To help the city meets its recycling goals, Los Angeles' Bureau of Sanitation has expanded the variety of items it will accept to include foam and more plastic products.
Since July 1, residents have been allowed to place in city-issued recycling bins plastic grocery bags as well as products made from polystyrene foam, known under the trademark Styrofoam. The city has launched a promotional campaign to educate the public on its expanded recycling program.
Some of the new recyclables include plastic hangers and grocery bags, and polystyrene foam cups and containers.
The expansion is part of a larger effort to meet Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's goal of recycling, by 2015, 70% of the estimated 10 million tons of waste generated annually by the city, Helou said.
Toward this end, the city's Public Works Department launched a pilot program in February in the east San Fernando Valley to help educate the public on proper sorting. Eight full-time "recycling ambassadors" have been dispatched to neighborhoods to instruct homeowners on the correct use of city-issued recycling bins.
Each homeowner has three specially colored bins: blue for general recycling, green for landscape recycling and black for refuse.
"We get feedback from residents all the time that say they don't know what to toss in what bin and what can or cannot go in the blue bin," said Alex Helou, division manager for the Bureau of Sanitation.
The east San Fernando Valley has some of the dirtiest recycling bins in the city, and that is why it was picked for the pilot project, Helou said. The most commonly misplaced items in the blue recycling bins are fabrics and dirt.
City officials hope the program will help redirect 400 tons of potential recyclables to the proper bins, which could generate an additional $4.3 million annually for the city, Helou said. The city has to throw out more than 25% of blue-bin contents because some residents don't bother to properly clean the recyclables.
"You don't have to wash the bottles and products, but just make sure they aren't dirty or soiled," Helou said. "Everything has to be clean to process at recycling or it'll be tossed."
The blue-bin program cost $52 million to operate last fiscal year, breaking down to a cost of $6 per household, compared with $15 a household for non-recyclable refuse, the city reported.
But the future of the city's efforts to recycle plastic bags and polystyrene foam is uncertain. The Board of Supervisors is considering a ban on plastic grocery bags, while environmental groups have called for a statewide ban on both types of products.
"The city of Los Angeles has been making great strides in providing recycling services to households, but it's more costly to recycle the foam and the bags," said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit group based in Sacramento.
"An outright ban would be better. In the blue bins, bags get crushed and compacted with everything else and get contaminated by touching the other products, which people then have to separate."
Murray stressed that the cost of recycling polystyrene foam is the most expensive in the state, citing a 2006 California Department of Conservation report that said processing the foam costs $3,320 per ton, compared with $89.72 per ton for glass.
"Although the new services are well-intentioned, Los Angeles needs to think further ahead on this economically and environmentally," Murray said.
Helou said his department doesn't support a ban on the polystyrene foam and plastic grocery bags because of potential revenue opportunities. He advises residents to place all plastic bags in one main bag, preventing the bags from clinging to other products and becoming soiled.
In the late 1980s, before state law required recycling, Los Angeles annually buried all 1.6 million tons of the waste it collected from curbsides. And though the amount of waste has stayed the same, only 1 million tons are now being sent to landfills, with the rest recycled, Helou said.
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The Bureau of Sanitation issues blue containers for recycling. The following items can be placed in the container:
Paper: All clean, dry paper, including computer, ledger, wrapping, arts and craft paper, unwanted mail, fliers, telephone books, note cards, newspapers, blueprints, magazines, file folders, paper bags, Post-it notes, catalogs and all envelopes, including those with windows.
Metal: All clean aluminum, tin, metal and bi-metal cans, including soda, juice, soup, vegetable and pet food cans; pie tins, clean aluminum foil; empty paint and aerosol cans; and wire hangers.
Glass: All clean glass bottles and jars, including soda, wine, beer, spaghetti sauce, pickle and others, as well as broken bottles, etc.
* All clean plastic bottles, including soda, juice, detergent, bleach, shampoo, lotion, mouthwash and dishwashing liquid; milk jugs; margarine and yogurt tubs; plastic planters; food and blister packaging, etc.
* All plastic bags, including grocery bags, dry cleaner bags and all clean film plastic.
* All clean polystyrene (Styrofoam), including cups, containers, egg cartons, etc.
* Miscellaneous plastics, including coat hangers, non-electric plastic toys, swimming pools and laundry baskets.
The following items cannot be placed in the recycling container:
Non-recyclables: Contaminated or soiled paper; clothing; window or auto glass; fluorescent lights; electronics; polystyrene packing peanuts; and hazardous materials such as batteries, pesticides and paints.
Source: Los Angeles Sanitation Department/Public Works