'You Can't Recycle Your Way Out': California's Plastic Problem and What We Can Do About It

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A large backhoe sorts through a large pile of recycling in a factory.
The massive sorting floor at the Republic Services recycling facility in Milpitas, which processes up to 1,000 tons of household recyclables each day. (Monica Lam/KQED)

California dumps more than 12,000 tons of plastic into landfills every day — enough to fill 219 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to CalRecycle, the state's recycling and waste management agency. The state boasts one of the highest recycling rates in the country, especially of cans and bottles, but despite decades of investment in infrastructure and machinery, the system remains overwhelmed by plastic.

A trip to a recycling processing center helps explain why.

Inside one of Republic Services' massive facilities in Milpitas, an impressive array of high-tech machines sort through tons of material from residents' recycling bins, separating metal from plastic from paper. Some of the machines use magnets, eddy currents or puffs of air blown through hundreds of nozzles to sort the materials; others identify different kinds of plastic with optical scanners. Whizzing conveyor belts ferry it all from one machine to the next, until the recyclables are sorted, baled, and eventually shipped and sold.

Not all plastic is created equal

One of plastic recycling’s success stories is HDPE, or high-density polyethylene, the translucent plastic commonly used in milk jugs, shampoo bottles and cutting boards.

“In today's marketplace, this is the most valuable commodity that we produce at this location,” said Pete Keller, the company’s vice president of sustainability. “These materials are non-pigmented, so any downstream consumer of this material could turn it into any color they want to.”

HDPE is currently fetching a price of $1 per pound, or over $2,000 per ton, according to Keller. “I wish we had more of it,” he said.

That price is partially driven by demand resulting from so-called sustainability commitments major manufacturers have made to use recycled plastic. Naked Juice, for instance, makes its juice bottles from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, while Danone has pledged to make all of its evian water bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025.

In a push to boost demand for plastic that is recycled, like HDPE, California lawmakers in 2020 passed a "minimum recycled content" bill. Assembly Bill 793, which went into effect on Jan. 1, mandates that most plastic beverage bottles contain a minimum amount of recycled content. Specifically, all plastic bottles that can be redeemed for $0.05 or $0.10 must contain no less than:

  • 15% recycled plastic starting Jan. 1, 2022
  • 25% recycled plastic starting Jan. 1, 2025
  • 50% recycled plastic starting Jan. 1, 2030

The law, one of the first of its kind in the nation, is targeted at bottle manufacturers, most of whom still use new plastic — or “virgin resin” — which is typically cheaper than recycled plastic.

Workers in green safety jackets and helmets sort trash along a conveyor belt.
Workers at Recology’s San Francisco recycling facility pick out plastic that can't be recycled, including plastic bags, on July 16, 2021. (Monica Lam/KQED)

In addition to HDPE, PET plastic, or polyethylene terephthalate, can be recycled into clamshells — the clear boxes that strawberries are often packed in — or spun into polyester for clothing. Some denser plastics can also be recycled into pipes, plastic lumber, carpets or buckets.

But current recycling markets only accept a fraction of the plastic that's marked with the three-arrow recycling symbol. Until a few years ago, this problem was largely concealed because the U.S. shipped most of its plastic waste to China, where it was ostensibly being recycled. But in 2018, citing its own environmental concerns, China began banning imports of most solid materials, including most plastics.

That’s forcing domestic recyclers to confront the real challenges of recycling plastic. For one, plastic comes in a myriad of chemical formulations, densities, transparencies and colors. Many products are made of mixed materials: a bottle of hand soap, for example, might contain four different kinds of plastic, plus a metal spring nestled inside the pump.

Even if there were markets for all these different kinds of plastic, sorting and separating them would be a gargantuan task.

“There's just so many types of plastic. We can't recycle them all. We can't manage them all,” said Robert Reed, public relations manager for Recology, which handles San Francisco’s waste and recycling. “You can't recycle your way out of the larger plastic problem.”

So most plastic — in fact, almost all of it — ends up in landfills: plastic forks and knives, coffee cups and takeout boxes, used cosmetics, styrofoam trays, and most kinds of plastic bags, from shopping bags to those used for frozen peas.

Three men talk underneath an open-air canopy in a parking lot.
State Assemblymember Phil Ting visits a prototype for a mobile recycling program that aims to bring recycling collection trucks to various San Francisco neighborhoods, on July 16, 2021. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Legislative efforts bogged down

San Francisco Democratic Assemblymember Phil Ting, who introduced AB 793, has tried to expand the law's reach by proposing a similar bill requiring the recycling of thermoform plastic, a group of plastics formed using heat. That legislation, however, got bogged down last year over concerns that infrastructure wasn’t yet in place to accommodate an additional plastic recycling mandate.

In fact, many of the more ambitious plastic recycling-related bills floated last year didn’t survive, including AB 1371, introduced by state Assemblymember Laura Friedman, D-Burbank, which would have banned the use of plastic packaging for online purchases. The bill failed to receive the 41 votes necessary to make it out of the Assembly.

“Globally, the e-commerce industry uses nearly 2.1 billion, with a 'B,' pounds of plastic packaging. … With almost a third of the world's population now buying online, the amount of plastic packaging generated is estimated to double by 2025,” Friedman told the Assembly Natural Resources Committee last April. “This is low-hanging fruit, members, and something that is really, really a scourge.”

“Even with our super-duper Democratic majority and consistently two-thirds of Californians saying this is a huge problem that needs to get addressed, we have really struggled to get enough votes,” said Jennifer Fearing, an environmental lobbyist who helped promote AB 1371.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, last year shelved SB 54, his bill to ban all single-use plastic products that aren’t recyclable or compostable — opting to buy more time to work out details with various stakeholders, in the face of formidable industry opposition.

'Deeply outgunned'

The list of trade groups that weighed in against the bill underscores the depth of plastic’s reach within multiple industries. During an early hearing on SB 54, associations representing farming and agriculture, pet food, personal care, household products and restaurants voiced their opposition — in addition to the Plastics Industry Association, the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment, and the Flexible Packaging Association.

“I can't tell you and point to a particular member of the Legislature who's been ‘bought,’” said Fearing. “But I can tell you, we are deeply outgunned on the environmental front.”

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More incremental efforts to reduce plastic waste, however, have proved fruitful, including a “Truth in Labeling” bill, approved by lawmakers last year, which prohibits manufacturers from calling their products recyclable or using recycling symbols or other suggestions of recyclability unless they meet CalRecycle’s criteria. The agency has until Jan. 1, 2024, to formalize a list of products it deems recyclable.

Tim Shestek, the American Chemistry Council's senior director of state affairs, said his organization opposed SB 54 and several other bills last year because they failed to recognize why so many businesses use plastic over other materials in the first place: its durability and value.

“Does it go too far? Does it provide opportunities for the business community to comply in a reasonable fashion?” Shestek said. “In our view, it didn't take into account some of the other trade-offs that we like to discuss: lightweighting, fuel efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions associated with potential alternatives.”

Still, Shestek acknowledged that more can be done to cut down on plastic waste. His group, for example, has set goals for its members to produce 100% recyclable plastic packaging containing at least 30% recycled plastic by 2030.

“Our focus is trying to get that circular loop completely closed and to be part of the solution,” he said. “I think we recognize that we have a role to play.”

Two women standing near the bay pour water samples.
Rebecca Sutton, left, and Alicia Gilbreath of the San Francisco Estuary Institute strain water collected from the San Francisco Bay through two sieves to sample for microplastics. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Microplastics and human health

Since plastic was first invented in the mid-1800s, worldwide production has grown to an estimated 400 million tons annually. In the U.S., less than 9% of plastic gets recycled, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Meanwhile, the production of plastic, which is made from petroleum and natural gas, is projected to increase as the fossil-fuel industry faces competition from alternative energy sources. Dozens of plastic plants are currently being built or planned, most of them on the Gulf Coast and in the Ohio River Valley.

While a fair bit of attention has been paid to the impact of plastic pollution on marine animals, who often ingest it, research on human health has only recently started to ramp up. In 2018, California legislators directed the State Water Resources Control Board to start studying levels of microplastics — plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters — detected in municipal drinking water supplies. Some microplastics, like those used in adhesives or paints, are manufactured at a small size, while some are generated when larger pieces of plastic degrade over time.

“One of the reasons that plastic in drinking water has received recent attention, especially by California's legislators, is that we know that the amount is increasing,” said Scott Coffin, a senior scientist with the state water board. “Additionally, plastic never goes away. So these two factors, they necessitate some concern.”

Coffin’s team is tasked with eventually establishing safety thresholds for the level of microplastics in the state’s water supply. He estimates that there are more than 2,400 chemicals commonly added to plastic that are potentially dangerous for human health, including known toxins like bisphenol A (commonly known as BPA), phthalates, and a class of flame retardants called PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

“You can think of plastic as a carrier for other chemicals, and in many ways, it's like a sponge,” Coffin said. “Once it's in the environment, it can pick up all of the other pollutants that are already there.”

Some microplastics are even small enough to enter into our cells, he noted. One German study found microplastics in the placentas of pregnant women — on both the maternal and fetal side.

“The smaller the particle, the deeper it's going to make it into our bodies, and the more likely it is to interact with our cells, causing toxicity,” Coffin said.

One major study published in 2019 by the San Francisco Estuary Institute found microplastics throughout the San Francisco Bay — in the water, the mud, and both stormwater runoff and treated wastewater. The study’s authors concluded that the bay likely has higher levels of microplastic pollution than most major water bodies in the United States because it’s surrounded by dense, urban areas and has a relatively restricted water flow. The two most common particles found were fibers from clothing and bits from tires.

“We found microplastics in just about every sample we collected,” said Rebecca Sutton, who led the three-year study. “This is pretty consistent with what you see all around the world. Pretty much everywhere you look for it, you are going to find microplastics.”

Coffin echoed that sentiment.

“I think a better question would be, where have microplastics not been found?” he said. “We've found them from Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench. Every organism that we've ever looked at, we've found some levels, and at this point, I'm not sure that there exists a place that is not impacted by plastic pollution.”

The climate change impact

With that grim assessment in mind, the students in Jacqueline Omania’s fifth grade class at Oxford Elementary in Berkeley have set themselves an ambitious goal: to make so little trash over the course of the school year that the entire class’s garbage fits into a tiny little container about the size of a jam jar.

“The larger issue is that these youth are growing up in a climate crisis,” said Omania.

The main type of trash that ends up in the class's container is plastic, so for starters, every student brings a reusable cutlery kit to school to use while eating lunch. Inside the classroom, they use unpainted pencils so that the shavings can be composted. Birthday parties feature home-baked treats instead of anything that comes in a plastic wrapper.

Omania’s students were part of a successful campaign to pass a citywide ordinance in 2019 limiting single-use plastics in Berkeley restaurants. Her students even showed city councilmembers the tiny container they were using as a garbage can.

Three young people stand on a rock pile. One hands an orange bucket to another.
Students Sam (left), Alina and Sasha pick up trash off the beach at the Berkeley Marina, Oct. 7, 2021. (Rick Santangelo/KQED)

“I believe the adults need to step up so we don't make the environmental waste in the first place,” Oxford student Jae Marie Howard told a crowded council meeting on the night the ordinance was approved.

More recently, Omania’s students helped successfully push the Berkeley Unified School District to include climate literacy in the K-12 curriculum.

An increasing number of studies draw a connection between the production of plastic and climate change. One report from a Vermont-based environmental group found that “as of 2020, the U.S. plastics industry is responsible for at least 232 million tons of CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalent] gas emissions per year. This amount is equivalent to the average emissions from 116 average-sized [500-megawatt] coal-fired power plants.”

New opportunities

Entrepreneurs have been tapping into growing public awareness about plastic waste. Dispatch Goods, a San Francisco-based start-up, is partnering with local restaurants, like Zuni Cafe and Mixt, to provide reusable takeout containers made of stainless steel. Customers must pay extra for the service, which includes picking up the used containers from their homes, but many do it willingly because it alleviates “eco-guilt,” said company CEO Lindsey Hoell.

It’s like an “avocado upcharge,” she said.

“We have data showing that we're driving business to restaurants that are making that shift,” she added. “It's not just a sustainability decision, but it's a good business decision.”

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At Fillgood’s small storefront in Berkeley, customers can refill their own containers with common household products like dish detergent and shampoo, while LimeLoop, another Bay Area-based start-up, makes reusable packaging for shipping — among the growing number of novel business ventures offering alternatives to plastic.

This fall, Californians will get to weigh in directly on just how much the state should regulate and limit plastic production and consumption. The California Plastic Waste Reduction Regulations Initiative, which has qualified for the statewide ballot in November, would not only push through some of the efforts legislators failed to pass last year, but also levy a $0.01 fee — which critics call a tax — on all plastic packaging and disposable food service items.

The ACC’s Shestek said the ballot measure is “flawed” and hopes instead to work directly with lawmakers “to hash something out that gets to the same objective, but in a fashion that isn't so punitive.”

But Allen, the state lawmaker, sees the initiative as a good opportunity to advance his SB 54 legislation, banning single-use plastic products that aren’t recyclable or compostable. He's confident, he said, the business community will work with him to avoid the costly political hurdle of winning a statewide vote. He's already moved the bill out of the inactive file and back to the Senate floor to be considered during the 2022 legislative session.

“The ballot measure polls very well. It's very popular,” Allen said. “And while it's true [that] industry could raise a lot of money and try to defeat it, I think there's also going to be some serious money raised on the environmental side. It could really be a knock-down-drag-out fight at the end of the day.”

KQED’s Crystal Consaul and Kat Shok contributed to this story. Want more? Check out our half-hour documentary on this topic, California's Plastic Problem. Are you a teacher? Here's more about Jacqueline Omania's curriculum.

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