Is recycling still worth it?

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, warns against the doomsday hype that recycling is dead.

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, warns against the doomsday hype that recycling is dead.

Photo courtesy of Californians Against Waste

If you believe the doom-and-gloom stories, recycling is a bust as a way to help save the planet. It’s pretty pointless to sort out bottles, paper and plastic and roll your blue bin to the curb.

Don’t believe the “end of recycling” hype, says Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “It’s completely exaggerated,” he says.

Yet, “the ‘state of crisis’ perception is good for us from an advocacy standpoint,” he adds.

His group is behind much of California’s progress in recycling, and it has plenty of work ahead: As we get ready to celebrate Earth Day on April 22, the numbers are headed in the wrong direction.

In 2011, a new state law set an ambitious goal: By 2020 to recycle at least 75 percent of the 77.2 million tons of waste Californians produce each year.

But in 2017, the recycling rate was 42 percent, continuing a decline from a peak of 50 percent in 2014, according to CalRecycle.

Murray says that while commercial and industrial recycling is successful, the problem is residential recycling, especially of “mixed plastics,” including plastic-coated milk cartons and take-out food containers.

Part of the trouble is that despite our best intentions, we’re not that great at recycling. About one-fourth of what is put in bins is contaminated and has to be sorted out. The city of Sacramento is trying to educate residents on what they should not try to recycle—a long list that includes paper with plastic coating and plastic bags.

It’s more important for consumers not to buy these non-recyclable products in the first place, Murray says. That would cut the demand, then the priority is to reduce the supply by limiting production of non-recyclable materials.

We’ve been lulled into thinking that all sorts of products can be recycled because they were shipped to Asia, where cheap labor sorted it, Murray says. But last year, China started rejecting mixed paper and most plastics. California’s exports of recyclables have dropped by 11 percent in the last three years, which is also making recycling more expensive for local governments.

CalRecycle says there needs to be a new approach to make recycling work. Murray agrees, and says “plastic is at the root of it,” which is why it’s his group’s focus.

In California, less than 15 percent of single-use plastic is recycled, even though voters agreed in November 2016 to ban single-use plastic bags at most stores and legislators voted last year to restrict plastic straws at restaurants.

So Californians Against Waste is supporting far more sweeping legislation: Senate Bill 54/Assembly Bill 1080, which would require businesses to reduce or recycle at least 75 percent of single-use plastic packaging or products by 2030.

On March 27, the European Parliament set the global benchmark by banning 10 single-use plastics—including plates, straws, forks and food containers—by 2021.

It’s far from the end of recycling in California, but it sure wouldn’t hurt to get a similar boost. If you care about this issue, it’s time to give your legislator a shout.