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The Party’s Over

Everything You’ve Always Wanted 
to Know about Recycling

by Janice Cook Knight

Have you ever had a party and afterwards had to sort the trash from the recycling, even when the containers were clearly marked? It seems everyone is confused about what goes into the recycling bin. Call me obsessive, but I hate throwing out things that could be recycled.

I’ve read the labels on the recycling cans, explored the city’s website on the subject and still wondered about some items. For example, why can’t plastic bags go in the general recycling? Several of my family and friends have the notion that if they just throw enough plastic bags into the bins, the city will be persuaded to recycle them, so they put them in hopefully, even though the posters on the can are clearly marked “No plastic bags.”

People feel the same way about polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) containers, even though the sign on the lids says “No Styrofoam.” What about pizza boxes? And ice cream containers? My (young adult) children throw pizza boxes into the recycling, with bits of sauce and cheese clinging to the box, thinking, “This is cardboard, it must be recyclable.” Is a little food OK? What about paper plates and slightly used paper napkins? And lids? Do they just end up in the trash anyway? Who sorts through these things? And what about the urban myth that everything we think is being recycled is simply placed on a barge that is shipped out to another country to end up in a third world landfill?

Plastic, Styrofoam and More Plastic!

When did our food become so ensconced in packaging? And how are we going to deal with it? The simple days of throwing everything in the trash are gone. Recycling is good for the environment, no question, but that doesn’t motivate everyone to do it. But recycling, as it turns out, is actually big business, if the product that one is recycling has value.

Recently I met with Eric Lohela (aka “compost guy”), an environmental specialist in the City of Santa Barbara Finance Department. Eric explained that refuse such as aluminum and steel cans have weight and the metal is valuable, hence there are companies that want to recycle it. The same goes for some of the heavier plastics, like the number ones and twos.

Styrofoam is a problem, because it is so lightweight—literally it is a kind of plastic full of air. Theoretically it could be recycled (everything can be recycled, for a price), but it seldom is, because no one in the business wants something that weighs so little. And when Styrofoam has had food in it, it can’t be recycled; it is no longer a clean product. Styrofoam also leaches into some foods it comes in contact with: foods that are fatty, acidic or hot. That means that I might be getting a little vitamin styrene along with my smoothie.

So why are we packing food into this form of plastic anyway? It’s both non-compostable and non-recyclable, and also emits toxic chemicals during its production.

The Santa Barbara City Council voted recently to keep Styrofoam containers in use in Santa Barbara for the time being, even though they are not recyclable. They found that Styrofoam was the lesser of two evils: The alternative, packaging foods in clean cardboard containers—which, by law, must be made from new paper (not already recycled paper)—looked like a worse alternative. Styrofoam is also cheap; cardboard is more expensive for restaurants and consumers.

Manufacturers are working on better alternatives, and Santa Barbara is looking into these, too. To work, an alternative product will need to have the strength and waterproof qualities that Styrofoam has. There are some new corn-based plastics, but many of these are not easily compostable. Growing the corn is energy-intensive too—not really offering an energy reduction. Compostable trays made of renewable bulrush by local company Be Green Packaging may be one answer.

What About Those Plastic Bags?

Our municipal district doesn’t recycle plastic bags, but California law has mandated that grocery stores offering plastic bags must also offer to take them back. So any of the major grocery stores have plastic bag recycling, and they are monitored by an outside agency to make sure they are complying with the law. The bags are mostly made into decking material, made of a combination
of the recycled bags and sawdust.

Bags are a big problem in the environment. Even with the grocery stores recycling, here are the facts: 19 billion bags will be manufactured this year in California, which adds up to 40 bags per family per week. Yikes. And only an estimated 5% of those are getting recycled. They end up in our rivers and oceans in huge numbers; a gigantic mass of them the size of Texas floats in the Pacific somewhere between the West Coast and Hawaii, and there are others worldwide as well. The plastics are brought together by ocean currents.

There is some good news, however: In communities that require customers to purchase bags, the demand for new bags has gone down by as much as 75% to 90%. Even a small surcharge for the bags serves as motivation for shoppers to BYOB (bring your own bag).

Eric set me straight on what could be recycled and what should go in the trash. It was a relief to clarify this. When our recycling gets to the waste companies, it gets sorted by machine, and it also gets sorted by people, who have to do a lot of the work we’re not doing at home. Things like plastic bags, mixed with bottles and cans, must be removed, because they can clog the machines and cause even more problems. They then end up in the trash when they could have been recycled. If a large batch of recycling is contaminated (contains non-recyclable items), recyclers may refuse to accept it.

And yes, they really do recycle all this stuff—it doesn’t end up on a barge. That urban myth refers to an infamous barge (true story, 20 years ago) containing garbage from New York City that no one wanted to deal with. (Eventually, the barge was allowed to dock in Brooklyn and the garbage was incinerated.)

The Lowdown on Other Recyclables

I always wondered about lids. Yes, we can recycle those—both plastic and metal. Throw them in. Leave the caps on their rinsed bottles, if possible.

Here’s the news on paper food goods, like paper plates, cups and napkins. That’s a no, for two reasons: Food contaminates the paper but also the kind of paper those items are composed of becomes gummy when wet and can mess up the other paper and cardboard recycling, so leave those out. They are compostable, however, at home. So, unless you have a compost bin, you’ll have to send those used pizza boxes to the garbage.

Currently Santa Barbara doesn’t offer residential compost bins but is looking into the feasibility of offering this. Other cities are doing this—Seattle and San Francisco among them. Santa Barbara offers composting bins to restaurants now on a volunteer basis, and someone from the city’s Environmental Services Division will come to your restaurant and train your employees on how to use the bins.

Meanwhile, I already compost at home, so paper plates, napkins and paper towels will now be going in there. Pizza boxes too. I wonder how long they will take to break down?

Which plastics can be recycled? The city is currently asking us to put in all plastics except plastic bags and Styrofoam.

What about milk cartons? They are coated with either wax or a thin coating of plastic and are not recyclable in our county, though there are recycling centers in Los Angeles that do accept them. I wish Santa Barbara offered this service, given the amount of milk cartons in use. Also not recyclable are the aseptic boxes that soymilk and some soups come in—in that case they are a blend of paper, foil and plastic. So you’ll have to put those, and the milk cartons, in the trash.

Eric Lohela would like to see citizens reducing first, recycling second. That means, it’s great to recycle bags at the grocery store, but much better would be to bring our own reusable bags to the grocery store and use them until they are plumb worn out, literally hundreds of times. Also, when using paper goods in the kitchen, buy the towels, napkins and plates that are made of recycled paper, so that new trees don’t have to be used. And if you don’t have a compost bin, start one.

Constantly producing single-use food containers, whether it’s plastic made from non-renewable oil products or paper from trees, even if they are sustainably planted trees, uses lots of energy. Why buy or use new when we don’t have to?

Clearly we love convenience, but it’s time to give the environment a big break. While all the plastic wrap and Styrofoam trays and paper goods are convenient, we have gotten used to their easy availability when there are better alternatives, like glass and reusable containers. All of these products going into landfills take up a tremendous amount of space and use huge amounts of energy. We could lead a revolution simply by cooking at home! Now there’s an idea. That’s also the answer to my earlier question: When did our food become so ensconced in packaging? When we stopped cooking at home.

What would it be like to go a month without using non-recyclable plastics? A month without Styrofoam to-go containers? We could easily go a month without using plastic bags, by simply bringing our own to the store or be inspired by one of my friends: When she forgets her bags, she simply puts her groceries back in the cart after they’re rung up and wheels them out to the trunk of her car. Why not? That would train me to remember my bags pretty quickly. I’m sure it would be challenging … but I think I’m up for it.

Will you join me in the pleasure of reusing, reducing and recycling?


Janice Cook Knight is the author of Follow Your Heart’s Vegetarian Soup Cookbook and The Follow Your Heart Cookbook: Recipes from the Vegetarian Restaurant. She has taught cooking for over 25 years, and currently teaches a cookbook-writing workshop. She lives in Santa Barbara with her family.

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Categories Summer 2010