.Throwing It All Away

coverwebEverybody’s for recycling, right? So why are we all doing it wrong? Our reporter gets down and dirty to uncover 10 secrets that will finally make the recycling process make sense

Craig Pearson uses two strange words to describe his job.  “I’m away,” he says when people ask what he does.

“People just say they throw things away,” he says. “Whatever they throw out ends up here with me. I’m away.”

Pearson, 52, is superintendent of Santa Cruz’s Resource Recovery Facility, or landfill and recycling center, on Dimeo Lane, located up a small right-hand turnoff three miles north of the city limits on Highway 1.

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Every day he watches some 350 tons of the things you no longer want being trucked up to the city’s 126-acre recovery center, with an ocean view that probably makes it the most scenic landfill site in the country.

Pearson’s goal is to keep the waste out of the ground by finding ways to reuse and recycle it. Right now he saves about 44 percent of refuse from the 200-foot deep, safety-lined canyon of landfill. Last year the city-owned garbage department collected $1.8 million by selling recovered cardboard, paper, metal, aluminum, plastic, dirt, wood and ground-up concrete to recyclers as far away as China.

I ended up meeting Pearson because of a dog-food can. Actually, a lot of dog-food cans that kept piling up in my blue recycling bin. With the drought, I wondered how clean they had to be to recycle them. Should I use soap and water, saving a can but using water I should be saving? Would they take them if they still had some traces of food in them? (The answer is a simple rinse will do. Also, containers holding liquids can just be turned upside down and drained.)

Then, I started wondering about the piles and piles of wrapping paper and presents piled up after the holidays. Do I just throw it into the blue container or should I separate packaging that mixes cardboard and plastic? And what about those small plastic bags my vegetables are wrapped in? Do they get recycled?

I realized that despite all the literature the public works department puts out, I spend half my time guessing about what should be recycled and what I should just throw away. It’s way more complicated, on every level, than you would expect. After researching everything I could about the process, I spent a couple of days at recycling centers in Santa Cruz and San Jose asking questions and getting answers. Here are 10 things you probably don’t know about what happens after you drop something in the bin.

1. The recycling process is both stunningly ingenious and maddeningly inefficient.

Have you ever seen that “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucy and Ethel work in a chocolate maker’s factory line and candy whizzes by so fast, they have to stuff their cheeks like squirrels to keep up? That’s not far from what it’s like in the recycling plant, officially called a MURF, a Materials Recovery Facility.

The high-tech stuff is amazing: Your recyclable garbage is dumped from big trucks onto the floor of a giant tented area and then scooped by a bulldozer onto a conveyer belt, sort of like pouring change into a coin-counting machine.

There, your trash meets its first round of human sorters—13 city employees and 15 developmentally disabled people from Hope Services, who pull out big cardboard, books, plastic bags and hazardous materials.

Next, the machines take over. A giant blue V-screen, which is a giant V-shaped machine, separates cans and bottles from paper; air blows paper upward while cans drop below. Giant magnets then send tin cans flying in the air into one tank while a wind tunnel blows aluminum in another direction.

Then, it’s back to humans, who have to pull out frustratingly endless amounts of plastic which slips into the paper piles. Pearson says that even with 100 people on the line, it would be impossible to extract all of the plastic. Wind whips the bags at different points in the process and sometimes a worker can pick up the same bag five times or more in a day.

Anyone who has watched this process or talked to the people who work there will never, ever, let plastic bags slip into their blue containers, without bagging them up. “Bag the bags” is the city’s reminder to wrap all of your plastic bags into one bigger one. If there is one lesson to learn about helping the process, that is it, they say.

2. There’s plenty to see at the recycling center that workers wish they could unsee.

cover1Among the most disturbing things workers have seen on the line: Hypodermic needles, adult toys, blood-splattered rags, a mannequin that looked like a dead body, Halloween toys that looked like human hands and feet, explosives and ammunition that went off, and big blocks of concrete. Someone once dropped off a baby grey whale. Workers had to bury it.

But the scariest thing garbage truck workers see is people who’ve been sleeping in dumpsters in cold weather—and scare the bejeezus out of collectors when they stand up. The city now sends fliers to homeless shelters saying “Don’t Sleep in the Dumpsters! It could be a deadly decision.” It explains that drivers can’t hear or see what is going into the trucks, and everything in the truck gets compacted.

3. Santa Cruz’s methods for dealing with garbage have come a long, long way.

In 1926, the city trucked trash out to the canyon on Dimeo Lane and burned it. Later, they dug holes and filled them with garbage of all kinds.

The city started recycling on Labor Day, 1987, by collecting curbside nylon bags for glass, tin cans and aluminum and asking residents to wrap paper up in a paper bag tied with string.

Two or three years later cardboard was added, and in 1992, so was plastic.

In 1997, 12,000 homes were given 68-gallon wheeled carts that held paper on one side and mixed containers on the other.

In 2006, the city removed the dividers from home recycling carts, in an effort to encourage more recycling, and the work of separating was moved to the recycling center. The idea being that more people will recycle if they don’t have to think about what goes where.

4. And yet, Santa Cruz County’s garbage system is like a map of Eastern Europe.

There are several companies with different rules. Watsonville picks up its own garbage and brings it to the Buena Vista landfill. The 30,000 customers in the unincorporated county are served by a private company called Green Waste, which also picks up in Capitola and Scotts Valley. The Boardwalk and UCSC have their own garbage companies, which do some their own recycling, but they also use the city’s services.

5. Some common household items are an environmental hazard if recycled.

Compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury, which can cause birth defects. You can’t put them in your bins. They can be brought to local hardware or lighting stores or up to the recycling center, which will take 10 bulbs at a time for free.

The same goes for batteries, which can now be recycled if you bring them back to the stores that sell them. For a complete list, check santacruzcountyrecycles.org. The recycling center will give you free stuff on Saturdays at its “Second Chance Store.” You can find paint, wood stains and preservatives, cleaning products, garden products and caulking, Saturdays 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. For info: 454-2606.    

6. It’s like a wildlife preserve in there, sort of.

cover2At certain times of the year, thousands of seagulls congregate at the site, and then suddenly, without notice, they all launch into the air. They’ve spotted what you can barely see: golden eagles hunting them. Workers regularly see the eagles dive and dramatically snatch a gull in its beak. Surrounded on three sides by Wilder Ranch State Park, the landfill is an animal lover’s dream. Pumas also hang out to hunt. Because of federal regulations, Pearson has to set off explosives to keep the gulls away from the site.

7. Your trash makes cash for the city.

Recycling makes for a sustainable community in that it provides revenue for the city to offset the costs of picking up trash and removing toxic waste and tires.

Right now, a work slowdown at West Coast seaports is wreaking havoc on prices. Santa Cruz’s Resource Recovery Center has bundles and bundles of paper it can’t get shipped. On the day I visited, you could see one of the stalled container ships off the coast from the landfill site.

Gary Wilens spends his days negotiating prices for the recyclables. Glass that is sorted into containers of clear, brown and green can get $200 a ton. Broken and unsorted glass fetches $138 a ton.

Prices fluctuate: cardboard was $130 a ton in June, but it’s now $115. Mixed paper was $80 a ton in November, and $102 in June. Scrap metal was $160 a ton in November, and now is $120.

Wilens says the fluctuations are based on the demand for new products that will be made from the old goods. Glass is melted into more glass; plastic is made into pellets that can be made into more plastic; paper begets more paper. On the minus side, the city pays $150 a ton to get rid of tires.

A couple of years ago, Santa Cruz had its best year, selling $2.1 million of recyclables, but it usually brings in $1.5 to$1.8 million a year.

8. Corporate lobbyists are working against recycling efforts.

Consumers can’t be paid for returning wine and liquor bottles, for example, as they would be for beer or soda, because of lobbyists. Pearson also sees many intrusions by plastic makers to sell their products where they aren’t really needed.

For some reason, cat food cans are often lined with plastic, which decreases their recycling value. Despite the objections of pet owners, who fear the chemicals in the plastic, companies still sell them that way.

9. Wax is wack.

If your cardboard or paper is covered in a wax coating, don’t bother recycling it, because it cannot be recycled. Trash it. The same goes for wax-coated paper plates, plastic utensils and milk cartons.

10. If you lose a wedding ring or a winning lottery ticket in a bin, there’s a chance it can be found.

This is not publicized much, but if you realize your loss quickly—like that day—you may be able to recover it. Pearson recalls two extraordinary incidents:

One man’s wife accidentally threw away an Amazon box containing a sweatshirt he had bought her for Christmas. He drove up to the center and the box was found on the sorting line. The man was thrilled and bought the staff a couple of boxes of donuts.

But that’s nothing compared to the jeweler who accidentally left a package of diamonds in the bottom of a Fed Ex package. It was found before the truck had finished dumping the load.

“I’ve had others where they called up and said they threw away something a couple of days ago, but I said, ‘No way,’” says Pearson. “If it’s a couple of days or the next day, there’s no way to isolate it once it gets mixed up with all the other stuff.  If we know the truck, we can get to it.”

Bonus: The City Council is considering raising your garbage rates.

Right now you pay $16.16 a month for a 20-gallon garbage bin and two 64-gallon containers for recycling and green waste. It costs $26.05 for a 32-gallon garbage container, $55.84 for a 64-gallon, and $89.35 for a 95-gallon. If the council approves the decision, costs will rise over the next three years to $22.36, $36.04, $77.25 and $123.60. You can see the proposal at cityofsantacruz.com.

The department says the money will go toward expanding the current landfill, which is expected to last 47 more years, replacing older trucks, and pension and benefit costs for 86 employees. There hasn’t been a price increase since 2009.

You can drive these things to the landfill and have them taken for free:

Fluorescent light bulbs


Scrap metal

TVs, stereos and small electronics

Used oil filters and motor oil

Motors, engines and transmissions

Lawn chairs, swimming pools, plastic tables and sheds

You have to pay to drop these things off:


Water heaters



Mattresses/box springs

Air conditioners


Tree stumps

Things that CAN be recycled in your containers:

Paper (including envelopes, junk mail, newspaper, magazines, cereal boxes—but not the bag inside; separate this into the trash—brochures and fliers. 

Glass bottles and jars (remove corks, caps and lids, leaving paper labels on is OK)

Aluminum cans, pie plates, trays, foil (clean and flatten foil, don’t ball it up)

Plastic bottles, jars and tubs

Laundry baskets, 5-gallon buckets, nursery pots and microwave trays, storage bins and plastic hangers

Things the city CAN’T recycle:

Waxed paper or waxed cardboard

Paper plates, paper cups, paper towels, napkins or tissues

Plastic-coated paper or cardboard

Milk cartons, juice boxes, soy milk containers

Wet or food-contaminated paper or cardboard

Blueprints or crosscut paper

Styrofoam blocks, peanuts or cups

Window glass or mirrors

Dishware or ceramics

Clothing or shoes

Aerosol cans

Polystyrene, in the foam form

Rubber bands

PVC pipe or garden hoses




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