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Reduce, reuse ... recycle? Not all single-use plastics are created equally recyclable, and a new state law aims to make that clearer 

Plastic berry cartons from the supermarket. A clear coffee cup from Starbucks. Individually packaged yogurt containers. Can you put any of these common pieces of single-use plastic in your blue bin?

The answer is: not really.

In SLO County, and most other places, only No. 1 and 2 plastics can be recycled at the curbside. This is the number inside the "chasing arrows" recycle symbol that you'll find on the bottom of many single-use plastics, ranging from 1 to 7. But the symbol is largely misleading because it prompts consumers to think that anything with the triangle of arrows is recyclable.

click to enlarge SYMBOLIC ISSUE New legislation will hold plastic manufacturers accountable for the recycling symbols they use, but some say it doesn't get at the root of the problem. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • SYMBOLIC ISSUE New legislation will hold plastic manufacturers accountable for the recycling symbols they use, but some say it doesn't get at the root of the problem.

A good rule of thumb is that recyclable No. 1 and 2 plastics are anything with a bottleneck: plastic water bottles, milk jugs, empty laundry detergent containers, and soda bottles, for example. But there's a lot of other plastic that commonly ends up in the wrong bin.

Take the clamshell plastic cartons that strawberries or blueberries come packaged in at the supermarket, for instance. Made of bendy, clear plastic, these containers might look recyclable. But when the cartons get crushed, they break into many small plastic shards, making it impossible to process them, said ECOSLO Executive Director Mary Ciesinski.

"There's seven different codes for plastics. That has been really confusing for consumers," Ciesinski said. "The chasing arrow symbol has been more of a marketing scheme than it has been an actual designation that a product is recyclable. ... We see the recycling symbol and it's been kind of ingrained to us as humans, if there's a recycling symbol on it, it's recyclable. But it's really not the case."

Clearing up confusion

Legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in early October aims to clear up some of the confusion around plastics. It prohibits manufacturers from putting the recycling symbol on products that aren't recyclable under California's definitions.

"I think holding manufacturers accountable is a really good step in the right direction, and it has to happen at that level because just one city or one county banning things or putting ordinances in place [isn't enough]," Ciesinski said. "It has to happen upstream."

Jordan Lane, solid waste and recycling coordinator with the city of San Luis Obispo's Recycling Program, explained why local policy doesn't make much of an impact on the system at large.

"[The state legislation] is going to be hugely impactful because if we were to make that change at the local level, it wouldn't necessarily affect manufacturers because there isn't much manufacturing in the city of San Luis Obispo. It's happening at the state level," Lane said. "It can really have a huge impact on how people understand recycling."

The new law basically stops manufacturers from using the recycling symbol as a marketing ploy, in turn clearing up public confusion around what actually goes into the blue bin.

An unsustainable product

But, some point out, such legislative changes don't necessarily get at the root of the problem: Single-use plastics are largely unrecyclable—and even those that are will never become a plastic bottle again.

click to enlarge IN THE BLUE BIN No. 1 and 2 plastics are recyclable in SLO County. A good rule of thumb for what falls into these categories are items with bottlenecks, including plastic water bottles, milk jugs, empty laundry detergent, and soda bottles. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • IN THE BLUE BIN No. 1 and 2 plastics are recyclable in SLO County. A good rule of thumb for what falls into these categories are items with bottlenecks, including plastic water bottles, milk jugs, empty laundry detergent, and soda bottles.

Aaron Gomez, a former SLO City Council member and previous Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA) board member, said "recycle" isn't really an accurate word to describe what happens to single-use plastics, even when they're properly disposed of.

"We don't recycle plastics," Gomez said. "We downcycle plastics. ... They get turned into carpets, they get turned into jackets. But guess what you can't recycle: The carpet or the jacket when it gets to its end of life. So it's literally a one-time downcycle process."

And even as California implements laws like the recycling symbol regulations, the state simultaneously makes it harder for people to recycle in other ways, Gomez said. He gave the example of rePLANET, a private recycling company that closed down in 2019.

"The CRV [California Redemption Value] that every single person has to pay when you get a recyclable bottle, that goes to the state and the state is supposed to also collect it from manufacturers, because the 10 cents goes back to whoever turns in the bottles," he said. "The state is supposed to take the excess funds and the funds they collect from manufacturers and give that out to rePLANET to pay for the cost of them being in business."

But in the years leading up to rePLANET's closure, Gomez said, California wasn't repaying the company fast enough, and the amount of money was inadequate for the business to operate sustainably.

"So the state let rePLANET close their doors," he said. "To me, the state completely blundered the use of CRV and hasn't filled that void, and is leaving it up to local jurisdictions to try to figure that out."

Historically, individual businesses that sell recyclable bottles also had an obligation to take them back, and the state could even issue fines if a business failed to do so.

"When this whole pandemic happened, they just stopped issuing those fines, and now you can go into some grocery stores or liquor stores and they'll have a little sign up there, 'We only take six bottles at a time,'" Gomez said. "People used to collect bags and bags, hundreds of bottles at a time. So now that whole thing is stopped."

These shifts affect more than the recycling industry. They also impact the people who relied on CRV money from turning in bottles: namely, people experiencing homelessness.

5Cities Homeless Coalition Marketing and Communications Coordinator Aidan Beals said that a fairly small subset of his organization's clients use bottle turn-in to make money. But for those who do, recent shifts only make things more difficult.

"It's gotten a lot harder for them," Beals said. "As it's slowly become less and less available, and worth less and less ... it already was not super worth it for most folks."

If it's someone's only source of income, though, they may not have another option, Beals added.

Gomez said economic unsustainability doesn't just plague private recycling centers: It's a fundamental problem that disincentivizes governments and jurisdictions from investing in recycling technology.

"Cost runs at the heart of this entire operation. The whole process of recycling, it's really based on commodity markets and processing costs," Gomez said. "We've tried to get around that through mechanization, but that still comes at a massive cost."

Legislative loopholes

On top of these barriers, Gomez said there are some major loopholes in some of California's so-called anti-plastic legislation.

"The plastic bag ban is a prime example of loopholes being built into a policy, which made us as the public think that we were doing something," Gomez said. "The industry itself threatened lawsuits against both the state and local jurisdictions that [banned plastic bags], basically forcing within that policy a definition of thickness of plastic bag."

Under the legislation, if a plastic bag is thick enough to be considered "reusable," it's still allowed.

"Even if you call something a reusable bag, that doesn't make it a reusable bag," Gomez said.

Recycling plastic bags of any thickness is too costly, so "what we took as a goal of reducing plastic, you now ended up with a ton of single-use plastic that was thicker than the original single-use bags," he said.

Make change

click to enlarge RULES OF RECYCLING Yogurt containers like this one, contrary to popular belief, cannot go in SLO County recycling bins: It's a No. 5 plastic. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • RULES OF RECYCLING Yogurt containers like this one, contrary to popular belief, cannot go in SLO County recycling bins: It's a No. 5 plastic.

From Gomez's perspective, real change will require a lot more than loophole-ridden, corporate-influenced legislation.

"This is a massive undertaking, and we keep doing these little symbolic policy shifts, when it's like, no, we need a truly life-shifting change," Gomez said, "and within the next decade."

Ciesinski from ECOSLO said that change starts at the grocery store.

"When you're shopping at Target, or wherever, you're choosing to either get soda in plastic bottles, or soda in aluminum cans," she said. "It's not like, 'Oh, I got home, what do I do with these products?' You're choosing at the store."

The bottom line is, while recycled glass bottles and aluminum cans can be remade into the same packaging over and over again, plastics can't.

"We need to figure out, as humans, how to better manage the resources that we're using," Ciesinski said. "We know that plastics are ending up in our air, they're ending up in our waters. ... They're ending up in humans. People should be caring about this, because it's affecting humanity." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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