At one time, Benicia-based Pacific Rim processed area recyclables and shipped those used products overseas, where they became the base materials for new products.
Children toured the plant to see the importance of putting discarded items in the correct bins and used recycled items to make decorative keepsakes. But changes in the world market have impacted Benicia, said Marie Knutson, recycling coordinator for Republic Services, which handles Benicia’s garbage and recycling services. A little more than a year ago, China was the largest importer of cans, plastic bottles, cardboard and items that could be transformed into new items, and 40 percent of its imports came from the United States.
But China tightened its standards. Acceptable contamination levels, once about 3 percent, are now 0.5 percent, Knutson said. Prices of recycled products have dropped dramatically, however the cost of slowing the conveyor belts and adding employees to remove contaminated items have increased. Plus, Pacific Rim has closed. Now recyclables go to Republic’s processing plant in Milpitas. Trash goes to the Keller Canyon landfill in Pittsburg.
Benicia’s civic clubs, schools and other organizations have been seeing Knutson’s presentations more frequently as she explains what residents need to put in their various bins as well as how to prepare those articles. Her mantra is “Empty, Clean, Dry.” Residents need to empty remaining food and liquids from cans and bottles, clean them with a light rinse to remove any remaining residue. Finally, they should shake out the rinse water and let the items air dry before putting them in a recycling bin.
Some items may look recyclable, but are not, she said. This includes Aerosol cans, appliances, bubble wrap, strings of lights, coat hangers, electrical cords, garden hoses, syringes, razor blades, tires and wood. Single-use plastic utensils are trash, as most stuffed animals and plastic foam (Styrofoam) also go in the trash.
Knutson also speaks about items acceptable for composting. Her tips can be surprising. Some things seem to be paper, but are hybrid plastics, such as apparent “paper” cups and so-called “Earth-friendly” tableware products. Just because they’re made of corn, potato or sugar cane, that doesn’t mean they’re as compostable as they seem, she said. They often contain petroleum-based plastic, creating a hybrid that can’t be recycled or accepted as green waste.
“Everything biodegrades eventually, but that could be 10,000 years in a landfill,” she said. “Any ‘Eco’ or ‘Earth-friendly’ hybrid plastics go into the trash. Only 100 percent plastic products can go into the recycling.”
Of many items labeled “biodegradable,” Knutson said only bamboo is really compostable.
Instead of trying to figure out which are the least harmful single-use products, a better alternative is using stainless flatware and actual dishware, she said.
Want to know which bin is for what item? Knutson suggested asking your child. Republic Services and Benicia Unified School District are partners in promoting recycling and composting in local school lunchrooms. “We’re working very hard with the schools,” she said.
Robert Semple Elementary School first tested the program, and Joe Henderson Elementary School soon joined. Pupils, led by trained “Green teams,” learn the proper disposal of food waste, whether the leftover products are from purchased lunches or are those brought from home.
That effort has a three-word slogan, too—“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” Youngsters also are being told to ask their parents to pack them a “zero waste” lunch in a reusable lunchbox with food in washable containers instead of plastic bags, real utensils and a reusable cloth napkin or bandana.
“It’s their Earth next,” she said. “Help teach kids to keep it clean.”