Where does Recycling Really go?

Imagine a mountain of trash piling up in a warehouse, a conveyor belt in the ceiling delivering a constant snowfall of discarded materials mostly plastics. Like magic, an endless supply of plastics dropped starting as a small pile growing to an overwhelming mountain only moveable by large trucks.  

That is the scene you walk into when entering San Mateo and San Francisco Recology recycling and composting site in San Carlos, CA. Recology is a private recycling company hired by the county of San Mateo and San Francisco to collect and recycle the residences trash. Rethink Waste is a government agency who oversees the cities waste. South Bay recycling handles the treatments and the landfill in Half Moon Bay, CA on the coast. 

You can visit the recycling facility for weekly tours. The tour demonstration of what kind of items can go into each bin: composting, recycling, and the smallest bin trash. A surprisingly large portion of the tour was dedicated to everyone’s misinformant of what goes into which bin. One woman asked about “recycling bags” which are blue bags designed to hold recycled materials, the rethink waste employee leading the tour, “mam you’re recycling most likely goes to landfill if it in a plastic bag” the women turned to the crowd I have been using these for ten years.

The employee had to cut off our questions which like the plastic raining from the ceiling seemed to be in endless supply. The group felt a little uneasy at this point in time. I suspect that there was a general assumption that going on this tour might inspire hope that recycling was real and better. This illusion was shattered pretty quickly. We have one of the best recycling in the state, and I kept racking my brain, is this the best we can do? I was angry. I even felt lied to. 

“How in the world are we supposed to know all these rules?” One woman in the group asked rhetorically to the group, “we are the proactive ones. We’re here. We want to recycle, but we don’t even know how.” It’s true the Bay Area is a place of innovation, a place where people are progressive and look to the future with excitement. We embrace the disruption. If there’s a place where recycling should be working its a place like San Francisco. So what’s going on? 

The problem is not our recycling programs. These facilities do a pretty good at sorting and they take all recycling materials 1 through 7. It’s not our recycling that failing us, its that there really isn’t a market for recycled materials. No one is buying these plastics. No one wants them. It is infinitely cheaper for companies to buy virgin materials rather than deal with the processing and degraded quality of recycled materials. 

I confess seeing the trash come in I found it oddly beautiful. The bright colorful packaging is attractive, and all the familiar brands pass to move around on the conveyor belts as if they are floating around me. Watching them pass under my feet, a bleak saddest set in my chest. I thought of everything I have ever put into a wastebasket ending up here. Leaving the facility that day, I felt robbed, defeated, hopeless and overwhelmed. I wanted to curl up in a ball and let the snowfall of trash cover me up.

I am so in love with this world. It’s a beautiful place full of wondrous animals, and incredible nature, and people. I love being a part of humanity. But this world is sick, our oceans are dying, our forests are shrinking, our animals are disappearing, all for the sake of products and consumption that all end up in a place like Recology. 

But it does not have to be that way. I envision a world in which new products must be made from used materials where companies build waste into their business models where sustainability is the default. We need to encourage our businesses to use recycled materials. Healing will take a global effort. Sustainability is a new concept to our companies, but now it is the only business model that will succeed in the future. 

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