What’s recyclable? City launches education campaign in wake of global recycling shift

If you’re confused about what can still be recycled as the country grapples with a plastic recycling crisis, you’re not alone.

The recycling industry has been in an upheaval ever since China in 2018 announced that it was no longer taking most paper and plastic recycling imports from the United States.

And as a result, many local recycling companies, especially on the West Coast, have been struggling to find a market for some recyclables.

To make the process smoother, the city of Long Beach has launched an education campaign to help residents better sort their trash.

What’s still in?

Plastic bottles, jugs and tubs, metal cans and aluminum, paper, cardboard and glass bottles and jars.

What’s no longer being recycled?

Think thin plastics like plastic cups, plates and utensils, plastic bags, beverage and food cartons, padded envelopes and foam packaging material.

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Until last year, 60% of California’s recyclables was sold and shipped to China as the country fueled its manufacturing industry. The shift left many cities scrambling to let people know what items were no longer being recycled.

Diko Melkonian, the city’s environmental services manager, said Long Beach initially held off on such a campaign because the city didn’t want to confuse residents or discourage people from recycling as the market shifted.

“We took our time hoping that we would see some crack in the market and some things would start being recycled again, but there’s no evidence that it’s going to change,” he said.

The city, which generates roughly 368,000 tons of waste each year, contracts with Houston-based Waste Management, which in turn sells the recycling waste to Potential Industries in Wilmington.

Last year, many companies stockpiled some recyclables in the hopes that they could eventually find a market for the materials. Melkonian said Potential Industries has since done an evaluation to determine the most efficient way to adapt to the changes.

Trash that isn’t recycled is shipped to the city’s Southeast Resource Recovery Facility (SERRF), known as a “waste-to-energy” plant. One of just two in the state, the facility in the Port of Long Beach processes about 1,300 tons of trash each day, producing energy power that’s sold to electric companies. 

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].