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San Jose Is Bad at Recycling, But It Has a Plan to Improve

In 2015, just 32 percent of the city’s single-family recycling bins were contaminated with non-recyclable material. By 2020, it was more than half. The city hopes education will help.

California Bay Area residents, do you really know what belongs in your recycling carts?

If you said “yes,” you may very well be right — unless you live in San Jose.

Recycling contamination has become a growing problem in the Bay Area’s largest city. A city survey in 2022 found that 57 percent of waste deposited in single-family recycling carts was not recyclable. In 2020, 51 percent of bins were contaminated with non-recyclable material; five years before that, only 32 percent were contaminated.

According to a 2019 report from The Recycling Partnership, contamination costs the U.S. recycling system at least $300 million annually. Common examples of contamination include putting trash in recycling bins — sometimes called “wish-cycling,” as in “I wish this was recyclable” — and food and drink from cans and plastic containers spilling onto other recyclables in the bins.

Different cities have different rules for which recyclables they accept. With the passage of SB1383 in 2022, the burden of monitoring waste containers for contamination in California fell to cities.

But other major Bay Area cities have thrived in this system, maintaining some of the lowest contamination rates in the country.

In a November 2022 audit, Oakland found that only 10.5 percent of its residents’ recycling bins and 4 percent of all compost bins had any level of contamination. San Francisco, which aims for a zero waste goal, also has a low contamination rate, with only 19 percent of materials deposited in residents’ recycling bins found to be unrecyclable, according to a 2020 article by the San Francisco Public Press, which called the city’s 81 percent success rate “among the highest in the nation.”

Valerie Osmond, deputy director of the integrated waste management division in San Jose, said there are a variety of costs associated with contamination: It takes more effort and manpower to extract trash from the recyclables, and cities have to pay for the amount of trash they are sending to landfills.

Osmond said that the city is assembling and training a new team of temporary staff members who will go out on different routes throughout the city and deliver feedback starting in April. Over the next few months, they will be going out early on collection days in different parts of the city. Osmond said they hope to give feedback to 30,000 to 40,000 homes by June, before this year’s curbside recycling study in the fall.

Staff members will check residential recycling bins for contamination and leave positive feedback or constructive criticism on the carts.

The double-sided tag will have a green “Good job!” message with a smiley face on one side, which will be shown to residents who recycle correctly. Residents who do not recycle correctly may wake up to the red “Oops!” side, with feedback to correct their mistakes.

“We’re really excited about this. I think it’s a combination of all these different methods to try and reach people,” said Osmond. “Everybody absorbs information in different ways, so we’re trying a lot of different tracks and hoping this will be effective, this one-on-one feedback to residents.”

This isn’t the first time the city has taken a new approach to reduce recycling contamination. In 2022, San Jose initiated a program to give residents bigger garbage carters for free, which reduced instances of people throwing overflowing garbage into their recycling bins.

Osmond said that in 2021, the city also added more visual messages on recycling cart lids to notify residents about what items were and were not allowed in the bin.

Other cities have also given their residents feedback on their recycling, including Santa Cruz and Milpitas.

Leslie O’Malley, waste reduction manager for the city of Santa Cruz, said the city has conducted field inspections of recycling carts since 2012. The city inspects recycling and garbage cans outside single-family and multi-family residences and businesses at least once a week.

In Santa Cruz, volunteers put stickers on carts to let people know they evaluated their bins. Santa Cruz also gives “Oops!” stickers to residents that made minor recycling mistakes so their trash is still collected. An orange tag tells collectors not to take the trash, and the staff sends a letter and a flier to remind people to recycle properly.

O’Malley said Santa Cruz’s initiatives have had fluctuating results due to rental housing turnovers in the college town. However, their programs have won several awards, including Best Recycling Program by the California Resource Recovery Association in 2019.

The Milpitas feedback plan only started in 2022, said Myvan Khuu-Seeman, a senior administrative analyst who manages Milpitas’ solid waste program. Like San Jose, Milpitas city staff also give out double-sided tags with an “Oops!” side and a “Yes!” side.

Milpitas only has contamination data on the last two years of lid flips, so it is too early to tell if there has been an effect, said Khuu-Seeman. However, she said that Milpitas has tailored messaging related to recycling even more last year.

“The whole thing is just a lot of trying to make things easier for people to understand,” Khuu-Seeman said.

Cities are not the only ones educating people on recycling properly. Justin Imamura, the founder and president of The Trash Punx, a nonprofit organization with the goal of cleaning up the environment around San Jose, said he is glad to see that the city is putting more effort into addressing recycling contamination. He said he is excited to see how city staff will audit his trash, and feels that his group has an important part to play, as well.

“There just needs to be more outreach, to be honest, and I know city resources are limited, so let us, the nonprofit partners, do the dirty work. We’ll go out to schools and teach people,” Imamura said.

O’Malley advises cities like San Jose, that would like to give feedback about recycling practices, should track the data, follow up with residents and reinforce positive behaviors.

“I think by and large people want to do a good job, and if you can recognize that they’re doing a good job, then I think that’ll spread out and you’ll see more of it,” O’Malley said.

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