Week after week, Sacramento-area residents use their recycling bins as trash cans.
Shoes, batteries, carpet scraps, briquettes, baby strollers – even a whole toilet – have been tossed into the recycling stream.
Fed up with trash-laden recycling batches, the government is cracking down – but not the one you might expect.
The Chinese government, which receives the bulk of West Coast recyclables, began an aggressive campaign last summer to reject shipments with even a modest amount of garbage. The crackdown and a broader market decline means that recycling collection will swing from a $1.2 million money-maker for Sacramento County to a $1.1 million cost.
The problem isn't the cans and bottles with a redemption value, but various forms of paper.
"Every jurisdiction in the state of California is having a problem with mixed waste paper. We used to just stuff it into a shipping container and ship it to China," said Mark Murray, CEO of Californians Against Waste. "China has closed the door on that."
In response to China's changes, local officials are planning crackdowns of their own. Both the county and city of Sacramento are considering plans to have staff flag errant recycling habits and possibly penalize those who sully their recycling bins with trash.
Before that, however, they plan to educate residents on the right way to recycle.
"Most people want to recycle the right way," said Doug Sloan, Sacramento County's director of waste management and recycling.
After an education campaign, the county needs to find a way to ensure residents are following through.
"Identifying it by house is not an easy thing," Sloan said. "Somehow it has to be part of the program."
He said a recycling driver can watch video of each load as it is dumped into the truck. Alternatively, staff could go from bin to bin ahead of the collection truck.
The goal is to reduce the county's contamination rate from 25 percent to 10 percent, Sloan said.
In the city of Sacramento, which operates its own recycling collection, the contamination rate is 18 percent, said city spokeswoman Erin Treadwell. But Sacramento hasn't set a specific reduction goal yet.
"We need to target people that just flat out don’t recycle and use their recycle bin as a trash can," Treadwell said.
In the early days of California recycling, residents were asked to pull only glass bottles, cans and newspapers from the waste stream. Sacramento County, for instance, provided three separate bins to households for those items to be collected curbside.
In 1989, state lawmakers approved landmark legislation that required local jurisdictions to divert 25 percent of waste from landfills by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. That led governments to provide large curbside containers and ask residents to recycle more.
Historically, the city of Sacramento encouraged people to err on the side of throwing more, not less, into the recycling bin.
"It is going to be a shift in education," Treadwell said.
The previous approach diverted waste from California landfills.
Counties rely on sorting facilities to clean recycling loads
Most local governments rely on third-party recyclers like Waste Management, which has contracts with the city and county of Sacramento, to pull out trash from recycling collections.
Waste Management officials say to meet the demands from China, they need to start with cleaner materials.
The latest in a series of Chinese enforcement efforts dubbed "National Sword" revised the clean recycling standard from a maximum of 1.5 percent contamination to 0.5 percent, according the county staff report.
In California, recycling loads grew more contaminated when the recession put families in financial stress, said Alex Oseguera, who manages Waste Management's Northern California and Northern Nevada operations.
"Many folks downsized to a smaller (trash) container, then used the extra volume in the recycling bin for trash," Oseguera said.
At Waste Management's waste transfer center on Fruitridge Road, a couple dozen employees wearing gloves, masks, hard hats, eye protection and bright yellow vests pull recyclables and obstructions from a series of conveyor belts. Some employees put their quick hands to work by snatching things off the line that might clog the machinery while others serve as the last line of defense, removing recyclables that the machines miss.
To get a cleaner output, the center must run at a slower pace – and process less material – or add more employees to the line.
"Processors in general are expecting clean materials, no longer are they accepting materials that have high contaminants," Oseguera said.
In Placer County, residents still combine their trash and recycling into "One Big Bin." Though the county also faces pressure from the new Chinese restrictions, it plans to maintain the one bin system.
Eric Oddo, program manager for the Western Placer Waste Management Authority, said the third-party recycling facility operator believes it can meet the Chinese requirements. But it will mean fewer recyclables will be pulled from the waste stream.
While one bin ensures that recycling items don't end up in the landfill, it also means mixed paper can get soiled by last night's lasagna.
"Some of the paper that might have been marketed in the past is no longer valuable," Oddo said. "If it’s not valuable, it’s going to landfilled."
One outstanding question: Will residents still be able to place as many types of items into their recycling bins?
"There are some products that are stamped recycling but there is no market for it," Oseguera said. "Glass is recyclable but we have to pay for someone to take it. It no longer has a value in the marketplace."
Bottles for beer, soda and other drinks with a California Redemption Value are worth money when taken intact to a recycling center. However, when placed in the curbside recycling program, they're often crushed along with other glass and marketed as mixed glass bits.
In addition to people carelessly putting trash into their recycling bins, many residents just don't know what can be recycled.
Take the pizza box, for instance. While some governments don't encourage people to recycle their pie boxes, others suggest residents rip each box in half and toss any parts exposed to oil or cheese.
The problem, Oseguera said, is that most people don't take that step and the pizza grease and cheese are spread to other mixed paper in the load during the crushing and transport process.
Murray said the Chinese action is an opportunity for California to take more responsibility by building more capacity in-state to turn recycling into usable products. He believes Californians should be willing to pay more to see more goods turned into recycled products.
"It’s a wake up call. We have to do something," he said.
Brett Bell, Waste Management's national vice president for recycling, said the Chinese actions have had a major impact on operations, but some good may come from this.
"Our industry has been too dependent on China," Bell said. "The recycling markets will be stronger once we get through this."
He noted that the growth in e-commerce means the demand for cardboard boxes – partially made from recycled paper – will remain high.
No rate increase in Sacramento County for now
For now, Sacramento County does not plan to raise its recycling rates to offset the market changes. The county plans to spend $330,000 annually on greater public outreach, as well as $500,000 on "contamination enforcement," according to a staff report.
“We are just going to absorb that," Sloan said. "We don’t need a rate increase to handle this particular issue.”
Sacramento County Supervisor Susan Peters did a double-take when told about plans to inspect residents' recycling bins.
"If I heard you right, you are going to start going through the recycling trash cans. Now we have homeless going though the trash cans and you are going to be going through it, too, which I find disturbing," Peters said during a Feb. 6 board briefing on the program.
Supervisor Don Nottoli has similar concerns about an inspection program, but didn't rule it out.
"I don’t know that it needs to be opening the can lid and dumping it out on the curb," he said, half joking.
"One can or two cans could contaminate the whole load," Nottoli said. "People need to understand that you can’t put a gallon of milk in there."