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Holiday Waste Highlights Challenge Of Moving Away From Landfills In California

We all create a lot more trash during the holidays. Keeping that out of the landfill is a big goal for the state of California, but it’s not going to be easy.  

Joe Hernandez sits behind the wheel of a big, green recycling truck. He’s just pulled into the Monterey Regional Waste Management District, back from a round of collecting recyclables out in the community.

As he backs into an area where recyclables get dumped, he tells me to stand back.

“I’m going to make a mess here,” says Hernandez.

This is the busiest time of year at the district.  You can see why as the remnants of the holidays tumble out of Hernandez’s truck into a big pile.

“We’re getting a lot of wrapping paper, a lot of boxes,” Hernandez says.

Even though these are recyclables, a good amount of it will end up in the landfill. Angela Goebel says that’s because many people don’t recycle properly. She’s the district’s Public Education and Outreach Specialist.  

She says one common mistake is putting used wrapping paper, ribbons, and boxes into a plastic bag to keep everything tidy.

“If a worker on a recycling sorting line sees a plastic bag full of recyclables, they’re going to pull it off as trash. They don’t have time to go through it and see what’s in the bag. And for safety reasons, they can’t stick their hand in a plastic bag,” says Goebel.

She says it’s also common to see packages from online shopping with the Styrofoam and bubble wrap still in them.

“They’ll just throw the whole box into the recycling and it can’t get properly recycled without that separation,” Goebel says.

That means all of that stuff, which could be recycled, will instead end up in the landfill. But the state wants to stop that.

By the year 2020, California aims to keep 75 percent of its waste out of landfills. To do that, people will have to create less waste plus do a better job at recycling and composting. The goal is called the 75 Percent Initiative.

“It’s an aspirational goal,” says Mark Oldfield.

Oldfield is the Communications Director for CalRecycle, also known as the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery.

“When we throw something into a hole in the ground, it stays there forever. And you lose not only the value of those materials that may be compostable or recyclable, but also at the front end, forces us to create more of these materials out of virgin products,” says Oldfield.

Landfills also emit a potent greenhouse gas as the organics in them decompose.

“The more we can do to reduce that, the better able we’re going to be to achieve the state’s climate emissions reduction goals. I mean California is really a world leader in the effort to address climate change and certainly the waste sector is one area where that can help,” Oldfield says.

California’s goal to keep 75 percent of its waste out of landfills motivated the Monterey Regional Waste Management District to update its recycling facility.  

“So we are in the Materials Recycling Facility, aka the MRF. We love calling it the MRF,” Tim Brownell says.

He’s the district's Director of Operations. He shows me around the facility, which is opening in just a few weeks.  

Brownell says people living on the Peninsula already keep close to 60 percent of their waste out of the landfill through recycling and composting.  The MRF will help the community get closer to that goal of 75 percent.

“By next year we’ll have made some improvements and every Christmas season after that we will continue to improve,” says Brownell.

Some of those improvements can start at home.  That’s why he says they’re working on a new smartphone app to help people figure out what is and isn’t recyclable.