California’s waste warriors have 32 million tons of waste with nowhere to go

Jeff vonKaenel

There are 16 letters in the word environmentalist, but historically, the most utilized letters have been N and O. No to coal mining. No to urban sprawl. No to gas-spewing cars. And now, there is even more to say “no” to with our orange-haired president and his science-hating officials.

Last week, however, I attended a convention of the granddaddy of nonprofit recycling associations, the California Resource Recovery Association. At its 42nd annual convention, held last week in Oakland, the group’s approximately 600 members discussed rebooting the California environmental movement to say, “Yes.” Yes to building facilities to handle our organic food waste, yes to California recycling its own plastic instead of sending it overseas, yes to revamping and rethinking virtually all products that currently go into the waste stream. And yes to reusing many products.

The CRRA members have made a commitment to both sustainability and to zero waste. This association includes the government officials who run the municipal waste management systems, the state recycling organizations, the garbage companies, the landfill operators as well as many industry consultants. These are the waste warriors who have the near impossible task of dealing with the 32 million tons of waste that we generate each year in California.

Until early this year, much of California’s recycling efforts consisted of gathering up waste products, separating the electronic and metal waste, the paper waste and the plastic waste and then sending it overseas, primarily to China. China shipped us products and then we would send their ships back, filled with our waste. Then China and other Asian countries would recycle these waste products, but in doing so they poisoned their environment. They polluted their air, water and land.

This came to an end this year, when China cut off nearly all imports of American waste products. There are a few other countries that initially agreed to take more of our waste, but they also are coming to the same decision: That the money made being America’s dumping ground is not worth the environmental costs.

The questions posed at the CRRA conference: “What now? What should we do with our paper, plastic and electronic waste products?”

The very people who, on a daily basis, are responsible for our state’s 32 million tons of trash are the ones now trying to answer this question.

Spending three days with the CRRA people at their conference, I developed a great appreciation for them and for what they do. They are practical, smart people who, unlike me, did not fall asleep during their chemistry classes. And while they do not receive the public support and admiration that they so definitely deserve, they do have the satisfaction of knowing that if they don’t do their job, we would notice.

The conference attendees displayed a can-do attitude. They knew that we are facing a crisis. It would be easy to blame the Chinese. It would be easy to give up on recycling and just put our waste into the landfills. But instead, they see this huge challenge as an opportunity to focus on reducing our waste, reusing more products and finding ways to recycle products in a way that protects the environment.

There will be greater costs. There will be opposition from corporate interests that benefit from the status quo. But it was inspiring to hang out with environmental warriors who want to say, “Yes.”

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.