For one week in early February, roughly one-third of all recyclables collected by Sacramento County — an estimated 290 tons — was packed into trucks and dumped at a county landfill.
The amount of cardboard, newspapers, bottles and cans taken to the landfill totaled about 8.5 percent of the 3,400 tons of recyclables collected monthly, said Doug Sloan, director of the county's Department of Waste Management and Recycling.
"The last thing I want to do is put curbside recycling in the landfill," Sloan said.
The problem originated with one of the three recycling contractors.
"Their line was down for the week. We got squeezed," Sloan said.
Other contractors don't have additional capacity to take additional recycling, Sloan said. Rules limiting the storage of recyclables at the transfer station to 48 hours meant there was no place to keep them, Sloan said.
"It’s not what we want to do. The breakdown of these facilities is pretty rare," Sloan said.
The issue comes as the value of recyclables has plunged and municipalities across the West Coast are under pressure from China to produce recycling loads with fewer contaminants. Sacramento County will see a swing from its recycling earning $1 million to costing the county $1 million annually.
Mark Murray, CEO of Californians Against Waste, said he was "less focused on beating up on the county for landfilling it" and more concerned about the county's general practices.
Murray said as the county looks to rewrite recycling contracts, agreements should focus on maximizing recycling and building California recycling capacity.
Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli called the incident worrisome and wished the county had a better backup plan for short-term hiccups.
"We need to be more nimble and have a better ability to hold materials and properly recycle them, rather than landfilling them," Nottoli said.
He said the issue is part of a larger problem of devalued recyclables.
"If it had more value," Nottoli said, "people would say, 'Give me all you got.' "