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Guest Opinion: Recycling — a 'good deed' that punishes southeast Asia

Founder of Palo Alto's curbside recycling programs calls on city, state to rethink disposing, recycling practices

Recycling is one of the simple "good deeds" that we perform daily at home or work. The blue bins for recycling and green for compost are "good," and we celebrate as our discarded materials shift to the green and blue bins instead of the black bin.

Is this shift too good to be true? Have we really performed "good deeds"?


Bob Wenzlau
Palo Alto was a founder of "curbside" recycling to increase citywide participation and material recovery. The curbside recycling of the 1970s relied on discrete separations of glass, paper and metals into simple burlap bags. Palo Alto also started local collection of yard trimmings, which were sent to a local municipal composting center. In those days our recovery rate was lower, but the quality of the recovery was high. Paper, glass and metals were recycled domestically with many recovery facilities within California. The compost would be returned to our gardens, keeping these organic materials local.

Then the state shifted the goal from "recovery" to a broader goal of "waste diversion" from landfills. The waste-services industry streamlined "recycling" by creating material-recovery facilities that could do the sorting for you. Along the way, companies that produce consumer products merged papers with plastics and foils, and plastic variations multiplied — actions that complicated recovery.

The scale of these regional recovery and composting facilities — and the vehicles for collection — dwarfs the programs of the 1970s. While the recycling of the 1970s required more attention and work, the current recycling system has made our "good deed" seem easy.

But the near 90% diversion is achieved at the expense of recovery costs. Meanwhile, the relatively local footprint of recycling has shifted to global.

A key to this transformation has been Asia. During the 1990s, China was processing massive flows of mixed papers and plastics from American communities, and diversion objectives were being met. But processing those materials generated enormous pollution, so China recently stopped in 2017 accepting them as part of its environmental-improvement initiatives. Southeast Asian countries stepped in to take the materials created by China's pullback, but they lacked China's industrial processing scale, and materials soon were piling up in ports and communities. One representative country, Malaysia, imported about 400,000 tons of plastic waste from the U.S. in 2018 in comparison to 100,000 tons imported 2017.

Greenpeace's documentation of America's plastics shipped to southeast Asia gives a glimpse of who receives them. In a rural village, women and children are sorting piles of plastics, making the village vulnerable to fire and toxics. Other research reveals paper recycling and its treatment processes kill and color the rivers, and a vital community and natural resource is lost. Southeast Asian countries lack basic environmental enforcement that would prevent these dark scenarios.

Here is our challenge: How do we achieve "diversion" while preserving the effective "recovery" of the 1970s? We are basically in the dark. Palo Alto's waste-management company does not reveal the destination of materials to overseas markets. CalRecycle, the state agency overseeing diversion, does not enforce regulations that would ensure that materials sent to southeast Asia are actually recycled, or recycled to acceptable environmental and social standards. A shipper merely states "for the purpose of recycling" on shipped materials — no questions asked — and our city accomplishes its objective of waste diversion.

The irony is that the black bin may actually be "good": It contents' fate is known, while the blue bin's is unknown. A plastic or paper placed in the black bin will go to a regional landfill with the environmental impact kept in America, while the exported plastic or paper placed in the blue bin might create severe adverse impacts to unsophisticated communities in southeast Asia.

These circumstances offer simple principles to our city. A first principle is that Palo Alto's wastes should not impact any community in southeast Asia more adversely than locally acceptable environmental or social standard. A second principle is that when we do not know the social or environmental impact of our waste, we must presume that the impact is harmful rather than benign.

Applying the foregoing principles generates actions that our city should take. Given we know nothing of the impact of our discards shipped to southeast Asia, the city must presume them harmful, and thereby not acceptable inside our blue "recycling" bins. Some plastics should go in the blue bin — for Palo Alto residents, that's about 400 tons per year — for those plastics used domestically: the PET plastics (clear water bottles) and the HDPE plastics (cloudy plastic for beverages). The rest of the plastics, about 1,000 tons per year, should not be placed in the blue bin until Palo Alto finds an acceptable domestic recycler.

As for waste paper, Palo Alto residents generate 1,000 tons per year of corrugated cardboard that is recycled domestically; the remaining 6,000 tons per year of waste paper streams should not go in the blue bin until domestic recycling markets are established. The consequence of these principles is a lower diversion rate, which would drop from 90% to about 75%. This is a drop that would be honorable in that it protects the vulnerable communities of southeast Asia.

We also need change at the state level. California should accept and enforce "verified" recycling and not count shipments to an unknown end in southeast Asia as "diversion." California must also drive new recovery technology, as well as limit the complex packaging that has complicated recovery efforts. This request has been placed for consideration with our assemblyman, Marc Berman.

Our individual actions and choices also have considerable impact: They create much of the waste our city manages. The mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" begins with two actions you can take as an individual: reduce material consumption and reuse or repair items instead of disposing or recycling.

Bob Wenzlau is a founder of Palo Alto's curbside recycling programs, a board member of Repair Cafe, president of Palo Alto Neighbors Abroad, and CEO of Terradex, Inc. He can be emailed at bob@wenzlau.net.

Related content:

A journey of 9,500 miles. Why recyclables are heading overseas to Asia.

Weekly journalists discuss this issue on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.

City staff: Palo Alto needs residents to do better job of sorting, cleaning recyclables

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Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Patricia Becker
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 12, 2019 at 7:19 am

Excellent insights. Let's change the procedures to make sure of recycling waste is being taken care of in a sustainable way.

Were you part of the Ecology Action group that started Palo Alto recycling?


16 people like this
Posted by Waste Not...Want Not
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2019 at 8:40 am

If the SE Asian countries gladly accept plastic recyclables & it is part of their local economy, I see no problem with shipping as much as we possibly can out their way providing the materials are not toxic.

The primary concern should be focusing on the transportaion of these recyclables to their final destination as shipping mishaps & accidents could severely threaten the oceanic ecosystems or result in the recyclables washing-up in some tourist area.

Once these recyclables are safely transported to SE Asia and are deemed safe from a human exposure standpoint, all is done & it stimulates their respective economies.

Now if these countries were really on the ball, they would create plastic factories to re-manufacture recyclables into useful commodities that can then be recycled again at a later date.

Think SE Asian plastic magnate and/or large-scale corporations in the area that serve the world's plastic needs commencing with cheap 'raw materials'.

This is a 'lemons to lemonade' business opportunity for a SE Asian entrepreneur or businessman armed with some global investor backing.

In time perhaps other developing countries would take a cue as transporting used plastic all the way from Europe to SE Asia would not be practical...perhaps somewhere in Africa as there are plenty of oceanic routes and coastal destinations + there is plenty of open lands to recycle plastic wastes.




8 people like this
Posted by Send Us Your Trash
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2019 at 12:54 pm

>>> Guest Opinion: Recycling a 'good deed' that punishes southeast Asia

How are they being punished? The SE Asians relish getting our trash as it stimulates their economy.

It's a win-win for all parties concerned.


13 people like this
Posted by Politically incorrect
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 12, 2019 at 1:04 pm

Without politics, recycling is a non-starter. No net positive for the environment, lots of wasted activity and distortion on the economy, net slight waste of energy even without including energy expenditure or transportation to far away lands.

We should work harder on effective, biodegradable packaging instead of requiring all this wasted effort on recycling.


14 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm

@Send Us Your Trash and Waste not Want Not. I am a firm believer in the power of economic development - money - to bring good. Your argument falls short though thinking that these shipments bring good to southeast Asia: there is only one party, the entrepreneur, that wins, but the balance southeast Asian community and their workers are harmed in the process through the toxicity of these materials. This is not acceptable economic development. If southeast Asia enjoyed an environmental health regime similar to how our health is protected in the United States, then we might find a general benefit to these communities. Until then these shipments do more harm that any economic development brings.

@Politically incorrect You are correct that the crux of the problem is the materials that we must process. However, until we retool our production towards biodegradable packaging, it is not responsible to send these materials to southeast Asia.


8 people like this
Posted by Send Us Your Trash
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2019 at 3:10 pm

>>> there is only one party, the entrepreneur, that wins, but the balance southeast > Asian community and their workers are harmed in the process through the toxicity of these materials.

No one is advocating sending stuff like used batteries & aerosol paint cans to SE Asia.

Shouldn't the workers consider unionizing & initiating collective bargaining to raise their standard of living. What are they waiting for? Do they lack strong leadership?

Time to go 'Norma Jean' stick it to 'the man' (aka entrepreneur).


2 people like this
Posted by Just Get Rid Of It
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2019 at 5:51 pm

As long as SE Asian countries are willing to accept & recycle our plastic garbage, who cares?

It's only when they start declining to accept it (as in China) will we have a problem.


3 people like this
Posted by GreenWaste
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2019 at 11:27 am

GreenWaste is a registered user.

Bob, thanks for the great article, and for your lifelong commitment to recycling and a more sustainable culture.

One question: Isn't it easier/better to ask GreenWaste and Recology to do this, than to have individual households change back-and-forth what they are recycling, based on what is happening with the recycling? I expect GreenWaste and Recology are harder to "move", but it would have a lot more impact, and then they could lobby the Amazons and Safeways of the world to change how things are packaged, since their diversion rate would be so poor. All of this is already so complicated for households. Or do GreenWaste and Recology have their hands tied due to contracts and/or state commitments?


4 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 13, 2019 at 12:02 pm

eileen is a registered user.

The fact that Palo Alto, who claims to be a "green city", is sending our recycled waste to Asia, is really disturbing.
We need to process the recycled materials locally. If we can't then we are NOT a green city at all. We are just sending our trash to some poor country to deal with. We have no idea if the trash that we carefully put into the proper bins
is properly recycled or just dumped into the ocean. I really think we should go back to the days when each household
separated their paper, plastic and glass. The Palo Alto recycling program is a sham!!! Lets stop buying plastic when we can...


2 people like this
Posted by SE Asia Is A Good Place For Our Disposables
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 13, 2019 at 12:16 pm

SE Asia is not being punished. They are being offered a viable economic opportunity.

Perhaps we all agree that waste & recyclables be better sorted prior to export.

After that it is no longer our problem or issue.


2 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 13, 2019 at 2:38 pm

eileen is a registered user.

The last post states that SE Asia is not suffering from our trash. I suggest they do a little research on the subject
and then post an intelligent response. Personally, I don't believe that sorting through toxic garbage is a "viable economic opportunity".


3 people like this
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2019 at 2:43 pm

@GreenWaste:

Isn't it easier/better to ask GreenWaste and Recology to do this, than to have individual households change back-and-forth what they are recycling, based on what is happening with the recycling?


My own theory has been to use the blue bin more intelligently as a conveying device.

Here is one idea to ponder. DoorDash and other businesses bring disposable plastics to our homes. This has had a large impact on the "plasticization" of our waste stream. Suppose we required reusable to go food containers from our delivery services. The blue bins would be a place where the reusable containers would be placed. Then they could be centrally washed and returned to the restaurants. This solves a problem of needing to have Doordash drivers return for the used containers. Imagine a nylon colored bag that flags these containers. Now the blue bins are not used for reuse, but they could be.

As such individual effort of what goes in the blue bin would get slightly more demanding. But we could use this as a tool to shift to more reuse. I believe that DoorDash would work with this model, and Palo Alto already has a small reusable to go container model. The challenge is to get it as a mainstream program.


It is reasonable to ask GreenWaste to take all of our waste plastics and waste papers that go to southeast Asia (or destination unkowwn), and put them in a local landfill until an approach that achieves social and environmental standards is found. However, GreenWaste processes not only Palo Alto's waste but San Jose's, so it is not viable to have one program for each city in a common facility. The black bin goes to a separate facility and then goes to Kirby Canyon for disposal. Now it is really the only option is to move it to the black bin.

This entire topic will bother our City, and I know how hard it is to run a citywide program, but we can't be running a program that is blind as to the disposition. As such, it is urgent that the City step up and engage with the ramification of blindly sending materials to destinations unknown.


Or do GreenWaste and Recology have their hands tied due to contracts and/or state commitments? The regulatory obligations are on the cities, not the waste maangement companies. Another challenge is that GreenWaste and Recology serve multiple cities. I do sense that if Greenwaste and Recology realized that the value of verified recycling was important in our region, then they would change or push their vendors to cleanup their acts. The engagment of the state, particularly one of our local legislators, would also help move this along.


@eileen:
Palo Alto's program has a fundamental flaw now that must be resolved. However, the programs are served by tremendous city staff. I think calling the program a sham is too strong, but the program does need to step up and make critical adjustments.


2 people like this
Posted by SE Asia Is A Good Place For Our Disposables
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 13, 2019 at 3:11 pm

> then post an intelligent response. Personally, I don't believe that sorting through toxic garbage is a "viable economic opportunity".

You must be a reader who skims. I stated...

>> Perhaps we all agree that waste & recyclables be better sorted prior to export.

No one is advocating sending toxic trash to SE Asia. Just the stuff they can use.


2 people like this
Posted by Blue bins are free
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 15, 2019 at 2:39 pm

Blue bins are free is a registered user.

Using the carrot and stick approach, the blue bins are free while residents have to pay for the black bins, with the cost going up the larger the size. This alone is an incentive to many households, especially larger ones, to pay for the smallest black can possible, chuck as much as possible into the blue bin, and hope for the best. The family of four next door barely uses their smallest size black can but every week while their blue bin is always full to overflowing, perhaps because they know it will be sorted and their contaminated garbage removed.


5 people like this
Posted by ferdinnd
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 15, 2019 at 10:23 pm

Thank you for the article and I appreciate your suggestions. Frankly, the subject is depressing. We're only one household but our solution [to contribute as little as possible to the ocean dump] is to simply buy as little plastic as possible. It isn't that difficult if you care enough about the sea creatures and our food web. No Costco clam shell packaging, no plastic bottled drinks, etc. There are so many ways Palo Alto could become more green, but unrestricted consumption seems to be a higher priority.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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