Santa Cruz Good Times

Tuesday
Sep 23rd
Text size
  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

The Secret Life of Plastic

news-2One GT reporter tracks the journey of plastic bottles through the recycling system
Forty-one Earth Days after the recycling movement of 1970 birthed the three R’s—“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”—Good Times set out to trace the journey of a metaphorical bottle as it makes its way through the modern recycling process.

The pursuit of this symbolic plastic bottle uncovers the challenges and goals of the recycling system, and what role the City of Santa Cruz’s roughly 60,000 residents, and their 949 pounds of waster per person, per year (according to the 2010 Community Assessment Project Report), play in the process.

 

“Often people throw something ‘away,’ and don’t know where it’s going,” says Craig Pearson, superintendent of Waste Disposal for the City of Santa Cruz. “I know exactly where it’s going,” he adds, pointing toward the dump, its location denoted by circling ravens and gulls. “There’s no such thing as ‘away’—that’s away.”

Recycling Faux Pas
The plastic bottle’s recycling voyage begins before it enters the blue bin. Many of the best curbside intentions go to waste—literally—due to improper recycling procedures. For example, a particularly soiled bottle—say, one covered in sticky soda remnants—is unlikely to be recycled when it reaches the facilities. Instead, an orange-vested, ear-plugged assembly-line employee will pick it from a conveyor belt that clangs through a million-dollar mechanism called a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) and toss it into a hip-side trashcan.

If the bottle is wrapped inside a single, loose-flying plastic bag, it will probably not get recycled either.

According to Paul Soderstrom, collection supervisor for the City of Santa Cruz, removing items from plastic wrapping and bagging loose plastic bags are the most commonly disregarded, and potentially most important, steps residents can take to aid the recycling process.

“Many people found out they can now recycle plastic bags and began doing it improperly,” says Soderstrom. “Plastic bags should all be tied into one bag, and any film plastic should be removed from items like cardboard boxes.”

Back at the city’s Resource Recovery Facility plant, Pearson gestures toward a worker removing a cardboard box full of Styrofoam peanuts from a bin full of supposed recyclables. “When people are lazy about how they recycle, it’s costly to us, and it’s costly to them,” says Pearson.

The city recycling program is not funded by tax dollars—it sustains itself via costs built into residential garbage bills and marketing of its products. Burying trash in a dump, however, has both short and long-term costs.

“We have this garbage filling in our dump, we have to pay to manage the landfill and it’s really expensive to manage a landfill,” says Pearson.

Born Again Plastics

If our plastic bottle makes it through the sorting process and is successfully recycled, it will become part of a giant block of plastics resembling a hay bale. It will then be shipped to a broker who will sell it to a plastics-recycling company.

If our bottle does not become 10-to-20 percent of a new plastic bottle, a plastic-fiber bench, or a fleece jacket, there is a good chance our bottle will live out its afterlife as a carpet.

“A lot of carpet, for example this green carpet [in the County Building], is made from old bottles,” says Jefferey Smedberg, Recycling Programs coordinator for Santa Cruz County, who has worked in waste management for more than two decades. “Bottles are also used to make plastic fibers.”

Reduce, Reuse: the Plastics Problem

Pearson says it is better not to purchase our plastic bottle in the first place.

“My advice on using plastics is: Don’t,” says Pearson, who suggests screening the film Bag It for a comprehensive, realistic depiction of the effects of plastic consumption.

Plastics are the most difficult so-called-recyclable item to market and recycle. Recycling is difficult because the waste stream contains a mix of plastics with different properties. Separating different plastics or finding uses for mixed plastics are major recycling challenges.

“Plastic is a finite resource, and is not renewable,” says Pearson. “It starts with the decision when you go to the store—It means asking yourself, ‘Do I really need a 24-pack of individually packaged nuts?’ If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.”

Smedberg says it is also important to remember the most essential “R’s”: reduce

and reuse.

“For example, to reuse a water bottle would be of higher value, and even better is to use a drinking fountain, so you wouldn’t have to reuse—you’d reduce,” he says.

The city has invested substantial energy and effort on landfill diversion. In 1987, state law AB 939 set up diversion goals of 50 percent by the year 2000. All the local recycling jurisdictions now surpass this goal. However trash volume remains high.

Smedberg says what’s needed now is a shift in the way people think about waste and consumption.

“The first directive, to reduce, challenges a basic tenet of our capitalist economy, which is [to] consume,” he says.

Though there is always room for improvement, according to Soderstrom recycling has steadily grown in Santa Cruz for 20 years.

“There were times where you would drive Columbia Street, which is 11 blocks long, and … you wouldn’t pick up a single item of recycling,” Paul Soderstrom says. “Now we pick up at almost every house. Our landfill belongs to [the citizens]. ... The recycling programs are for and by citizens of the city—we work for them, they’re the ones making the program work.”

 


 

For more information on ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, and to find out how to properly recycle on the curbside, City of Santa Cruz residents can visit cityofsantacruz.com’s Recycling and Waste Reduction page. The page includes an accessible, printable PDF sheet of proper recycling methods.

Be a part of the discussion. Comment on this article below or send to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Comments (1)Add Comment
What happens between point c and point y?
written by Archie Ferris, April 21, 2011
Nice that we track the bottle to the broker, but what happens between broker and park bench?

Where does that bale of plastic bottles go when it leaves Santa Cruz? How does it get there?

What happens then? All of the interesting stuff happens after it's been sorted and baled, obviously, because we never hear about it.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

busy
 

Share this on your social networks

Bookmark and Share

Share this

Bookmark and Share

 

Catwalk on the Wild Side

Meet the artists and designers behind this year’s edition of FashionART, SantaCruz’s most outrageous fashion show

 

The New Tech Nexus

Community leaders in science and technology unite to form web-based networking program

 

Watch List

From Google to the government to data brokers, why your privacy is now a thing of the past

 

The Peace Equation

Sunday is the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, a global peace-building day when nations, leaders, governments, communities and individuals are invited to end conflict, cease hostilities, creat 24 hours of non-violence and promote goodwill. Monday is Autumn equinox as the Sun enters Libra (right relations with all of life). The Soul Year now begins. We work in the dark part of the year (Persephone underground) preparing for the new light of winter solstice. Tuesday to Wednesday is the Virgo new moon festival. We know two things about peace. “The absence of war does not signify peace.” And “Peace is an ongoing process.” In its peace-building emphasis, the UNIDP, through education, attempts to create a “culture of peace, understanding and tolerance”. Esoterically we are reminded of the peace equation: “Intentions for goodwill (and acting upon this intention) create right relations with all earth’s kingdoms which create (the ongoing process of) peace on earth.” At noon on Sunday, in all time zones, millions of participating groups will observe a moment of silence for peace on earth. Bells will ring, candles will be lit, and doves released as the New Group of World Servers recite the Great Invocation (humanity’s mantram of direction). To connect with others around the world see www.cultureofpeace.org    Let us join together with the mother (Virgo). Goodwill to all, let peace prevail on earth. The dove is the symbol for the day.
Sign up for Good Times weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, events

RSS Feed Burner

 Subscribe in a reader

Latest Comments

 

Sweet Treats

Local cannabis bakers win award for cookies

 

What fashion trends do you want to see, or not see?

Santa Cruz  |  High School Guidance Counselor

 

Best of Santa Cruz County

The 2013 Santa Cruz County Readers' Poll and Critics’ Picks It’s our biggest issue of the year, and in it, your votes—more than 6,500 of them—determined the winners of The Best of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll. New to the long list of local restaurants, shops and other notables that captured your interest: Best Beer Selection, Best Locally Owned Business, Best Customer Service and Best Marijuana Dispensary. In the meantime, many readers were ever so chatty online about potential new categories. Some of the suggestions that stood out: Best Teen Program and Best Web Design/Designer. But what about: Dog Park, Church, Hotel, Local Farm, Therapist (I second that!) or Sports Bar—not to be confused with Bra. Our favorite suggestion: Best Act of Kindness—one reader noted Café Gratitude and the free meals it offered to the Santa Cruz Police Department in the aftermath of recent crimes. Perhaps some of these can be woven into next year’s ballot, so stay tuned. In the meantime, enjoy the following pages and take note of our Critics’ Picks, too, beginning on page 91. A big thanks for voting—and for reading—and an even bigger congratulations to all of the winners. Enjoy.  -Greg Archer, EditorBest of Santa Cruz County Readers’ Poll INDEX

 

Santa Clara Wine Trail

My memories of growing up in England include my mother pouring port after Sunday dinner—and sometimes a glass of sherry before dinner. My family didn’t drink much wine back then, but we certainly made up for it with the port and sherry.