How much plastic is recycled in Ventura County and where does it go?
It has been widely reported that only a small fraction of all plastic material consumed in the United States is recycled. In 2021, the world produced about 400M tons of plastic waste of which 40M tons was generated from the United States.1 The U.S. is only responsible for about 10% of global plastic volume but only about 5% of U.S. plastic is recycled in the domestic market.2
Many lower grade plastics are not recycled in the United States because of the laborers necessary to sort them. Overseas, mainly in southeast Asia, material is still sorted by hand in order to reduce cross-contamination. This is not a cost-effective way of recycling in the U.S. due to the higher wages for U.S. workers.
In Ventura County, there are two regional recycling facilities–Del Norte Regional Transfer Station and Recycling Center and Gold Coast Recycling and Transfer Station, Inc. (GCR) which recovers consumer and industrial use plastic. This includes plastic materials that are unique to Ventura County due to the agricultural industry.
Agricultural plastics comprise greenhouse film for creating hoop house structures, crop coverage and ag film, which is used to cover the ground for certain crops. Greenhouse film is a petroleum-based High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) whereas ag film is primarily LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene).
The difference between these types of plastics used in our local agricultural fields is mainly in the thickness of the plastic. Greenhouse film has a far greater value than ag film since the latter typically comes with dirt contamination from being attached to the ground.
The results below are typical for material that is recycled in the U.S. and exported from Gold Coast Recycling and Transfer Station, Inc. to other countries:
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): 75% recycled in USA and 25% exported to Malaysia, Thailand, and South America
- HDPE: (natural and color) 80% recycled in USA and 20% export to Indonesia and Malaysia
- HDPE: (refuse carts) 100% recycled in USA
- Mixed Rigid Plastic (MRP): 50% recycled in USA and 50% exported to Malaysia and Taiwan
- HDPE: (pill bottles) 100% exported to Malaysia and Vietnam
The PET that is exported domestically is processed into flakes to make new bottles and clamshells for food packaging. The HDPE that is exported domestically is processed into pellets that are sold to Mexico to produce lawn furniture and other plastic items such as detergent containers and milk jugs.
Governor Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 793 (Ting and Irwin, Chapter 115, Statutes of 2020) on September 24, 2020, stating that the bottles consumed in California must contain 50% postconsumer recycled plastic starting in 2030. This bill boosted the California recycling market in early 2022. 2
The PET and HDPE overseas markets also experienced an immediate spike once this was announced. There is a large appetite for exporting recycled plastic. Malaysia is the leading importer of plastic. However, the global market price is always less than in the U.S. domestic market. The domestic market, where available, cannot always handle the vast amounts of plastic material needed to be recycled.3
There are a variety of reasons that contribute to this phenomenon. They include but are not limited to the history of recycling in the U.S. that requires only an unregulated good faith effort by consumers to recycle, recycling program availability, consumer behavior, marketability, technology, competition, and landfill capacity and cost.
Competition for collecting and processing any recyclable material is a factor for the success of a sustainable recycling program. The cost for these services varies significantly by region throughout the state. Some regions, maybe unintentionally, value the service cost more than the environmental benefit.
In southern California, the cost to process trash has been historically cheaper than recycling. And in most areas recycling is subsidized by the trash rate. The thought is that the recycling market will make up the difference in the loss of revenue.
However, in the past five years, that has not been the case with initiatives like the National Sword policy in 2017. The National Sword policy was established to minimize the contamination allowed in exported commodities. The new policy limited contamination to be less than 1% in order to be acceptable for sale.
Port labor restrictions also impact how much recycled plastic can miss the landfill. New recycling regulations have opened up recycling operator franchise agreements for review which likely will have adverse impacts on our environment.
Ventura County has two landfills: the Simi Valley Landfill and the Toland Road Landfill. Almost of the material generated in Ventura County ends up in the hillside canyons at these facilities.
In 2021, GCR received about 320,000 tons of transfer material to be landfilled. It exported roughly 105,000 tons of recyclable material. For the recyclable material, roughly 20% was cardboard, 18% mixed paper, 13% glass, 6% plastic, 30% C&D and 13% other (like wood, concrete, metals, mattresses, tires, batteries, etc.). For plastic, the largest export was PET
followed by greenhouse film and HDPE. This information only reports the material exported. It does not provide any insight on the characteristics of the transfer material.
Based on local waste studies and the CalRecycle Waste Characterization Report, it is known that recyclable material is still being landfilled.4 For instance, based on residential sampling, the trash cart can contain on average 5-10% green or wood material, 10-15% food material, 10-15% recyclable material, and only 65-70% actual trash. In general, consumers want to do the right thing. But the amount of effort required and costs involved definitely impact consumer dedication to effectively recycle plastic.
Consumers still need to focus on establishing good habits for the sake of our environment regardless of personal effort, inconvenience, or cost. Proper disposal of all consumed materials will yield the best results for success. Other ways to help reduce landfill disposal include the following:
- Reducing consumption
- Preventing, collecting, and penalizing littering
- Understanding the different types of plastic
- Knowing how each type can be recycled
New domestic technology will be the most effective way to minimize plastic pollution in the foreseeable future. Europe is well ahead of the United States with numerous operations that produce fuel and energy from plastic material.
Decision makers should promote or require the use of local regional facilities that provide the best value to reduce, reuse, and recycle consumer waste. The cost to provide these services should stand alone to protect our environment and be a secondary consideration considering the volume of plastic pollution that reaches our landfills and oceans.
Click here to view a video detailing the recycling process at Gold Coast Recycling in Ventura, CA.
Information varies online by report.
- Greenpeace – 2022 Update. Available at:https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/GPUS_FinalReport_2022.p df
- 60 Recycling Statistics. Available at: https://comparecamp.com/recycling-statistics/#TOC1
- U.S. Plastic Waste Recycled 2021. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/23/us-plastic-waste-recycled-2021-green peace#:~:text=US%20news-,Only%205%25%20of%20plastic%20waste%20generated% 20by%20US,year%20was%20recycled%2C%20report%20says&text=Only%205%25%2 0of%20the%20mountains,to%20new%20research%20by%20Greenpeace
- Top 25 Recycling Facts. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/06/recycling-global-statistics-facts-plastic-paper/
- Global plastic pollution set to triple. Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/life/environment/global-plastic-pollution-set-to-triple-by-20 60-above-1-billion-tons
- Plastic Minimum Content Standards. Available at: https://calrecycle.ca.gov/bevcontainer/bevdistman/plasticcontent/
- Based on sales at Gold Coast Recycling and Transfer Station, Inc. and their broker Berg Mill Supply. Available at: https://goldcoastrecycling.com/ and https://bergmill.com/
- Waste Characterization Studies. Available at: https://www2.calrecycle.ca.gov/WasteCharacterization/Study