A journey of 9,500 miles. Why recyclables are heading overseas to Asia.

Above: Mixed plastics are baled at the Green Wate Material Recovery Facility in San Jose and sold to international buyers.

Ricardo Hernandez was finishing up his collection rounds as a solid-waste driver for GreenWaste of Palo Alto recently when he spotted a black trash bin overflowing with garbage bags.

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“Most of the stuff in these bags is recyclables and food waste,” said Hernandez, shaking his head and tossing the excess trash bags into the truck.

One only needs to take a tour of the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Transfer (SMaRT) Station, where Palo Alto’s trash is delivered for sorting before being sent to the landfill, to understand Hernandez’s concern. There are plastic water bottles, cardboard boxes, yogurt containers, soda cans, orange peels, apple cores and other recyclables and compostables mixed in the mound of garbage on the floor.

On average, 70% of what Palo Altans toss into their black garbage bins is recyclable and compostable, according to the city’s latest Waste Characterization Study.

VIDEO: Step inside the Sunnyvale SMaRT station

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At the SMaRT Station, these salvageable materials are separated from the garbage. It’s an extra step in the city’s recycling process that has helped divert tons of waste from landfills. Out of the 27,000 tons of waste processed at the SMaRT station from Palo Alto last year, over 8,500 tons (approximately 30%) were diverted.

This extra sorting step is just one of the many tactics Palo Alto is employing in its ambitious Zero Waste Plan to divert 90% of its waste by 2021. It’s a goal that’s well ahead of the state’s target of 75%.

The plan includes incentives that encourage residents and businesses to reduce their weekly garbage loads; proposals to ban certain types of single-use plastics and foodware items; and an ordinance that would regulate construction and demolition debris, which currently makes up 44% of Palo Alto’s total landfill disposal.

“I think we realized a long time ago that landfill space is a limited resource,” said Daniel North, district manager of Morgan Hill’s Kirby Canyon Recycling and Disposal Facility. “It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that as little material goes to the landfill as possible.”

But as Palo Alto works to achieve zero waste, there are new environmental obstacles arising from changes in global recycling standards that the city must consider since it currently sends about 75% of its recyclables overseas.

“We’re struggling here with looking ahead at the ultimate solution and yet trying to do something in the immediate future,” said Phil Bobel, Palo Alto’s assistant director of public works.

Landfills: A new resource?

Above: “The pancake,” also known as the active trash area at the Kirby Canyon Recycling and Disposal Facility in Morgan Hill, is where trash is ground and compacted and covered with alternative daily cover every day.

Demolition workers toss the remains of a middle school gymnasium wood floor into the landfill. The wood is treated with laminate and therefore unable to be otherwise recycled. 
Demolition workers toss the remains of a middle school gymnasium wood floor into the landfill. The wood is treated with laminate and therefore unable to be otherwise recycled. 

Every day, after 750 tons of garbage from Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale is processed and sorted at the SMaRT station, the remaining refuse is compacted and loaded onto a fleet of 30-40 trucks, which head to the Kirby Canyon Recycling and Disposal Facility in Morgan Hill, which is operated by the company Waste Management.

Hidden behind rolling hills of serpentine grasses overlooking U.S. Highway 101, bulldozers at the landfill site push the debris onto a flattened mound dubbed “the pancake,” pounding and grinding everything from discarded mattresses, filing cabinets, laminate floor boards, VHS tapes, estate-planning paperwork, and lots and lots of plastic bags. For odor control, the mound is then covered with alternative daily cover — often a blend of soil, sludge, recovered plastics and ground-up construction debris.

Underground are a series of methane wells connected to a large pipe and blowers that vacuum up the gas, which is then channeled upward and burned off by a flare, resulting in carbon dioxide and water and inspected annually for air contaminants.

Computer hardware, a child’s boot, lumber, plastic bags and a juice bottle are some of the items found at the Kirby Canyon Recycling and Disposal Facility in Morgan Hill.
Computer hardware, a child’s boot, lumber, plastic bags and a juice bottle are some of the items found at the Kirby Canyon Recycling and Disposal Facility in Morgan Hill.

Though the technology can be seen as a feat in managing waste and maintaining clean emissions, North sees the process as a wasted opportunity. He said the company’s Altamont landfill, in comparison, has an onsite power plant that converts methane gas into renewable energy and is an example of what could be done at Kirby Canyon.

As cities further reduce waste with increased recycling and composting habits, North said landfills will have to convert from mere dumping grounds into sustainable energy sources.

“The world is changing,” he said. “We’d like to see less material go in the landfill and more of it be diverted, and that’s why these facilities are adapting over time to be able to handle that.”

Recycling: Changing standards

Above: Employees at the GreenWaste Material Recovery Facility sort rigid plastics and film plastics from the sorting line.

Just outside the Port of Oakland, up to 100 trucks carrying cargo containers pull up next to the Ever Reach Logistics processing center, where a team of eight inspectors clad in yellow vests and hard hats from the China Certification and Inspection Group await to inspect shipments headed overseas to China.

Inside each of these containers are about 30 bales of corrugated cardboard — think Amazon and moving boxes retrieved from recycling facilities. Directed by the Chinese government, the inspectors use a strict cardboard-screening process. They snap photos, remove the bales and scrutinize each one up close, sometimes even using X-rays to make sure each bale contains less than 0.5% contamination from outside materials, defined as anything from mixed paper to plastic bags to too much moisture. Bales that don’t meet the 99.5% clean metric are rejected and sent back to recycle buyers.

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“Now that they’ve dropped to a half percent, it’s darn near impossible to meet, but we’re doing everything that we can to meet it,” said Emily Hanson, director of business development and communications for GreenWaste Recovery, Palo Alto’s recycling sorter.

The strict new standards, which began in March 2018, are part of China’s National Sword policy that has halted international imports of cardboard, mixed paper and plastics while the country adopts more environmental protections to end its role as the world’s dumping ground.

“It’s thrown the entire global recycling market into chaos, and we’re talking the whole developed world,” said Mark Bowers, Sunnyvale Solid Waste Programs division manager, who oversees the Sunnyvale SMaRT station.

In 2017, the United States exported 12.8 billion pounds of fiber and plastic products to China. In 2018, that number dropped to 8.1 billion. It is expected to keep dropping as China outlines more restrictions. This has left domestic recycling operations scrambling to adapt and find new markets for the materials.

Contamination is part of the problem. It’s a dirty word in the recycling industry. In Palo Alto, bales of cardboard and mixed paper, which make up roughly 70% of the city’s exported recyclables, can become tainted instantly by poor sorting in the city’s single-stream program, which mixes all materials together. Liquids in soda bottles, half-filled jars of peanut butter, oily residue from takeout containers can ruin potential fiber shipments.

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In an effort to combat “dirty sorting,” Palo Alto recently launched its Recycle-Ready campaign, imploring residents and businesses to remove food waste and liquids before tossing cans and bottles into bins.

At the GreenWaste Material Recovery Facility in San Jose, which sorts 18,000-19,000 tons of Palo Alto’s recyclable goods every year, six new optical sorters are being installed to better handle the enormous volume of mixed-paper products and make them marketable for the changing international buyer demand.

In 2018, GreenWaste stopped sending recycled paper products to China altogether. Because there are few paper pulping mills operating in the United States, GreenWaste now sends paper to Korea, Vietnam, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan. Even with the China restrictions, waste paper is still the Port of Oakland’s largest export, making up 18% of all exports last year. That equates to 110,400, 20-foot containers shipped every year.

Who is importing Palo Alto’s recyclables?

One reason why so much recycling is shipped overseas is because many containers arrive in the United States carrying imports and would otherwise be empty on the return trip home.

“As a recycling industry, we’ve just taken advantage of the fact that the shipping containers need to go back,” Hanson said. “That doesn’t mean that we know exactly what happens once it leaves our shores.”

This is a reality many recycling sorting facilities are coming to terms with now that the markets have shifted to mainly Southeast Asian countries with questionable environmental practices.

“We’re essentially relinquishing control of those materials to those (countries) that don’t have the environmental policies that we do and don’t have the same tracking that we do in some cases,” Daniel North of Kirby Canyon said.

No one understands this better than Palo Alto resident Bob Wenzlau, who helped launch Palo Alto’s curbside recycling program in the 1970s. Most recently, he spoke with city leaders and representatives from GreenWaste to help craft the city’s new Environmental and Social Impacts of Processing Recyclable Materials guidelines.

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“It’s really urgent that we start waking up to this new reality,” Wenzlau said. “I can almost say that there is no single destination in Southeast Asia that would satisfy either our basic environmental or basic social standards, period.”

The guidelines direct the hauling company to establish a tracking system that informs residents where plastic and paper ultimately end up. GreenWaste Recovery has appointed its director of sustainability to take the lead and intends to begin preliminary reporting later this year, working in tandem with the waste hauler and the San Jose recovery facility.

“Sustainability is in Palo Alto’s blood, and this where we can make our mark,” Wenzlau said.

There’s a reason for concern: 77% of the world’s mismanaged plastic waste (plastic that is at high risk of making its way into watersheds and oceans due to poor disposal practices) comes from the same countries to which United States sent 1.3 billion tons of plastic last year, according to the article “Plastic Pollution,” published in Our World In Data.

Unlike plastic bottles and milk jugs, which are mostly processed within the United States, plastic wrap, take-out containers, plastic drink cups, coffee lids and all plastics marked No. 3-7 don’t have any domestic markets and are the biggest source of plastic exports.

In this video, see how the GreenWaste Material Recovery Facility sorts and separates recyclable materials in San Jose. Each year the facility sorts 18,000-19,000 tons of materials from Palo Alto for domestic and international buyers.

“I view the numbered triangles (used to identify recyclable plastics) as a gigantic marketing gimmick put out by the virgin plastics producers to give consumers the impression that all plastics are recyclable,” Bowers said. “They’re not.”

As part of Palo Alto’s zero-waste goals to help curb the volume of plastic use, Bobel noted that city staff will be bringing forward the first of three proposed ordinances to ban certain kinds of single-use plastics before the City Council on May 20. If approved, the first phase of the Foodware Packaging Reduction Plan would ban plastic straws, utensils, drink stirrers and plugs and require alternative compostable or reusable objects in their place.

“The ultimate solution is waste reduction, especially for those single-use items,” said Eric Cissna, environmental outreach coordinator for GreenWaste of Palo Alto. “We just need to stop generating them in the first place.”

Zero waste: Finding a home for it

Above: Wooden material and other debris from construction projects to be sorted at the Zanker Recycling facility.

Michael Gross, director of sustainability at Zanker Recycling, beams with pride as he guides a tour of the 168-acre recycling and composting operation in San Jose. On the site of a former landfill, massive machinery grinds lumber, crushes concrete, plucks asphalt shingles and sorts scrap metal from demolition debris.

In the middle of the site, 16 anaerobic digesters of the ZeroWaste Energy Development Company convert Palo Alto’s and San Jose’s yard and food waste into renewable biogas energy and compost. Next door, a 240-foot conveyor belt churns and sorts 16 types of construction and demolition debris (C&D) materials at 60 tons an hour.

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“I’m just like the best-looking garbage man you’ve ever seen,” Gross laughs as he talks about the scale of his operation. “I’m the only one out here doing this. That C&D curbside line … nobody in the industry has something that big.”

Last year the C&D operation processed 185,000 tons of material and diverted 80% of it from the landfill.

Palo Alto has taken notice. Roughly 44% of all landfill waste from the city is composed of construction and demolition debris from the numerous development projects across town. The city staff intends to bring an ordinance requiring the deconstruction and separation of materials at the source before City Council on May 20. The proposal would make mandatory the sorting of salvage from residential and commercial demolition projects, which would then be sent to the Zanker facility.

“We think those deconstruction-related initiatives are some of the largest short-term initiatives in terms of being able to impact diversion and impact waste,” said Ron Arp, zero waste manager for Palo Alto. “It’s not only waste diversion, keeping it out of landfills, it’s a better use.”

Gross agreed.

“The big thing about garbage recycling is getting rid of the stuff right and making sure everything you take in you get rid of,” he said. “You’ve got to find a home for it.”

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Behind the Headlines – Recycling at the Crossroads

Phil Bobel, Palo Alto’s assistant director of Public Works, talks about the uncertainty facing the city’s recycling operation since China has become unwilling to buy recycled items that are considered “contaminated.” Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jocelyn Dong and Associate Linda Taaffe explore the impacts of the change and ways that cities are responding. This episode is also available through podcast, which can be found here.


What’s your opinion on how Palo Alto disposes of its trash and recyclables? Share your thoughts on Town Square, the online discussion forum at