As part of our work in the water and waste workgroup for the Los Altos Green Ribbon Citizens Committee, some folks from GreenTown Los Altos had the opportunity to tour Norcal's state-of-the-art recycling facility and transfer station in San Francisco. Norcal is the parent company of Los Altos Garbage, which processes much of its waste and recycling closer to home at Newby Island Recyclery.
On that bright and sunny day a few weeks ago, 15 visitors stood with mouths agape at the sheer volume of recyclables. The transfer station – where Norcal processes waste destined for landfills, and food and yard wastes are slated for composting – evoked a similar response. It was simply not possible to leave the tour without feeling overwhelmed by the amount that we, as Americans, consume and throw away in our daily lives.
Furthermore, two myths were dispelled.
â€¢Â Myth No. 1 – We throw away garbage. It turns out that most of what we throw away can be recycled or composted. Approximately 70 percent of material that goes to landfills is organic waste and paper. In a landfill, these materials produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. A large percentage of the remaining 30 percent of waste is recoverable – plastic, metal, glass, and construction and demolition debris.
â€¢Â Myth No. 2 – Our recyclables get recycled. Although Los Altos Garbage collects a wide range of materials at curbside, not all of them are recycled. Recycling depends on the market for the end product.
Typically, approximately 85 percent of plastics are recycled – primarily No. 1 and No. 2 plastics, with No. 2 being the most valuable. Plastics that do get recycled are often down-cycled into products that are not recyclable, such as pipes and picnic tables. Remaining waste is sent to landfills.
Blocks of Styrofoam go to landfills, even though they are accepted at curbside. Containers made from multiple layers of materials, such as milk cartons, juice boxes and juice bags, often meet a similar fate – here or in China.
So what can we do about it?
â€¢Â Get food out of the trash. Start backyard composting or try worm composting – children love it. Composting keeps food waste out of landfills and provides valuable nutrients for your soil (see The Green Life, Aug. 20 Town Crier).
â€¢Â Go paperless. Reduce the amount you print, and when you do, print double-sided.
â€¢Â Bring your own. When you're out and about, remember to bring your own bags, water bottle, coffee mug and take-out containers. Lots of options are available. For bags, I've discovered Chico Bags – chicobag.com – a bag within a bag. You can easily hook it on your belt loop or store several in your purse – they're that small.
â€¢Â Avoid packaging, or at the very least, plastic packaging, with the exception of No. 2 milk jugs, and packaging with several materials or layers, such as juice bags or milk cartons. Choose items packaged in reusable or returnable containers such as glass or recyclable materials, including paper and cardboard. Buy in bulk.
Margie Suozzo is a member of the GreenTown Los Altos leadership team and co-chairwoman of the Green Ribbon Citizens Committee subgroup on water and waste.