Recycling is practically a genetic impulse in my family. My older sister regularly flies across the country with empty but oozing soda cans in her purse so she can recycle them at home instead of throwing them in the trash. My little sister has a worm box to turn her coffee grounds into compost. Me? No piece of plastic, glass or paper is too small to salvage. Juice bottle caps, coffee lids, receipts--nothing induces liberal guilt more quickly for me than throwing them away.
But standing at the sink one day, engaged in a futile attempt to scrub the almond butter off the insides of a jar, I started to wonder what was happening to all the newspapers, beer bottles, junk mail and yogurt containers I threw in my L.A. city-issued big blue recycling bin each week. I decided to trail my recycling truck to find out.
Ordinarily, the emerald green truck is my alarm clock on Tuesdays as it slowly snorts its way through the neighborhood around 7 a.m. But today I am up and waiting, ready to roll. It's 7:25 when the driver of truck No. 174 wheels up, clasps a robotic arm around my 90-gallon bin and gives it the old heave-ho. He will do this about 900 times today.
I pull out of my driveway to follow him. From the tail end of the truck, a cartoon with big eyes and waving arms smiles at me, warning me of three recycling no-no's: No plastic bags. No electronics, appliances or metals. And no construction debris or wood.
I've already violated one of the rules: plastic grocery store bags. I have so many of them, I'm convinced they divide and multiply under my kitchen sink. Like many other plastic items, bags may have the recycling symbol on them, but they aren't recycled by the city (you can take them back to the grocery store, however) because they are not cost-efficient to sort and resell.
Trailing my driver, I notice I'm not the only one breaking the rules. A broom handle sticks out from one neighbor's bin; dirty Styrofoam plates flutter out of another. Even though the city does not recycle these items, the truck swallows them up. Later, they will be sorted out and added to the pile headed for a landfill.
It turns out that about a quarter of what's thrown in the recycling bins is either not recyclable or not recycled by the city. Among the items that have come through the system: engine blocks, clothes, dead animals and garden hoses.
"Pretty much anything and everything that fits in those bins, people throw it in," said David Lee, manager of L.A. Recycling Center on North Main Street downtown.
L.A. Recycling, which handles recyclables from my neighborhood and others, is one of six privately run recycling centers under contract with the city of Los Angeles. According to Richard Wozniak, head of the city's recycling division, L.A. has almost 100% participation in the program.
As I follow my truck as it weaves through the neighborhood, I notice that only about one in three houses has put out a recycling bin for pickup. I expect that, like me, those households are recycling, but don't bother to drag their bin out each week. The containers can get heavy--they hold up to 250 pounds of stuff.
At about 12:30 p.m., my truck pulls into L.A. Recycling and drives onto a scale to be weighed before it dumps its load. In a little more than five hours, it has collected 7,230 pounds and will, by the end of the day, collect double that amount. (I've never weighed my trash, but the average L.A. household generates 2,275 pounds of it each year--and about a quarter of that is recyclable, Wozniak says.)
The city's recycling system is "single stream," which means that paper, cans and glass are all tossed together into the same recycling bin. When the city began its curbside program in 1989, residents were asked to sort their recyclables into two containers--one for paper, another for plastics, cans and glass. To make the system more user-friendly and cost-effective, the city switched to single stream in 1997.
As I look over the contents of my truck's morning run, I try to see if I recognize any of my trash amid the Cheetos bags, lawn furniture, house plants, Pepsi bottles, egg cartons, salad dressing bottles and Slim-Fast cans. Could that label-less tin can rolling my way be the one I recycled? I have no idea. The only sure indication the trash is even from my neighborhood is the box from Casa Bianca, a local pizza parlor.
For the most part, recyclables are pretty much the same across the city, the director of the center tells me. "There isn't too much difference between a load that might come from Beverly Hills or a load that came from Watts," says Lee. "In Beverly Hills, they might have a Dom Perignon bottle in there, but in Watts if you have a bottle of Ripple, who cares? It has the same scrap value."
Truck No. 174's contents are dumped into a big mound that will later be bulldozed into an even larger pile that will then be fed onto a conveyor belt.