Where does it all go? Waste disposal may seem like a mystery, but city says recycling not a waste

A truck picks up trash in Canyon Country on Wednesday, 022322. Dan Watson/The Signal

Every week, Santa Clarita residents wheel their trash, recycling and green waste bins to the curb for pickup. What happens next may seem like a bit of a mystery. 

According to city officials, from there the trash goes straight to the landfill, green waste gets turned into mulch and typically either sold at stores or used as compost in Southern California or agricultural areas in the Central Valley, and about 75% of all recyclables collected is actually recycled and sold for repurposing. 

As the city gets closer to rolling out its residential organic food waste recycling program in accordance with Senate Bill 1383, expected to begin July 1, 2023, residents should know that separating their waste is the first step in relieving strain on local landfills and providing reusable resources to those in need, according to Curtis Williams, the city of Santa Clarita’s solid waste administrator.  

But it’s not as cut and dry as one might think. 

“Recycling — that’s always something we get a lot of questions about,” Williams said. “People think they have ideas of where it goes.” 

Williams outlined the process: Trucks pick up trash and go straight to the landfill — most likely the Chiquita Canyon Landfill near Val Verde. Recycling goes to a transfer station, and then it moves onto a materials recovery facility (MRF), which determines what can be sold. Those facilities, one of which is located in Burbank and another in Azusa, then make bales of cardboard, plastics and metal, and finally sell off those commodities to willing buyers. 

“There are times people think, ‘Oh, this stroller,’ let’s say, ‘could be recycled because it’s got plastic and it’s got metal,’” Williams said. “But the problem is that they’re stuck together.” 

MRFs don’t disassemble anything, he added. They’re looking for very easy things to recycle, such as cardboard, cereal boxes, milk containers and plastic bottles. However, those items should be clean and dry before tossing them into bins, Williams said. Leftover soda in aluminum cans or residual liquid detergent in plastic bottles can contaminate cardboard or paper mixed in with the recycling. And once something’s contaminated, it can’t be recycled. 

A recycling can sits next to trash and green waste cans after being emptied in Canyon Country on Wednesday, 022322. Dan Watson/The Signal

Williams suggested that, in order to ensure that items get recycled, one should rinse cans and bottles, and make sure they’re dry. Recycled items should also be free of any plastic wrapping. Soda bottle labels are fine. Items shouldn’t be in bags, either. 

“The difficulty is that the stuff that goes to that materials recovery facility — they’re worried about the machinery getting gunked up with plastic bags and other plastic film that comes through with your water bottles,” Williams said. “And then they have to shut down the machinery in order to take all the plastic out.” 

Williams added that, more often than not, the MRFs won’t even open bags of recyclables to sort the stuff. They send those straight to a landfill with items that are contaminated along with objects like strollers. According to Williams, about 25% of the stuff recycled goes to the landfill. 

A truck picks up trash in Canyon Country on Wednesday, 022322. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Overall, I think that Santa Clarita does an amazing job of paying attention to what you can recycle and what you can’t,” Williams said. “We don’t have a lot of people putting trash in their recycle bins. And most of the time it’s very clean.” 

Many of these recycled commodities used to go to markets in China. But China, in 2018, began taking less and less of it as part of the China National Sword Policy, an effort to ban the import of soiled and contaminated recyclables. Now, according to Williams, most of these items go to more local and regional markets. 

As for the green waste collection, leaves, lawn trimmings and tree branches are all good items to put in the green waste can. However, if people dig up trees or plants, which sometimes come up with a sizeable amount of dirt, the city recommends limiting how much they put into the bin. 

“If there’s residual dirt attached to it,” Williams said, “like on the roots, you’ll want to keep that to a minimum. What the dirt does is create extra weight, and it’s not really useful for the composting process.” 

Green waste, he said, goes to a local transfer station, then it moves onto processors. The processors then turn it into compost and sell it to the market, which includes retailers or farmers. Farmers — usually California farmers — use the compost in the ground to increase the nutrients, water-holding capacity and carbon content, which, according to experts, aids in growing stronger, healthier crops. 

Recycling organic food waste will soon be another way residents can add to these resources. Senate Bill 1383 of 2016 is an attempt to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants to achieve reduction in methane. Organic waste like food and green waste breaks down in landfills and creates methane gas. So, in accordance with SB 1383, residents and businesses will be required — unless exempt — to recycle food waste in their green waste bins, thereby reducing the amount of food and the resulting methane gas, and adding to the waste that can be repurposed into compost. 

“Currently, the city of Santa Clarita is finishing up our contract with our current haulers, and we’ve put out a request for proposal for the upcoming contract that would start July 1, 2023,” Williams said. “So, we’re anticipating, with that new contract, that the services required for SB 1383, that that would be included as part of our residential and commercial services.” 

Williams added that the inclusion of food waste with the green waste will be a big help in slowing down the amount of material going to landfills, which, depending on a number of factors, generally have life expectancies of anywhere between 30 and 50 years. The Chiquita Canyon Landfill, which serves the Santa Clarita Valley, has been in operation since 1972. 

“Recycling is important,” Williams said, “as long as we’re also reducing waste, and then reusing what we can. There’s a finite amount of space in the landfills, and I think once people take a look at what they’re putting in their trash cans, what they’re putting in the recycle bins, and kind of see the amount of stuff, I think that there’s always opportunity for folks to take a look and say, ‘You know, I can do better. I can put less in there and not rely on recycling, not rely on the landfill, and just live a life that doesn’t require as much waste.’” 

For more information or guidelines for recycling, go to GreenSantaClarita.com. 

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