What goes around comes around

Brian Bodas, TPHS AP Environmental Science teacher, has an idea: gather all the trash produced by TPHS students in one week and pile it on a tarp in the quad. Pizza containers, rotting apples, empty Celsius cans, discarded math notes, plastic bottles — all heaped into one colossal mound that towers above the gym.

Difficult to imagine? That’s exactly the problem.

“[People] have this conceptualization that there’s this magic place called ‘away,’” Bodas said. “When I ask people they go, ‘oh just throw it away.’ And I go, ‘where is this away place you’re talking about?’ It’s the mentality that people just don’t want their waste by them. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

The City of San Diego’s Environmental Services Department (ESD) does not have this luxury. Responsible for managing the waste produced by the residential homes of the eighth largest city in the country, the ESD’s role is to deal with everything we think is just going “away.”

“I talk trash and think about trash all the time. I consider myself a trash talker,” Andrea Deleon, Interim Program Manager of the ESD’s Collection Services Division said, laughing. 

First, the basics. Residential waste in San Diego is separated into three streams: trash, recycling and, most recently in 2022, organic waste. Every house in the city is equipped with bins for each waste stream. And though residents may think their waste is cast off to faraway places when collected by city trucks, the reality is that it is all being processed close to home. 

“[San Diego] is unique in that way,” Deleon said. “Other cities … may send their trash to another city. [Waste] goes directly here, and that’s important because we’re directly impacted by our trash.”

Waste placed in residents’ black bins gets picked up by trucks and delivered straight to the city-operated Miramar Landfill.

“There’s a landfill tipping phase where all of these gigantic commercial vehicles will dump their trash in the back, and we flatten the trash,” Derek Lam, Recycling Specialist at ESD, said. 

But space is running out.

“The Miramar Landfill will probably be full within 8-10 years,” Bodas said. 

Thankfully, there are alternatives. 

In 2016, California signed into law Senate Bill 1383. The law requires all residential properties and businesses in California to divert organic waste from their landfill streams. Organic waste, which comprises half of what Californians dispose of in the trash, according to CalRecycle, releases methane when left to decompose in landfills, a greenhouse gas 28 times as potent as CO2. 

San Diego has met SB 1383 head-on through its organic waste recycling program. 

“It’s the newest kind of collection program. It went city-wide last year and is now fully implemented,” Deleon said. “Putting something in the green bin to compost is one of the single fastest and easiest ways for us to fight climate change.”

Organic waste (loose, not in any kind of plastic or compostable bag) collected from residents is taken to the city’s Miramar Greenery, where it undergoes an accelerated and controlled decomposition process, before becoming available for free pick up to the public. It has a multitude of benefits for our region’s agriculture.

“We want to put this [compost] back into the Earth,” Deleon said. “It’s an amendment that provides nutrients, it helps retain moisture. Those are all things that we need desperately, especially in California, as we continue to experience drought.”

But the organic waste recycling, as with any new program, is experiencing some resistance from San Diego residents, according to Lam.
“It’s always hard to get people to change their habits,” Lam said. 

For many San Diego residents, the perceived negatives of these changes outweigh the positives.

“I know not many people are using their compost bins to their advantage and there’s a lot of concern around like, ‘I don’t want to put my food in this compost bin because it’s going to smell bad. It’s going to bring rats,’” Charlotte Sach (11), co-president of the TPHS Urth Club, said. “But people don’t really know the tips…There’s a lot of things you can do to reduce those health concerns.”

Supporting this shift in mindset and behavior is one of the ESD’s central focuses.

“It’s like this slow progression of getting the word out and getting people more and more familiar with how to do this,” Lam said. “For a lot of people here at the department it is an uphill battle, but we do our best to try and educate the community.”

Now onto recycling.

The City of San Diego, unlike landfill and organic waste, does not operate its own recycling facilities. Instead, it contracts with private companies that operate various Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) throughout the city, which sort recyclable materials collected from residents’ blue bins.

“You have different machinery which will push these recyclables onto conveyor belts, where they’ll pass through a lot of different sorting processes.” Lam said.

This sorting is accomplished both manually by MRF employees and automatedly through cutting-edge technology, including a laser system that can detect and sort the different polymers of plastic (these are the numbers within the recycling symbols) and magnets that isolate metal recyclables. 

“The idea behind this whole process is the fact that you want to separate out your recyclables into their own categories, because that’s how the recycling companies want to buy the products,” Lam said. “They want to buy a brick that is either just glass, just metal or just one type of plastic, because it makes their job a lot easier later when they’re trying to create a recycled product from [one specific] material.”

As their name suggests, MRFs in San Diego do not perform the actual recycling of goods — they solely recover and process recyclable material, which is then sent to manufacturers to make new products.

“There’s no real, definite standard as to where something goes after it gets recycled,” John Carlton, Solid Waste Program Lead at HDR, an advisory group to the ESD and other waste management companies, said. 

But what materials can MRFs process? That depends on both the markets for recyclable goods and their physical properties, according to Carlton.

“Oftentimes in my own house…[my family] are constantly looking at me like, ‘is this recyclable or not?’” Carlton said. “It becomes very confusing. My advice to anybody is read what they say. Look at what the Environmental Services Department says they accept.”

This information is present on the ESD’s website. 

And yet, confusion about what is and isn’t recyclable is still prevalent throughout the public, according to Deleon. 

“The trend that I’ve seen is that what gets people the most confused is plastic, because there’s so many different types,” Deleon said.

The City of San Diego accepts plastics with the numbers 1-6 in their recycling signs, as long as they are clean (no food contamination), dried and loose in residents’ blue bins, Deleon said.

“We’ve gotten to a point now where almost everything is recyclable,” John Vorgeas, Director of Market Development at EDCO Disposal, said. Lam echoed this.

“By law, we are required to accept all different kinds of plastics to recycle with the exception of plastic film and bags,” Lam said.

But according to Matthew Clough, founder of the San Diego-based nonprofit Plastic Beach, this exception is a problem. A massive one.

“Soft plastics won’t be collected by any residential collection program in the U.S.,” Clough said. “It’s so bad that CalRecycle, which is California’s Government Oversight board of recycling, doesn’t even have statistics for soft plastic recycling. That’s how dismal it is.”

The City of San Diego uses 500 million plastic bags every year, according to the Surfrider Foundation. But the city’s ESD, along with those across the country, say they cannot accept soft plastics because they get caught up in conveyor belt systems during sorting.

“Instead of pivoting to work out how we can solve the [conveyer belt] problem, we as a country decided we’re just not going to,” Clough said. “It’s a real failure of engagement on our part as a country to just ignore that.”

This is why Clough founded Plastic Beach. Working at a motorcycle company in Oceanside, he noticed the immense amount of plastic wrap used for parts accumulating without anywhere to recycle it. His nonprofit partners with local businesses to provide soft plastic recycling services. But due to the commercialization of recycling in the U.S., products like soft plastics have a very low market, dissuading governments and organizations from attempting to process them.

“We don’t have competition because no one wants to get involved with it,” Clough said. 

Plastic Beach loses around 85 cents per pound of soft plastic collected from the whole process, according to Clough, and relies on donations from the public.

“It’s definitely a labor of love,” Clough said. “My whole approach to this business is I’m just going to stress test it until we run out of money… but my hope is and I feel quite confident that we are going to continue to grow…[and] get the word out.”

All plastics — but in particular soft plastics — pose extreme threats to our environment. When left to sit in landfills, they break down into microplastics that eventually end up in the ocean, with devastating effects on wildlife. And, according to mounting research, on us, too.

“More and more studies are being done that are finding plastics in our bodies,” Clough said. 

These microplastics are being found all over the world, in places that humans have never had a sustained presence.

“The extent of plastics is something that we’re really just starting to understand, just how pervasive they are,” Bodas said. 

And yet, the root of these problems may not be the recyclability of plastics. Perhaps it is their presence in the first place. 

“The U.S. is overall a very consumerist country,” Sach said. “Recycling is one of those things where it’s an anti-consumerist concept applied to a consumerist society.”

Bodas agreed.

“Just the fact that you live in an affluent society means that you probably use four to five times the amount of resources than the average citizen on the planet,” Bodas said. “When we look at waste generation, especially in the Western world, we really need to look in the mirror…Every kid’s got a cell phone or a car — most of the world is not like that.”

This mindset is something that many climate organizations in San Diego, including the Solana Center for Environmental Innovation, are trying to change.

“We don’t have control over how [things] are packaged, but the best defense is to try to avoid acquiring it at all,” Liz Davis, Volunteer and Community Engagement Specialist at the Solana Center, said. “[Reduction] is a completely transparent way that you know you’re making a difference.”

A major part of shifting the culture away from consumerism and towards proper waste management is through education and awareness-spreading, according to Brian Elliott, Committee Consultant for Council President Pro Tem Joe LaCava, the chair of San Diego’s Environment Committee.

“It’s ‘I don’t entirely know where this [waste] should go, and if I do, I may not understand or fully appreciate the significance of why it belongs in its specific bin,’” Elliott said. 

This lack of awareness begins in our childhoods, according to Pilar Purvis (11), co-president of Urth Club.

“It’s people going with this herd mentality,” Purvis said. “If we were all raised to be sustainable, it would just be a habit.”

This is what the ESD is trying to do. In addition to providing their own educational resources, the department partners with organizations like the Solana Center to hold educational workshops and events in the community about sustainability. 

Though waste management can seem like a daunting subject to tackle, Davis believes it’s all about taking little steps.

“One of the overwhelming things about sustainability is you find that everything you do is connected to twenty other things,” Davis said. “But the reverse is true. Once you start making one positive change, it then affects a whole lot of other things in a positive way. You need an upwards spiral rather than a downward spiral.”

And this is already happening.

“The younger generation are much more in tune with the whole idea of being a good environmental steward,” Bodas said. 

Davis agreed.

“I go up and down myself, we all do,” Davis said. “But then we realize that these ideas are taking hold. We have a lot that we know how to do, and when the demand is there, we’ve got the solutions. As people demonstrate by participating where they can, it can shift the tide pretty quickly.”

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