Santa Monica’s recyclable materials will be sent to a processing facility outside the city or redeemed for cash at a mobile buyback center under a new city of Santa Monica plan to adapt to the global collapse of the recycling market.
The City Council voted in May to close the city’s only buyback center and start sending recyclables to a facility outside Santa Monica after learning that the city’s recycling program could no longer pay for itself because China had stopped accepting American recyclables the year prior on the grounds that the materials were too contaminated with trash. For the past quarter-century, the city had contracted with the Allan Company to process and redeem recyclables at City Yards and transfer them to a materials recovery facility (MRF).
On Tuesday, the council decided to keep processing recyclables outside the city and offer a mobile buyback program rather than build new processing and buyback facilities at City Yards, which is undergoing a four-year modernization project.
Council members said City Yards lacked the space for either facility and added that they would likely create adverse environmental and noise impacts for nearby residents and businesses. The council’s decision aligned with the recommendation of city staff, who wrote in a report that building an MRF would lock the city into a recycling plan that would make it difficult to respond to changes in environmental regulations and recycling technologies.
“Economies of scale can also be an issue — the MRF would incur high operating costs, have insufficient space and limited production capacity,” staff wrote.
Transporting recyclables to an off-site facility would cost between $500,000 and $750,000 annually, staff said at Tuesday’s meeting. The Allan Company’s contract to process and transfer materials would have cost $1 million.
Staff recommended partnering with nearby cities like West Hollywood to operate a recycling truck that would redeem CRV bottles and cans. The truck would come to Santa Monica one to three days of the week and the city would also host pop-up recycling events every three months at public sites like Santa Monica College.
The council also voted to amp up education and outreach efforts around the city’s zero waste by 2030 goal — although it may no longer be called “zero waste.” Mayor Pro Tempore Terry O’Day said he feels the term creates a false sense of achievement, given the collapse of the global recycling industry and the fact that 30% of the materials put in the city’s recycling bins are actually trash, according to a June staff report.
“There’s a culture of lies around the way we’re talking about this stuff,” O’Day said. “I think we need to find a way to communicate more realistically about this work that we do.”
City Manager Rick Cole agreed, saying the city can and will make progress in reducing waste, but will be unable achieve zero waste by 2030. The plastic industry and other industries are not yet subject to regulation that would cut down on the volume of waste created, and the United States has not yet built a domestic recycling industry, Cole said.
“I think on the one hand its admirable we have a zero waste goal, but it’s unrealistic,” he said. “It’s a form of greenwashing that we don’t mean to engage in, but we’ve fallen into not because we want to pretend we’re doing this, but because we want to achieve this and right at the moment there isn’t a chance to get there.”
O’Day said the city should ask community organizations to handle education and outreach about how to recycle, and Councilmember Ted Winterer suggested the city put stickers on recycling bins that outline what can and can’t be recycled.
The council asked staff to work with Ben Allen, the state senator representing Santa Monica, to advocate for legislation that would phase out nonrecyclable plastics.
“Let’s see what we can help happen in California, and after the 2020 election, the country … to see if we can solve this problem and stop capitalism from shifting all of these costs to the end of the production cycle,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown.