Some time in 2016, on a warm summer day, a patron entered Santa Rosa’s D Street Starbucks, ordered an iced drink, and when they were finished, thoughtfully dropped the plastic cup with a straw into a plastic recycle bin.
By late 2017, the straw was likely revolving inside the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch, the infamous pile of mostly plastic waste twice the size of Texas floating in the middle of the ocean. It’s a scenario, Fred Stemmler, General Manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, the area’s waste management company, says, is all too probable.
How a recycled straw finds its way from green Northern California to the desolate middle of the Pacific involves the strange and complicated path our recycled waste takes in the global economy.
Until recently, as much as 60 percent of Sonoma County’s recycling waste was baled and trucked to Oakland, then loaded onto ships to cross the ocean to Chinese and other Asian facilities. Massive processing plants there sort the re-usable plastic into feed stock which is sold and made into new products and packaging that are eventually exported back to us.
But tons of the recycled plastics that California exports aren’t easily or actually reusable. Only certain specific types of plastic can be remelted and remolded. All the rest, along with plastic that’s dirty or contaminated, or comes mixed with other waste, gets kicked out as trash and simply ends up being dumped.
In China, vast amounts of that disposed plastic waste, according to a recent environmental study, end up in rivers, headed to the ocean. Each year, an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of plastic waste flows down China’s Yangtse River alone, the study reported, and into the sea.
And since plastic straws can’t be reused, it’s likely ones recycled in Sonoma County are now floating in the great plastic patch in the Pacific.
Taking action, kind of
Starbucks has recently announced they will stop offering plastic straws, and replace them with plastic adult sippy lids. But the ongoing problem is much, much larger, and the solution is a bit more complicated.
The problem is partly due to ‘wishful recycling’, says Patrick Carter. He’s the executive director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which oversees local recycling, compost and waste education programs. A significant amount of the plastic waste residents put into the recycle bin — which Recology’s Stemmler estimates is 30 percent — can’t actually be recycled. Styrofoam, any container with food on it, metallic-looking plastic snack wrappers, dishwasher safe plastic bowls: none of these are recyclable.
Many people prefer to err on the side of ‘recycle it’ if they’re not sure whether it’s garbage or not, Stemmler said, out of legitimate concern for the vast amounts of waste headed to rapidly filling landfills.
His recycling staff regularly encounter needles, toxic materials, and other nasty surprises in what should be a plastic recycling load.
That’s actually worse for the landfill, Stemmler said, because contaminated plastic is hard or impossible to sort, which means it’s likely just going to end up being dumped.
So does all this mean people should cut back on recycling plastics?
“No, definitely not,” Stemmler said.
As it is, only a surprisingly tiny amount of the total mass of plastic generated by residents gets recycled. According to a 2017 study in Science, an average of 270 lbs of plastic waste is produced per person per year in America — more than a ton for a family of four. Of that, “only about nine to 14 percent of the total plastic we consume ever gets recycled,” Stemmler said.