors like Mt. Diablo make sure what is recyclable indeed gets recycled. Silver said recyclables sometimes are contaminated, by liquids or other substances, to the point they cannot be recycled.

She and Lam stressed that plastics are supposed to be recycled in the form of a “bag of bags;” with one outside clear bag containing as many other plastic bags as will fit inside of it. The material should be clean and dry, they said.

Loose bags or other small pieces of suitable soft plastics, they said, can blow away and cause litter, or get caught in the sorting machinery. Opaque bags, they said, must be treated as being destined for the landfill.

Resident confusion

Like John Moe, Carol Weed said it can be confusing as to what Rossmoor residents can and cannot put in their recycle or landfill bins. She said she doesn’t think it’s been sufficiently explained what kinds of plastic bags are accepted.

“And people here don’t always know what the (bin) colors mean,” said Weed, who heads up Sustainable Rossmoor’s Trash Talk Committee. She helped write the Rossmoor Recycle Guide published as part of the Rossmoor 2021 phone book, and she wishes more Rossmoor residents took recycling more seriously.

An area of general agreement, however, is the fewer plastic bags and other soft plastics used at all, the better, even though Lam said plastic bags are only a tiny percentage of the recyclables collected by Republic. Sometimes called “waste prevention” or “source reduction,” using fewer plastics in the first place helps avoid the problems associated with down recycling markets and finding added room in landfills.

“We support zero waste,” Weed said. “I would still rather put things in recycle than have things go to the landfill … but if a person is going to choose between using a plastic bag or a cloth bag, we would recommend the cloth.”