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Secrets of recycling

(psst ... you don't have to rinse your bottles)

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The scene is a massive cacophonic and visual feast. In a way it looks like the end of a political convention, with every part of the tableau in apparent movement and all manner of colorful bits of paper products in transition.

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
This is the “murf,” or the Material Recovery Facility, the recycling center at Cold Canyon Landfill outside of SLO, where they process about 170 tons of recyclables per day.

Much like the original meanings of the letters in the massive truckloads of shredded paper that arrive in profusion around tax time, there are secrets in this place and two similar facilities in SLO County. There are things nobody tells you about your recycling. At least until now. 


These are the clean and dirty little secrets of recycling:

Secret: They don’t throw away all the stuff that isn’t profitable to recycle. It’s a common myth that only the good stuff gets saved, but that’s just part of the deal. Like Different Strokes, they take the good, they take the bad. “They’d get in big trouble for that,” said Bill Worrell, manager of the county’s Integrated Waste Management Authority. In all, about 95 percent of the “recyclable” materials that show up at the Cold Canyon site get recycled. The rest end up in a bin outside the recycling center. On a recent day it was full of things like shredded paper, bits of glass, and plastic bottle caps (they are recyclable but sometimes fall through the cracks.) Sometimes they look at the reject bin, and run it through again.

Secret: Nobody cares if you rinse out your bottle or leave a bit of cheese on your paper plate. John Ryan, manager of the Cold Canyon Processing Facility, waved his arm across the vast expanse of the whirring factory and put it like this: “Do you think they’d build something like this so it could be shut down by a piece of cheese?” That doesn’t mean they want the whole pizza dumped in the blue recycling bins, but don’t bother rinsing bottles. “That only wastes water,” he says.

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Secret: Cold Canyon hires a falconer to keep gulls away.

It works.

Secret: That “CA CRV” stamped on cans and bottles actually has a meaning. They’re worth 5 cents on containers that hold less than 24 ounces, double that for larger bottles. Why don’t they just say the actual value on the bottle like other states do? That remains a secret.

Secret: Don’t recycle syringes. The workers picking recyclables off the line move fast. They shouldn’t have to worry about getting stuck. The Integrated Waste Management Authority’s Bill Worrell says the county’s close to having a program for people to dispose of used syringes safely. Recycling centers also don’t want your old oil filters or scrap metal. It screws up the deal. “No engine blocks. No fly wheels,” says Ryan, “That doesn’t help us at all.”

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Secret: They still can’t take paper milk cartons. Or Styrofoam. That’s true. There’s still no good way to separate the waxy interior from the paper for the milk cartons. And Styrofoam is too costly to reprocess.

Secret: Plastic bags are okay for SLO recycling. Although your recycling guide in the phone book says otherwise, Ryan says the materials recovery facility is all set to take plastic bags, although he’d prefer that they be bagged up together instead of loose; they have a tendency to take flight.

Secret: All SLO’s cans end up as Bud or related products. Ryan said all of the aluminum gets sent to Anheuser Busch.

Secret: Much of our recycling eventually heads overseas. Commodities are expensive and it’s cheaper to make new materials out of old ones than it is to grow or mine the original materials (especially aluminum). Fast-growing countries are hungry for our refuse and are paying top dollar.

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Secret: SLO fought a lawsuit over those unique bins in the city of SLO that have a place for cups and bottles above the trash. They may look like they were designed by Masons, but they were modified from a San Francisco design, whose creator sued the Integrated Waste Management Authority. He lost. They’re designed to make it easier for pickers to easily grab the CRV-style recyclables without having to dig through the trash.

Secret: The county rocks in terms of recycling. Consider that the county “diverts” about 61 percent of all refuse away from the landfill. That compares to the statewide average of about 54 percent. Also, there are more battery and fluorescent light drop-off stations in SLO County than in the entire state.

Secret: We may have to all recycle more. The state is considering upping the requirement from diverting 50 percent of all materials from landfills, to 75 percent. Could it be done? A recent SLO County Grand Jury report found that locally, about half the materials that make their way to the landfill are paper, which could be recycled.

Secret: There’s real money in recycling. Consider the basic fact that at Cold Canyon they charge a person $29 a ton to dump trash, but only $5 per ton to dump unsorted recyclables.

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