Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

It was more than a year after the seabird died and washed up on a California beach before Jessie Beck prepared to reveal its last meals.

Holding its stomach over a laboratory sink, Beck snipped open the slick tissue. With a series of plinks, the stomach contents slumped out onto the metal sieve below.

Inside were the remains of seabird food, like hooked squid beaks the size of fingernail clippings. Mostly, though, Beck found hard shards of plastic, soggy cardboard, styrofoam and a maroon hunk of mystery meat that looked like beef jerky—until Beck cracked it open. Its innards were pure white: more styrofoam.

The gray bird, called a northern fulmar, may have died in the waters off California during its winter migration. And it’s possible that the bird’s garbage-filled meals played a part in its death. But Beck, a scientist with the nonprofit group Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, isn’t one to speculate, and she isn’t investigating what killed it.

Instead, the bird is part of a larger project to monitor plastic pollution, 4 to 12 million metric tons of which wash into the ocean around the world every year. Fulmars are known to snack on this trash, particularly when they’re hungry. And when they die and wash up on shore, about 70 percent of them bring some plastic back with them every year.

Looking in these birds’ guts is how Beck studies the plastic bobbing on the ocean’s surface and tempting hungry animals. That plastic and cardboard crowding out the squid beaks and seaweed in the dead bird’s stomach are a sign of a global garbage crisis that California hasn’t escaped.

Too Much Trash

Californians generated about 77.2 million tons of waste in 2017, according to the most recent calculations from CalRecycle, California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Of that, about 44.4 million tons ended up in landfills in 2017. CalRecycle estimates that the other 32.8 million tons, about 42 percent, was sent to recycling or composting, or was just never tossed in the first place.

The numbers are a problem, because they mean the state is far from reaching a statewide goal to reduce, recycle, or compost 75 percent of waste by the year 2020. And the outlook isn’t good—in part because cheap natural gas is spurring investments in the manufacturing of virgin plastics, which a CalRecycle report said could “undermine source reduction efforts, undercut prices for recovered plastics, and exacerbate plastic litter and marine pollution issues.”

There’s also been a major shakeup in the international recycling markets, which affects California because it exports about a third of its recycling, according to CalRecycle estimates. Historically, the bulk of California’s recycling exports went to China. But in 2013, China temporarily scaled up inspection and enforcement against imports of contaminated recycling. And in 2017, China announced new restrictions on imports and tighter contamination standards for materials including mixed plastics and unsorted paper.

“That started sending recyclers and recycling markets into a tailspin here,” said Kate O’Neill, an associate professor in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the international waste trade. Since then, countries including Thailand, Vietnam, and India announced plans to ban scrap plastic.

O’Neill, for one, hasn’t lost hope. “Waste is a challenge we can meet,” she said. She hopes the race to find a plastic substitute will take off, and that manufacturers will cut back packaging on consumer goods. But any systemic change, she knows, will take time.

“You’re talking about slowing down and stopping the Titanic,” she said.

In the meantime, recyclers and local governments across the state are struggling to cope with a rapidly changing market for recyclables. And they’re trying not to undo the decades of work that made consumer recycling a habit.

Disappearing Markets

The upheaval in recycling markets means plastic and, especially, paper are piling up for recyclers like Richard Caglia, corporate development officer for Caglia Environmental companies, including the Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station in Fresno.

“The market is in a state of flux,” Caglia said, and weathering it has meant raising rates for some of the recycling haulers and cities they work with, including Fresno. “So far, we’ve been very fortunate to survive it.”

The Cedar Avenue facility accepts about half of Fresno’s residential recycling, as well as recycling from surrounding areas. Caglia’s trying to find someone who wants to pay for his bales of mixed paper. Right now, he has roughly 4.2 million pounds of it stockpiled, and that has Caglia worried about fires. Central Valley summers are hot, and every so often, people toss something that could spark a fire—like lithium ion batteries—into their recycling.

“Even though we try to keep our materials spread out as far as possible, it’s the nature of the business—something could go wrong anytime,” he said. “We actually have 24-hour security now doing nothing but fire watch.”

In spite of the shakeup, the city of Fresno hasn’t raised its garbage fees or changed which recyclables it collects from residents—at least not yet, according to Alicia Real, recycling coordinator for the City of Fresno. “We’re at that tipping point right now,” Real said.

For now, though, Real said it’s the non-recyclables people really need to stop tossing in the blue bin, things like dirty diapers, garden hoses, clothing, styrofoam and kiddie pools. That’s why Fresno is running a “Keep Fresno Clean” campaign. Its webpage is headlined by a woman clutching a garden hose and a man holding a diaper sporting a smiling poop emoji.

The goal is to curb what Real calls wish-recycling. “Most people are trying to do the right thing,” she said. “They look at a product and say, ‘Oh, this is made from half-plastic and half-metal; this should be recyclable,’ and so they throw it into the container.”

Caglia appreciates the effort but thinks more work is needed. Garden hoses are a particular nightmare.

“Powerful machinery has a tendency to wind things up pretty tight,” Caglia said, and the whole plant can come to a standstill as a wayward hose needs to be cut loose.

Culver City is in a similar predicament. Once, it could sell off its recycling for about $25 per ton, according to Kim Braun, the manager of environmental programs and operations in the public works department. But now, recyclers are having a difficult time finding buyers for most of the city’s plastics, except for beverage bottles and detergent containers.

As for yogurt cups, plastic packaging, laundry hampers and plastic clamshells, Braun said that those types of mixed plastics will end up in a landfill one way or another, no matter what residents do.

“They’re going to put it in the can to go to the landfill at the front end, or the processor is going to put it in the landfill at the backend,” she said.

These days, Braun estimated, Culver City has to pay about $25 per ton to get processors to take its curbside recycling off its hands. While rates haven’t increased yet for residents, she said to expect new, higher fees in July 2020. Still, Braun hasn’t changed what Culver City picks up at the curb in response to the international recycling shakeup. She doesn’t want city residents to have lost the habit by the time the markets, she hopes, recover. “People are confused enough as it is,” she said.

The Problem With Wish-Cycling

Keeping trash out of the blue bin has become a matter of survival for companies like San Jose-based GreenWaste Recovery, which collects and processes trash, recycling and yard waste from parts of the Bay Area and Central Coast. In a recent stark example, one glitching computer temporarily closed off an entire market for recycled materials, leaving even fewer options for buyers.

On a sunny summer day, crushed glass glittered on the ground as the facility’s manager, Ricardo Lopez, gestured at what looked like a mountain of trash. “This is the ‘recycling,’” Lopez said. Rolled up carpet, an oven mitt, pizza boxes and dirt littered the pile. An empty propane tank lay on its side nearby. All of that trash will have to be removed before the good stuff—empty plastic bottles and jugs, glass, aluminum cans and clean paper and cardboard—can be baled and sold.

“They’re giving me a bunch of crap on the front end, so it makes it that much harder to process it,” he said.

GreenWaste has invested more than $10 million over the past two years, including on new sorting machines and staffing to weed through all that junk. As the recycling moves through the processing facility, its first stop is a machine that spreads it evenly on a conveyor belt so employees don’t have to dig to pick out what doesn’t belong. A car mat, a jug with car oil in it, and a giant sack that once held “Wild Potatoes” all ended up on this pile.

Then the recycling travels through a series of screens to separate out cardboard and glass before it hits an automated sorting machine that pulls out garbage like latex gloves and diapers. After a pass through yet more screens and automated sorting machines, employees pick through the final paper and plastic streams on conveyor belts to remove any contaminants that snuck through.

This particular day, there was more to worry about than usual: The automated sorting machine wasn’t working. That meant those manually sorting the recycling had to pay more attention to stray diapers, and couldn’t keep as much cardboard out of the paper bales as they usually do.

The result? Lopez had to tell his broker not to sell any bales to Indonesia—which has made headlines for sending back contaminated recycling—until they fixed the problem.

“That one layer of missing quality control has completely changed the makeup of my product,” Lopez said. “That’s why I told the buyer, ‘Hey, listen, I can’t make your spec, so let’s wait on shipment until I have my machine up and running.’ That’s how delicate the situation is now.”

Is Recycling Correctly Good Enough?

Tossing a container into the bin doesn’t guarantee a buyer even when Lopez’s machines are working perfectly. He points to the black plastic containers for rotisserie chicken from the grocery store with a number “1” stamped onto the bottom.

“There’s zero market,” he said. “Just because it has a number does not mean that it’s recyclable or that there is a current market.”

He blames marketing spin from the packaging industry. “But they wouldn’t be selling this if (we), as consumers, weren’t demanding it.”

Are consumers demanding it, though? Not Beck, who, even as a scientist with her hands in the guts of the problem, can’t avoid making plastic waste. As she scrubbed down the industrial cutting board the birds rested on during their necropsies, she revealed what is more discouraging than all the plastic trapped in the birds’ downy gray carcasses.

“It’s more demoralizing to go to the market and be like, ‘Oh, if I want to buy anything, it’s going to be a plastic,’” she said over the cutting board.

Around the lab were signs that Beck and her fellow scientists are trying to shrink their garbage footprint. Used and washed zip bags hung on a wooden dowel to dry. In the musty cold room from which Beck’s colleague wheeled out the cart of bird carcasses, a huge bucket overflowed with crumpled, soiled purple gloves they plan to send back to the glove company for recycling.

But going to the store is just a reminder of the scale of the plastics crisis. “I’m going to have to contribute to the problem—just by participating in the normal economy.” is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

“Litter, and it will hurt. It hurts the community, and the fines will hurt when you get caught. Half of the litter is accidental, from things blown off trucks and such, but the other half doesn't reflect positively on the community.” —Walt Thompson

I have a message for the person who intentionally dumps trash and unwanted items into the desert.

You are a total jackass.

It does not matter whether you dump in a neighborhood or an open space. Shame on you, as you are responsible for:

• Environmental degradation. Bringing in hazardous waste, plastics, plastic bags, diapers, clothes, tires and commercial waste is not conducive to a healthy ecosystem. Waste gets into waterways; it damages vegetation; animals and birds eat it; it attracts rodents and crickets.

“Dump sites containing waste tires provide an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can multiply 100 times faster than normal during our warmer months. Severe illnesses, including West Nile virus and encephalitis, have been attributed to disease-carrying mosquitoes originating from discarded waste tires,” said the Imperial County Public Health Department in a 2007 research paper.

• Physical and health risks—especially to kids. Kids might see some of these areas as improvised playgrounds—which means they could be playing in chemical waste. Rodents living at the dumpsite might have the hantavirus, and there is high risk of sharp objects like broken glass, rusty metal nails and so forth.

• Lowering property values. Who wants to live in a neighborhood where there is a large amount of trash? According to the Keep America Beautiful website: “93 percent of homeowners say a littered neighborhood would decrease their assessment of a home’s value and influences their decision to purchase a property. And 40 percent estimated that litter would reduce a home’s value by 10 percent to 24 percent.”

• Using taxpayer money unnecessarily. Billions of dollars, both from government and private sources, are spent each year cleaning up other people’s trash. According to a 2009 Keep America Beautiful study, the United States spends $11.5 BILLION on cleaning up litter every year. This does NOT include organizing campaigns to educate people not to dump. Let’s put that in perspective: If your salary is $29,000 per year, it would take 34,482 years to earn just $1 billion. Wouldn’t you prefer that this money be spent on something useful, rather than loathsome individuals or groups who can’t be responsible for their own shit?

• Trashing the Salton Sea. If you dump your trash into a wash, it will move down the wash. There isn’t much rain—but when it rains, it pours, and all that trash will end up in the sea. And let’s not forget our fabulous wind. Guess who eats the trash? The birds and the fish. Hazardous liquids seep into the soil and pollute the waterways. Oh, but I hear some of you say: The Salton Sea deserves to dry up anyway. Well, if the sea is allowed to dry up, the trash and the pollutants will not. Instead, they’ll blow through the valley during high winds.

Thanks for all that, illegal dumper.

So why do people dump in the desert? What on Earth makes them think it is OK? Laziness, a lack of education, because it is easy, or a total disregard for anything outside of their narrow world-view, for starters.

Perhaps it also includes a misunderstanding of the desert landscape: To many, the desert landscape is not alive; they do not see the damage that their dumping can create. However, the desert is actually an ecological wonder, and if people would spend more time in it and learn about the ecosystem, they may begin to have a different connection with this landscape in which we all live.

So, what can we do about illegal dumping? Mainly, it boils down to education:

• Most trash-haulers will pick up bulky items and electronic waste, often for free, on designated days, or if you ask in advance. Hazardous materials can be dropped off at various locations, and a lot of communities organize annual or twice-a-year household hazardous waste collection days. Each city is different, and it may take a little bit of research and planning—but that is what being an adult is all about. Google is handy; type in the name of your city, your trash service, and the service you require, and you’ll probably have more links and information than you can swing an old motor-oil bottle at.

• Educate kids while they are young about the effects of illegal dumping. Every school district should organize an annual cleanup day in the areas surrounding their schools. Every child is better off after attending a community cleanup, as they see first-hand the effects of illegal dumping—and the time and effort that is required to clear an area of trash.

• Spread the word about what we can all do if one of us sees someone in the act of dumping illegally, or the aftermath. For one, you can call the local sheriff’s department or police department. While illegal dumping tends to be unfortunately low on law enforcement’s priority list, they are responsible for acting on your behalf. There are also task forces and other resources in place, like IVAN, which is set up to take reports on illegal dumping activity. The website is pretty easy to use—and you can even upload photographs.

• Would-be illegal dumpers need to understand that there are consequences. In Riverside County, according to the waste-management website, “The fine is $5,000. If the illegal dumping involves commercial quantities, you may be imprisoned up to six months and fined $3,000 upon the first conviction, $6,000 upon the second conviction, and $10,000 for a third conviction. Vehicles may be seized and impounded for 30 days when used in the act of illegal dumping; related costs may exceed $1,000.” The county has started putting up cameras at well-known illegal trash sites, too.

If I had my way, I would walk every dumper out to their own personal dump site, make them pick up their own trash, videotape the whole thing, and shame them each publicly.

This year’s annual community cleanup at the Salton Sea takes place on Saturday, Nov. 9; please come and volunteer from 9 a.m. to noon at the corner of Sea Elf Street and Salton Bay Drive, off South Marina Drive in Salton City. Snacks and water will be provided, as will gloves, bags and some picker-uppers. If you have any questions, contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Published in Community Voices