The issue: Recycling is confusing
How often do you wonder “is this recyclable” before throwing something out? Probably many times, and that is because recycling is confusing, and staying on top of what is recyclable is difficult. Because recycling was also somewhat of an enigma for us and because we don’t pretend to be experts in the matter, we asked Hillary Allen, Environmental Specialist for the City of Santa Barbara, to update and guide us on the best recycling practices.
Part of the confusion around recycling comes from the ever-changing rules and nuances between materials. It also greatly depends on your local jurisdiction, what is acceptable to recycle in your area, and whether or not there is the proper facility to process materials nearby. Many of the labels on the products we buy are misleading and let people believe that a packaging is recyclable, when in fact, the recyclability of an item greatly depends on the area. Packagings labeled as recyclable might be recyclable in some areas and cities, but not in others.
Recyclability also depends on the market value of the material. Some materials might be recyclable, but if the processing of the material is more expensive than its value, there will not be a market willing to purchase the recycled items, therefore the material will not be recycled. For example, we might think that most plastic items are recyclable, when in fact 91% of plastic waste around the world is not recycled. This is because most plastics are not valuable enough to be recycled at the moment.
Hillary shared that “if companies were able to produce more easily recyclable packaging, with better materials, more items would be recycled. The State of California is currently working on legislation that will require companies to create better, more recyclable packaging”.
If we cannot control the market value of recyclable materials, and force their recyclability, there are some things we can do to reduce the amount of waste we produce and to improve our recycling practices. Learning about which items are recyclable and which are not is a good start. It can help reduce contamination in recycling bins, and the amount of recyclable items in landfills. But most importantly, it can guide your decision when shopping: “should I buy this half gallon milk boxed in a carton, or this one in this plastic bottle?” If you’re thinking, “of course cardboard is better than plastic!”, then please keep reading, you might be surprised.
Why is this important?
Being aware of what happens to our waste, whether it is recycled or landfilled, is important. It helps us acknowledge the impact of our consumption, and adjust our habits. Currently, the Southern Santa Barbara County landfill, “Tajiguas”, receives over 600 tons of waste daily, of which 40% end up being landfilled. Landfill piles are accumulating by the minute, creating a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, we have learned from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), that “municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for approximately 14.5 percent of these emissions in 2020”.
Do you ever wonder what will happen once we run out of space? Hillary explained that landfills are closed once they become full and reach their allocated capacity. Once the Tajiguas landfill will close, we will most likely have to transport our waste to the Santa Maria or Simi Valley landfills. Not only are landfills around the globe saturated and creating pollution, but they are sitting on acres that could be used for other purposes, such as parks and public places. So doing our part and recycling the correct items can help minimize the unnecessary waste accumulating in landfills.
What is recyclable?
All clean and dry metals, even rusty, can be recycled, such as aluminum cans, foil, trays, caps and lids, tin cans, and scrap metal. Hillary explained that “food residue can sit on metal while not affecting its recyclability. Because metal is more valuable than plastic, it allows us to recycle food metal without having to look in every container or wash it and gives a little more leeway in the cost of the processing”.
All types of clean and dry glass containers can be recycled, such as glass bottles and jars, including metal caps and lids. The only exceptions are drinking glasses and window glass, which contain silicone to prevent them from cracking. These should be put in the trash.
Most paper can be recycled, such as office paper, paper bags, books (hardcovers need to have cover and binding removed before they can be recycled, paperbacks can go straight into the blue bin), cereal boxes, cardboard (non-waxed), envelopes, mail and magazines, newspapers, and kraft paper.
One exception is paper food and beverage containers or cartons. Remember that milk carton we talked about earlier? It is not recyclable in Santa Barbara. Hillary let us know that a good way to know if something is recyclable is to check your jurisdiction’s website. She also shared that shredded paper was an exception as well. It is mostly not recycled because it is difficult to capture, becomes dirty, and blows all around the municipal recycling facility. Shredded paper should be taken to a shredding service, where there is a large volume that can be purchased by vendors.
Plastic is the trickiest material as most of it is currently not recycled. Only hard, clean and dry plastics, that have not held food and are larger than 6 inches can be recycled. These include 8oz and larger water bottles, milk jugs, shampoo and detergent bottles, buckets, flower pots, and toys (without cords and batteries).
Before discarding items in your recycling bins, they must first be cleaned, free from residue, and dried in order to be processed and recycled properly.
What is not recyclable?
Any other plastics that have held food, are not hard, clean or large enough cannot be recycled. These include yogurt, honey, mustard containers, plastic bags, film plastics, saran wrap, peel-away seels, any small plastic items, flexible plastic wrappings. Any disposable items such as utensils and cups, or compostables that look and feel like plastic are not recyclable or compostable, explained Hillary.
For most of these plastics, landfill is the best option. Hillary shared that “film plastics do not take up much space in landfills, and they are made of poor quality that is difficult to recycle. It makes more sense to recycle items that are high-quality and can be recycled over and over, unlike film plastics”.
> Paper food and beverage containers
These include waxy milk, soup, broth, juice cartons or boxes, and soiled papers such as cups, napkins, plates, tissues, take-out boxes, pizza boxes, etc.
Most cartons are made of different layers of paper, plastic and sometimes metal, making it time-consuming to separate. Hillary shared that locally, we do not have a cartons recycling facility, so the items would need to be shipped to another part of the country, where there is a facility. But even when the cartons are recycled, the quality of the material is too poor for any market in the U.S., therefore the recycled cartons are sent overseas. This entire process would then be more harmful than burying cartons in our landfill.
Styrofoam (or Polystyrene) is unfortunately not recyclable in traditional facilities. It has been even more dangerous that it often ends up in the ocean, where it is very harmful to the environment because of how easily it can break up into little pieces. Styrofoam is now banned in the City of Santa Barbara as well as in the City of Goleta, but you have the option to drop off any of your styrofoam items to specific locations in town to be transformed and reused into other products. Find out more here.
> Other items
The list of other daily items that are not recyclable, or must be dropped off at a specific location continues. These include:
- Wood items
- Wine corks
- Window or mirror glass
- CDs and DVDs are electronic waste and can be dropped off at one of these locations
- Clothes, linens, and rags are part of textile waste and can be dropped off at the Goleta Recycling Center or the South Coast Recycling & Transfer Center
- Ceramic dishware or glassware can be donated to thrift stores. You can find addresses here
Landfill Ban Items
Some items are categorized as “landfill ban”. They should not be placed in the trash or recycling bins, and require special handling.
Electronics (anything that has an electrical cord or runs on batteries) can be taken to the Santa Barbara County transfer station, or to the MarBorg Recycling Facility where they will be handled properly. Electronics contain hazardous materials and cannot be mixed with other recycling wastes. For your still functioning electronics, consider donating to keep them out of the waste loop a bit longer. Read more about electronic waste here.
> Hazardous Wastes
Hazardous wastes are either flammable, corrosive, highly reactive or poisonous, and can be very dangerous for the environment, so they must be disposed of and handled properly. Hazardous wastes include but are not limited to: batteries, paints, automotive fluids, fluorescent lights, cleaning products, pool and gardening supplies, aerosols. Here, you can find a list of all hazardous waste and where to drop them off locally.
Some of them can be easier to dispose of and recycle than others such as batteries, which are very common household items. Batteries can be placed in a clear bag on top of your blue bin on recycling collection day. For rechargeable batteries, the ends must be taped with clear tape so the poles are not exposed and do not pose a fire risk during transportation. Read more about battery recycling here.
Toner cartridges are also common household items that are hazardous. They can be dropped off at Office Max or Staples to be sent to a special recycling facility. Read more about cartridge recycling here.
> To summarize
We know this is a lot of information, and it cannot be all memorized in one read! To make everything a bit easier to remember and to have a handy summary around the house, we have produced this infographic. You can print and keep it posted on your fridge or close to your trash and recycling bins, to easily identify if an item is recyclable or not before getting rid of it.
The bigger picture
Ultimately, giving a new life and upcycling items is good, but we must remember that recycling requires a lot of processing, creates pollution, burns energy, and uses materials. Oftentimes, recyclable items are sent to third-world countries without landfill capabilities, where items eventually become litter.
So it is important to include recycling considerations in your everyday purchases (now that you know that milk boxes can’t be recycled, switch to plastic ones, or even better glass ones). But most importantly, consuming better and saying no to single-use items is key. Most of our shopping and eating habits create tons of waste that either gets accumulated in our landfills or creates pollution while being recycled. Hillary explained that: “we need to remember that convenience equals consumption and that a reusable item should always be the preference.” Changing some of our habits and creating less waste by using reusable items can make a difference!
Locally, in addition to moving away from single-use items, Hillary specified that “it would be great if more of our local restaurants prioritized washables and reusable dishware, if more coffee shops insisted on reusable cups for customers who are sitting in, and if more businesses incentivized the use of reusable bags”. Hillary added: “We live in a tourist town where people come here and consume a lot. And we have tons of trash to give them, which they throw away in our public containers and we must put in our own landfill. What if we created a business culture here where we encouraged people to not give away so much to-go trash?”
To further guide you, there are some great local resources you can use when in doubt, with locations to drop off some of your special items.
The City of Santa Barbara’s website has updated information on trash and recycling that you can always refer to.
The Santa Barbara County’s Resource Recovery & Waste Management Division website also has plenty of information on different types of waste and recycling.
Lastly, the MarBorg Recycling Facility in downtown Santa Barbara has information on the kind of waste you can drop off.