Re-examining recycling

Our green city’s gray areas

Recycling- and transfer-station workers mine Sacramento’s trash. Only 17 percent of the items we recycle belong here.

Recycling- and transfer-station workers mine Sacramento’s trash. Only 17 percent of the items we recycle belong here.

During my college years in Seattle, recycling was a source of extreme tension in our neo-hippie household. Is this waxed soy milk carton even recyclable? Why the f#@$ do I see Styrofoam in our bin? Oh no you didn’t forget to rinse out that tofu container! After each item had been removed from our bin, waved about, cursed at and put back, we made our weekly offering to the curb, unsure if our (vegetarian) pizza box would be clean enough to see reincarnation.

When a similar (but more polite) discussion surfaced in my Sacramento life, I realized that the recycling debate is universal. Every city mails out recycling guidelines with simplified bullet points that easily are misinterpreted.

Armed with readers’ questions and a few of my own, I strapped on a hard hat and goggles for an afternoon with Kurt Standen, general manager of the Sacramento Recycling and Transfer Station. I wanted to know our city’s recycling gray areas, and help turn them back to green.

Viewed through a soundproof office window, the material-recovery facility at our city’s recycling station is magical. It’s an elevated series of Willy Wonka-esque belts and chutes, with recyclables fluttering toward the bins below like a candy-colored snowfall.

It’s an environment of purposeful, controlled chaos. Over a dozen masked workers flank a conveyor belt, tossing detergent bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard and other unique recyclables into gated bins that resemble giant (but uncomfortable) bounce houses. The rest of the recyclables—glass and paper, mainly—move toward a screen of rotating discs, which cycle upward like a conveyor belt. The discs catch, crush and siphon glass into bins below. Paper and cardboard move into chutes where they are separated and pressed into 3-by-5-foot bales. Eventually, these bales are shipped to China and other faraway lands.

Both man (and woman) and machine work to ensure that Sacramento’s trash is separated from its recyclables. But the responsibility should start with the consumer.

Standen believes that Sacramento does a decent job of recycling. Only 17 percent of the items that we recycle actually belong in the trash. And most of that trash takes the form of classically misunderstood Styrofoam. You heard it here, folks: The city can’t recycle your packing peanuts.

Nor can it recycle your syringes. Standen said that he understands the misconception, as many insulin needles are made from recyclable materials. But the chemicals inside those needles can contaminate other recycled products, and the needles themselves are a hazard to the facility’s workers.

The city can’t recycle your ammunition, either. When a hand grenade came down the conveyor belt recently, the entire recycling operation was halted and the Sacramento police department was summoned. Fortunately, the grenade was a dummy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even recyclable.

The city can recycle your glass jelly jars, cardboard pizza boxes, used Tupperware and egg cartons—four items that frequently spark debate. But these items must be clean. Standen said that if an item is stained with or contains particles that can be “infested,” it’s no longer recyclable. In other words, if your pizza box has the smallest pepperoni stain or bell-pepper fragment, it’s garbage.

Another stumbling block for people is glass. Remember that window panes, mirrors, Pyrex (I knew you were too good to be true) and drinking glasses can’t be recycled. All other glass is fair game.

Sacramento gets high marks for recycling paper correctly. Plastic is another story. But it’s merely a tale of laziness.

According to Standen, the recyclable item most commonly trashed by Sacramentans is the plastic beverage bottle. He attributes this to a “convenience issue”; people drink water bottles and want to discard them in places where there aren’t recycling bins.

This is unfortunate. While our landfills won’t readily break down plastic, our recycling system easily will reinvent it. One man’s Sunny Delight (high-density polyethylene plastic) eventually is processed into another man’s house siding, lumber or playground structure. One woman’s Dasani refreshment (polyethylene terephthalate) becomes another woman’s shirt or carpet.

But this consumer laziness is more than a local issue. Over the past month, empty plastic beverage bottles have fluttered their way across streams and streets and into the national media’s green spotlight. It’s not pretty press, either, with New York encouraging and San Francisco outright demanding that its residents drink tap water instead of the bottled variety. All because consumers lack the patience to find a recycling bin.

When in doubt, don’t throw it out
Sacramento may be decent at recycling, but we’ve still got work to do. Portland, Ore., the nearby city that edged past Sacramento as a global green leader in the latest issue of Fast Company magazine, boasts a mere 4 percent trash content in the recyclables it takes in each day, according to senior recycling manager at Portland Metro, Steve Apotheker. The city of Portland, with recycling responsibility shared between six local companies, ”recovers” or recycles 53 percent of its total waste (a 2005 stat that includes composting and energy recovery). Sacramento recovers 30 percent of its total waste to date (a stat that excludes compost and energy recovery).

“Our material-recovery effort is primarily concerned with recyclables, while we do separate green wastes and municipal solid wastes for further processing ’downstream,’ be it at landfills or green-waste processing facilities,” said Standen.

Standen also said that two hours of every eight-hour day at the Recycling and Transfer Station are spent recovering recyclable items from the influx of municipal solid waste (trash).

A worker in a second-story control room takes a bird’s eye survey of the trash pile and alerts the team if a significant cluster of recyclables are present. A truck then transports this cluster of recyclables to the material-recovery facility, where it takes a ride through Willy Wonka’s “green” belt.

But those two hours a day can be lessened. Make our city’s recycling system smoother by educating yourself. Visit for clarification on what’s recyclable curbside. Visit and learn where nearly everything else, from microwaves to mercury thermometers, can be properly disposed.