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Zero Waste Communities of San Bernadino County

What’s All This Stink About? Getting to the Bottom of Our Trash and Recyclables!

To kick off our Curbside Recycling Pilot Program, we needed to conduct a strong baseline measurement to get a picture of what residents recycled and trashed before diving into the pilot program. This baseline also provided us information on the amount of contaminated materials, those items that actually belong in the trash or are too toxic to trash (ie: paint, pesticides, batteries, and oil), mistakenly thrown into the recycling bin. We also wanted to get a snapshot of trash to find out if there were recyclables that could have been salvaged if only residents utilized their blue bin properly.



To do so, we embarked on a waste characterization assessment effort that essentially, got to the bottom of about 600 lbs. of recyclables and 1,400 lbs. of trash from Del Rosa Estates homes, delivered to a local Materials Recovery Facility. A waste characterization assessment involves sampling and analyzing the composition of the bins to determine what makes up the waste.


We suited up in protective gear from head-to-toe reminiscent of a cross between outer-space suits (or what we so adoringly called Intergalactic Planetary styles; yes, we are the generation of The Beastie Boys) and Village People tryouts for the waste assessment character that never made it in the band.

Literally, we dissected the recyclables and trash by separating each larger pile into nine material category types, namely: Paper, Glass, Cardboard, Plastics #1-7, Steel/Tin/Aluminum, Electronic Waste, Household Hazardous Waste, Organics (food waste and green waste) and Trash (disposable diapers, pet waste, soiled packaging, etc), and weighed each material type on a scale.



The results were enlightening and yes, you guessed it…dirty. While more than half of what we went through were in fact, recyclables in the recycling pile, we did find a lot contamination (classified as Trash, Organics, HHW and e-Waste).

We wondered if residents try to do the right thing by erring on the side of caution and just recycling those questionable items. Is it confusing to know what is recyclable and what isn’t? If so, why and what would make it easier?

Some interesting and commonly mistaken non-recyclable finds: clothing, shoes, more shoes, hangers (at one point, our waste assessment team joked that it was better than a Goodwill — we could do a waste assessment makeover and dress someone with the items found in “recyclables”, alone), lots of Styrofoam, plastic bags and electronic waste.

As for the trash, it appears that people are pretty clear about what goes in the black bin. We did find a lot of paper and newspaper that could have been salvaged in the recycling bin and diverted from a landfill, and household hazardous waste items (too toxic to trash) that should have in fact been taken to a collection center for proper disposal.

We’ll share the results at the end of the pilot, so stay tuned and make sure you check back on our blog! Check out our photo stream to see the rest of the pictures from our assessments.


Touring the Materials Recovery Facility

After what felt like should have been an episode on Dirty Jobs, we took up the on-site manager’s friendly offer to tour the Materials Recovery Facility and got a sneak-peak, first-hand on how they sort the recyclables from contaminants and get the recyclables in quality shape (needs to be under 10% contamination) for re-sale to interested buyers.



We stepped into a land of mountainous recyclables hitting the ceiling and leaving no space unused in the facility. Blue bin material (that came in from a curbside residential recycling program) were placed on a large conveyor belt and were then sorted manually on the belt while moving, rapidly and accurately, by a team of facility workers who separated and dropped recyclables into three common categories: paper, glass and plastics #1-7.




Once sorted, each of the recyclables piles is then baled together. One large bale is usually 2000-2500 lbs. of compressed plastic or cardboard and paper. Glass on the other hand, is melted down by color: green, red or clear. Bales are shipped to buyers daily. Almost every day, 400-500 tons of recyclables and trash are sorted through to salvage materials and divert them from the landfill.



It was an eye-opening and truly educational experience to understand what happens to our recyclables and trash when it leaves our homes. Understanding where it all goes and the labor it takes to sort recyclables were certainly enlightening moments that reminded us to go easy on the Earth and recycle, recycle, recycle, and recycle properly, whenever possible.



Check out our photo stream to see the rest of the pictures from our Materials Re-Use Facility tour!


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