Sustainable San Mateo welcomed Joe La Mariana, Executive Director at RethinkWaste, to its eighth Happy Hour on the evening of September 30. RethinkWaste is a standalone public agency and a $140M/year operation in the Bay Area. The agency owns and manages the Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos. The Center receives all the recyclables, green waste and garbage collected from the 12 local government jurisdictions which formed RethinkWaste more close to 40 years ago. In addition, RethinkWaste advocates for environmental best practices and waste reduction strategies through policy, legislation and education. 

Not much was left uncovered by Joe LaMariana on the topic of recycling and waste management in the Bay Area, and the discussion was so lively that a core group stayed on for an additional 30 minutes after the Happy Hour was scheduled to end! Participants were interested in the challenges RethinkWaste faces, the waste crisis and China, the impact of COVID-19 on residential and commercial waste, the county’s sole landfill (Ox Mountain) rapidly reaching capacity, solutions for the future, and what ReThinkWaste does with ALL those batteries, bottles and bags! 

Joe touched on many challenges faced by the agency he heads up, one of them being the amount of plastic for which we now have no place. Prior to March 2019, China was the largest market for plastic and waste from the U.S. In other words, waste agencies collected, sorted and sold their waste to Chinese markets. When China decided to stop accepting trash (we don’t blame them!), waste agencies in the U.S had to start landfilling the plastics that did not have viable markets. Specifically, hard plastics labeled with No. 3 to No. 7, also known as “low-grade” plastics. 

Another challenge is plain and simple: Plastic degrades at a very slow rate. Large companies continue to produce plastic like there isn’t a climate crisis. People are consuming plastic at a very fast rate, and, sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that trend, especially with take-out food becoming more prevalent. Plastic is increasing in our oceans, where it gets broken down and finds its way into the food chain, ending up in the fish we eat.  A recent study calculated that we are ingesting an average of 5 grams of plastic every week, the equivalent of a credit card! 

Most people know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris, mostly plastics, in the North Pacific Ocean. The situation is serious and the consensus is that we can all be more mindful consumers, investing in reusables and encouraging others to do the same. 

Before transitioning into more solution-based conversations, Joe reminded everyone that lithium ion batteries belong in a bag on top of the black bin that you place on your curb before trash day. He spoke about the fires sparked after such batteries ended up in the wrong place and nearly burned the San Carlos waste facility to the ground. A participant also touched on how some multi-family homes have a program that manages battery disposal quite well. We also learned that there was a $6M upgrade in materials for RethinkWaste’s facility in order to better manage the batteries and other waste material. 

In response to a discussion question involving packaging design, Joe highlighted that we must hold companies accountable for how they package goods and what materials they use. Many companies overpackage the products they sell and/or use packaging that is difficult to recycle. Again, the solution comes down to paying close attention to overpackaged products and avoiding them. We also need to be wary these days of “greenwashing,” the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. 

So, if we all become more aware about the products we buy, use our dollars to invest in sustainable solutions, do our own research on products that claim to be “green,” sort our trash correctly, help educate each other and dispose of our batteries properly, we might give Earth a rest!

By Jiana Bowie

Oct. 5, 2020