The Recycling Update is an annual event hosted by the Northern California Recycling Association. It's a much anticipated event for recycling and composting nerds like myself. This year, it was hosted virtually October 5-6.
1. Compostable foodware isn't always composted
Talk: Are Compostable Products Being Composted? by Leslie Lukacs (Zero Waste Sonoma)
While laws are going in place to require compostable to-go-ware, and eco-minded restaurants are voluntarily choosing those products, the collection and processing is complicated. Lukacs collaborated with a Compostable Products Stakeholder Group to gather input from product manufacturers, industry consultants, soil scientists, government, businesses, compost associations, compostable resin manufacturers, plastic experts, and a solid waste hauler. Unfortunately, compostable product don’t always compost, they look an awful lot like plastic leading to contamination issues, they hurt resale quality for organic farmers, they're often coated with PFAS which are linked to human health issues, they increase costs, and they can have a heavy environmental footprint. Look for BPI certified compostables which are certified PFAS-free and guaranteed to break down in commercial composting in 3-6 months. Even better, avoid single-use and choose to reuse.
2. Recyclers want you to recycle less
Talk: National Sword’s Impact on the El Cerrito Recycling Center by Laurenteen Brazil (City of El Cerrito)
Brazil spoke about the National Sword’s Impact on the El Cerrito Recycling Center, a unique community resource accepting difficult-to-recycle items. Recycling used to be a commodity until May 2019 when they had to start paying for recycling. She emphasized the importance of public education. The public needs to know how markets really work; there is not a market for hard plastic and plastic film. When shopping, reduce single-use plastics and avoid buying new plastic-rich electronics. Shop used. Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center, leads the collection of residential waste in Berkeley, CA and shares a similar sentiment as Brazil. Bourque and this team conduct community education programs and webinars to educate the community about difficult-to-recycle plastics. It seems counterintuitive that recycling collectors would encourage less recycling, but many plastics simply do not have a resale market and they are more costly to handle than they're worth.
3. California is serious about plastic reduction
Talk: Fighting Plastic Pollution: California Legislative Efforts by Genevieve Abedon (Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition / Ecoconsult)
The Clean Seas Lobbying Coalition members is comprised of 11 non-profit organizations in CA who are dedicated to plastic pollution solutions, specifically with an emphasis on source reduction. She listed countless lobbying wins in the CA Senate and Assembly. Their next steps are to fix CA’s Bottle Bill, solve for microplastics in cigarette filters, and focus on the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act which reduces the amount of plastic pollution. This act proposes charging corporate plastic manufacturers a penny tax on its single-use plastic packages. These fees will fund environmental restoration. Progress has been postponed due to 2020 chaos, but the signatures have been collected and it may be up for voting on the 2022 ballot.
4. Reuse in food service is the future
Talk: Bringing Reuse Into Food Service Through Policy and Business Innovation by Miriam Gordon (Upstream)
Gordon spoke about bringing reuse policies and innovations into food service. Upstream leads local coalitions, supports reuse coalitions in the United States, and feeds NGOs and government. She advocates flipping the current system on its head. Instead of recycling as the primary means, followed by composting, reduction, and reuse, she supports changing how products are delivered. In this zero waste model, reduction is the primary means, followed by reuse and refill. Recycling is the absolute last option.
5. A new CA law has food recovery at the forefront
Talk: SB 1383 Model Tools Overview by Monaliza Noor (HF&H Consultants)
Noor gave an overview of SB-1383 model tools. This is a California law that establishes methane emissions reduction targets to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants. If we meet the goals, Greenhouse Gases (GHG) will be reduced by 8 million metric tons by 2030. The timeline looks like this:
✲ 2020: 50% reduction in landfilled organic waste
✲ 2022: Regulations take effect. We can expect to have more organics collection provided to residents & businesses, an edible food recovery program, education & outreach, more recovered organic waste products, and a plan for capacity.
✲ 2025: 75% reduction in landfilled organic waste
✲ 2025: 25% recovery of currently disposed edible food for human consumption
6. Supermarkets are reducing waste
Talk: Reduce and Rescue Oakland’s Surplus Food by Wanda Redic (City of Oakland, CA)
Redic spoke about her work on reducing and rescuing Oakland’s surplus food. This supports SB-1383, a California law that establishes methane emissions reduction targets to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants. Safeway, Kroger, and Albertsons are voluntarily participating in a 1-year pilot program. Their participation is partly motivated by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal, which is aiming to do all this by 2030:
✲ Halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels. Reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.
✲ Substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling, and reuse.
7. Recycling is rewarding
Talk: Recycling Rewards: Recycling Incentive Contest by Derek Crutchfield (City of Vallejo, CA)
Crutchfield runs a recycling rewards contest in the City of Vallejo. It’s an interesting model for community outreach, as it incentivizes proper waste separation. Residents are encouraged to recycle properly in exchange for a chance to win free garbage service. He finds it to be a great way to promote proper recycling and reduce contamination, plus customers look forward to it. On the flip side, businesses and multi-family complexes rarely participate., and it's difficult to find a winner due to lots of recycling flubs.
8. Food recovery improves communities
Talk: Transforming Wasted Food Recovery In A Small Rural County by Michael Bisch (Yolo Food Bank in California)
At Yolo Food Bank, food is diverted from landfills and redistributed to those in need. The food bank is a wholesale provider of foods to non-profit partners who distribute the food to the community. It's the largest non-profit in Yolo county. Almost half of Yolo County residents are struggling to make ends meet; they earn less than they need to cover basic household expenses. Food insecurity impacts individuals, families, and communities. Households are financially stressed and families and individuals experience homelessness. They have poorer health and wellness, elevated rates of mental illness, increased drug and alcohol abuse, poor educational outcomes, and higher crime rates. Bisch applauded SB-1383 for opening doors to new opportunities, including a $500,000 CalRecycle food rescue grant, a $500,000 matching grant from the county, new food donors resulting in an additional 1.1-2 million pounds of rescued food annually, and a partnership with CalRecycle to help other communities implement similar plans, as a pilot to be duplicated statewide.
9. Buildings are going zero waste for health and the environment
Talk: Update on Recycling, Circular Economy, and Embodied Carbon in LEED v4.1 by Wes Sullens (U.S. Green Building Council)
Sullens provided an update on LEED v4.1. You may have seen a LEED plaque on a building at some point. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and it's a rating system for buildings. Rated on a 1-100 scale, buildings are certified silver, gold, or platinum. LEED is focused on low-carbon, healthy, and circular outcomes. Low-carbon means a reuse of buildings and materials, whole building lifecycle analysis, environmental product declarations, and optimized low-carbon materials. The health rating looks for low-emitting materials, a chemical disclosure, green chemistry optimization, and ecosystem health. It's not just acute health; it's the health of people AND the ecosystem of how it’s created. The circular rating focuses on building reuse and salvage, recycling and recycled content, extended producer responsibility, and bio-based and sustainably harvested materials.
10. Stormwater is a fascinating pollution vector
Talk: What do Stormwater and Zero Waste have in Common? by Peter Schultze-Allen (EOA, Inc.)
Schultze-Allen spoke about the intersection of stormwater and zero waste. For litter, reduce consumption and properly dispose of waste. In landscaping, add bioretention gardens that use soil, plants, and microbes to treat stormwater before it is discharged. On roadways, install pavers that last three times longer than asphalt. Pavers use gravel in joints, and water goes in the joints. In buildings, require testing and remediation of PCBs before demolition. In products, choose BPI compostable foodware which does not allow PFAS/fluorinated chemicals. For soil, support composting programs and soil erosion prevention. Caltrans has successfully used compost filter berms and blankets to stop soil erosion. A compost filter berm is a “log” of compost that is placed perpendicular to the flow of runoff, to control erosion.
When it comes to smoking, properly dispose of waste and advocate for smoking cessation. California proposed legislation SB 424 would reduce smoking-related pollution.
11. Trash is being detected by drones
Talk: Accelerating Trash Detection in the SF Bay Area using Advanced Technology by Tony Hale (San Francisco Estuary Institute, Aquatic Science Center)
Hale's team uses drones to identify and detect trash using a model in Oracle cloud. This systematic way of monitoring trash is more efficient than manual monitoring methods. Drones are aerial, and therefore get into places humans cannot. While drones have limitations and privacy concerns, they provide additional information to take action on pollution. Up next, his team will refine the neural network by improving the training, improving the confidence intervals, and addressing challenging “scenes”. Is a bike in the street a usable bike? Is a bike in a field trash? They're also developing a cigarette butt detector and will continue to explore a “plastic detector” using a hyper-spectral optical sensor. I wish I could explain that last one, but it's over my head.
12. Recycling without recyclers is garbage
Talk: Wastepickers: Key Agents for Zero Waste Cities by Magdalena Donoso (Gaia)
Donoso spoke about the importance of wastepickers in Latin America & the Caribbean. Gaia is a worldwide alliance of people advocating for a just, toxic-free world without incineration. In Buenos Aires and Catalina, wastepicker cooperatives are key players in the cities’ official recycling program. A 2001 economic crisis in Catalina spurred thousands of people to organize and register as recyclers. At the end of each day, each bag is weighed and the collector gets paid for the price of the recovered materials, minus a portion that covers the wages of the material processors. On average, 2.4-2.7 tons are collected per month per recycler.
In some cities, wastepicker rights are limited, and Donoso argues this hurts human rights. “Recycling without recyclers is garbage” Steps for recognition include: recognizing their work as a public service, facilitating access to formal recycling markets, and recognizing them as environmental agents who educate and encourage citizens about zero waste.
13. Street cleaning leads to outcomes beyond the obvious
Talk: I Clean the Streets, Because I’m from the Streets: How to Use Environmentalism as a Vehicle to End Homelessness by Julia Lang (Downtown Streets Team)
Lang spoke about how to use environmentalism as a vehicle to help people experiencing homelessness. Downtown Streets engages unhoused and people at-risk of homelessness to voluntarily improve the environment. In return, they join a community that helps build their skills, sense of self-worth, and access to life-sustaining resources. They receive a basic needs stipend, support, and management. This has lead to 1,012 people housed, with an average of 6 months until housed. 1,040 people have gained employment for 90+ days, with an average wage of $14.26. This leads to a taxable income of $1,529,477. They have removed 10.1 million gallons of debris, including 611,000 cigarette butts and 99,751 needles. A team member survey showed several more positive outcomes; 96% stated an overall increase in their self-worth; 99% were proud to be a team member and give back to their community; 84% now have health insurance; 67% are now engaged with mental health treatment; 73% are using less alcohol or drugs; and 96% report positive health outcomes due to their involvement with DST.