Rachel Wagoner has been the director of CalRecycle for two years, but she has worked for two decades in environmental policy including time in the legislative office of the governor. She grew up as one of six children and her family had a strong waste-not-want-not ethic. She feels as though modern society has lost that sort of awareness even through something as simple as having wheels on our trash cans so we can easily move even heavy loads. The reality is that our society generates vast amounts of waste that goes to landfills – the equivalent of around 272 large trash bags per Californian per year.
The US has been striving to recycle some of this waste since the 1960s – take for instance the long-term slogan “its good for the bottle, its good for the can.” There was a major setback in 2018 when China discontinued its role as a low cost sorting service for waste. Even so, the 1,260 certified centers that execute California’s Beverage Container Recycling Program do a relatively good job recycling its citizen’s single use bottles: 66% of the 13.7 billion made of #1 PET, 53% of the 187 million #2 made of HDPE, 25% of the 5.3 million made of #5 PP and 20% of the 202.8 million made of #6 PS
California’s current governor, Gavin Newsom, wants to move society even further towards a circular economy and that agenda has been advanced through legislation. SB 54 puts the responsibility for recycling on the producer of the product with some targets kicking in by 2032 (25% reduction in plastic packaging. 65% recycling of single-use packages and/or 100% of single-use package being either recyclable or compostable). SB1383 requires that “organics” going to the landfill be reduced to 5.7 million metric tons by 2025, 75% below the 2014 baseline.
At one level these goals are “aspirational” and might be seen as an example of “California Dreamin?” (By the way, the 1965 hit song by that name was the music career launch for the Mamas and Papas). The laws don’t come with specific guidance about how these goals are to be achieved – leaving that kind of innovation to companies that wish to sell into the CA market and to the various trash hauling and processing entities throughout the state. The expectation is that California will in fact end up influencing the rest of the country and even the world through the advancements that it is driving. There are historical precedents for that kind of impact such as the vehicle tailpipe emissions standards the state has been unilaterally instituting since the 1970s.
There are state funds helping with this transition including $180 million for local food waste recycling programs and $29 million to support non-profits that recover potential retail or restaurant food waste and turn that into meals for the poor. There is also a major effort at consumer education since that is often the weak link in functional waste sorting. Ever since 2018 when China discontinued its role as a low cost sorting service for waste, many US consumers have good intentions when it comes to recycling, but end up doing something that has been called “wishcycling” which is putting something in the recycling bin and hoping it will be recycled, even if there is little evidence to confirm this assumption. In an effort to counteract this issue, the Irecyclesmart.com website gives location-specific guidance about how to properly sort truly recyclable items from waste. Local waste handlers are doing education as well – for instance letting people know that they shouldn’t bag their food waste even in “compostable bags” because in practice they really are not biodegraded.
The requirements of SB1383 around the handling of organic waste will require more capacity for composting. An even better solution is anaerobic digestion that can generate renewable energy from the waste. Perhaps in the future food waste could be dealt with using insect-based conversion to petfood or animal feed.
So back to CalRecycle director Rachel Wagoner. She believes that progress is being made and that this very difficult problem is in fact solvable. It is certainly going to require a great deal of industry innovation, but also a mindset shift by the population as a whole. Hopefully a new “waste-not” ethic can arise as part of general Climate Change awareness and activism. (BTW when those Valentine’s Day flowers get too old, they should go in the Green Waste).