As the recycling industry strains to deal with shifting international rules, cities such as Half Moon Bay fall short of meeting diversion rates and are struggling to comply with state-mandated legislation.
Experts say solutions include better education and turning to alternatives such as reusable foodware.
In 2018, the city entered into a 10-year franchise agreement with Republic Services for its waste management services. Annually, the company sets an average diversion rate, which is the percentage of waste diverted from ending up as landfill. In 2019, the city was about 3 percent short of meeting the goal of a 40 percent diversion target.
While the diversion rate was not met, city staff noted the trend is moving in the right direction.
Since diversion rate is calculated by weight, and there are fewer materials like paper in the waste stream, the data becomes unreliable, according to Republic Services Municipal Relationship Manager Monica Devincenzi. Meanwhile, materials used to produce things like water bottles are cheaper and more lightweight, meaning there is less value on the secondary market.
“There still needs to be improvement on educating people to make sure they put things into the correct bin,” Half Moon Bay Public Works Manager Jennifer Chong said. “At a certain point it will be not about hitting a diversion rate, it will be about whether people are doing the right thing.”
In addition to meeting goals outlined by Republic Services, a series of state legislation is aimed at making California more sustainable.
One way is by requiring businesses and multifamily dwellings that generate a certain amount of organic waste to compost. About six years ago the state passed Assembly Bill 1828, which was developed as a way to keep organic waste out of the landfill. A tiered approach, it set different thresholds requiring businesses and multifamily dwellings to compost their organic waste if they generated more than a certain amount of waste per week.
“Even though Half Moon Bay has been progressive in adding organic services, it is still one extra step for the business to take,” Devincenzi said.
The threshold changes each year as businesses now must account for their total waste stream. In 2018, there were 18 city businesses ruled to be out of compliance. Now, the city reports 47 businesses are not in compliance with the law. As Republic Services and the city work to get people into compliance, some businesses have already made the change.
It’s Italia owner Betsy Del Fierro said four months ago representatives from Republic Services came to the restaurant and taught the staff, cooks and bartenders how to comply with the recycling system. There are three bins separating recyclables, compostable waste and garbage located in the kitchen and near the bar. Del Fierro said most of the material collected in her business’s bins is organic waste.
“It took a while to get everyone trained and in compliance. People had to study to know what goes in what bin,” she said.
Posted on the kitchen’s bulletin board are three easy-to-read signs with photos showing what materials go in what bin.
Del Fierro said It’s Italia was already using recyclable and compostable to-go containers and using paper straws.
“It’s about behavior change and that is tough and slow,” Chong said. “You can’t give everyone a huge new bin and expect it is going to work for every business. With each business, we come up with a tailored approach, otherwise it is not going to work.”
As part of the city’s franchise agreement, organic waste collection is considered a base level of service. City leaders hope as businesses learn what can be composted or recycled, there will be a reduced need for a large garbage can — and some savings.
“That is the big picture of what you are trying to get to,” Chong said.
This year, education is the primary focus for both city staff and Republic Services. Nationally, the recycling industry has been watching closely the impacts from overseas markets. When China passed its National Sword policy in 2017, it banned the import of nonindustrial plastic waste. China and Hong Kong were the largest importers of plastic waste, accounting for more than 72 percent of the market. Following China’s lead, several other Southeast Asian countries also imposed stricter rules.
“Yes, we are feeling the impacts (of China’s policy) in Half Moon Bay, but it is not just unique to us,” Chong said.
Available markets will ultimately determine what can be recycled.
“That is the tricky part of recycling. In order for it to be successful, someone has to want the materials,” Chong said.
When China first announced they were scaling back on the materials it would accept, Chong said companies such as Republic Services were cautious, not knowing if the policy would be reversed.
“It’s not looking like China is going to change, and other countries are also following suit,” she said.
“Now it costs money to get rid of material, so it is going to change how the industry approaches recycling and how we as consumers have to deal with the fallout from that.”
A solution is to return to using reusable products, such as milk jugs or refillable water bottles.
“We’ve become a throwaway culture because it is convenient. To make less waste we have to reduce the waste we make,” Chong said. “To be sustainable, we need to find ways to make ourselves more self-reliant and make less stuff.”