The original intentions may have been good, but not one of the items scattered on the floor of a South Mount Vernon Avenue recycling processing center the other day belonged there.
Not the sleeping bag. Not the children's car seat or the green garden hose. Certainly not the old brake rotor someone had seen fit to dump in one of the City of Bakersfield's blue recycling carts.
Also lying around were items less obviously unrecyclable — things like empty cereal boxes and hard plastic containers that until recently could fetch a decent price on the market for used materials.
There's a term for this sort of misguided courtesy: "aspirational recycling." Not only is it on the rise locally, but it undermines the economic viability of municipal recycling itself, and may end up raising Bakersfield's trash bills.
To be fair, a bigger factor in a potential rate increase the city is considering, is China's decision earlier this year to sharply limit the types of recycled materials it accepts from the United States and other countries. Up until then, China had been taking in 60 percent of the world's recyclables.
This unprecedented challenge in the recycling world is made worse — and in the case of improperly discarded sharps and needles, more dangerous — by people's growing habit of stuffing things in the blue cart that belong in the tan cart designated for rubbish.
MORE AND MORE TRASH
When Bakersfield introduced curbside recycling in 2011, the share of trash found in the city's recycling stream was about 18 percent. Lately that figure has climbed to almost 40 percent, said Martin Graves, manager at one of two local material recovery facilities, known as "MRFs".
"People are not, you know, taking seriously and/or are abusing the blue cart," he said, adding he's not surprised. "Nobody likes to be told what to do."
It's not always residents' fault. Recycling can be confusing. And as the market for recycling materials continues to shift, along with the global economy, buyers' change their standards for what they will accept.
For example, at the 50,000-square-foot Metropolitan Recycling LLC facility Graves manages on South Mount Vernon, buyers used to allow lower-quality plastics — those marked or embossed with recycling triangles numbered between four and seven — to comprise up to 10 percent of a bale. Now it's half of 1 percent or less.
This dynamic plays out dramatically at the municipal level. While recycling has never turned a profit for the City of Bakersfield, one ton of blue-cart mixed recycling material used to sell for about $60, which helped make up the city's transportation costs. Last year it fell to breakeven, meaning processors would accept it but paid nothing for it.
These days, the city has to pay $70 per ton for someone to take it, said Kevin Barnes, Bakersfield's solid waste director.
"Very simply, the relationship between unrecyclables and the blue cart ends up just adding labor and transportation and disposable cost for the MRFs," he said.
The city is absorbing these losses for now, to the tune of $750,000 under current conditions, but cannot do so indefinitely.
The two MRFs contracted by the city to process recyclables, Metropolitan and BARC Recycling, periodically report their costs to the city, which then negotiates and adjusts the rate it pays them to process Bakersfield's residential recycling. But the rates charged to residents do not change nearly so frequently.
Barnes said the city will likely take up the question of how much to raise trash rates next spring, then put the increase into effect next summer. He estimated rates will go up between $1 and $3 per month.
TOO MUCH TROUBLE
Officials at Metropolitan Recycling said it would definitely help if city residents were more careful about what they put into the blue carts. Because of the need for more stringent culling, the facility recently doubled to 12 its crew of workers pulling items from a series of mechanized sorting machines known as a screen.
Graves said every crew member's action to remove an item from the stream of materials moving across the screen is a financial decision.
Jon Price, vice president of locally based Price Disposal, which co-owns Metropolitan Recycling, said the facility does a good job catching worthless materials on the front end but that it can't remove all of them. When an inspector opens up a bale of mixed paper, for instance, the price paid comes down if undesirable content exceeds a certain threshold.
"The public paying attention to what they're supposed to put in makes a big difference," he said.
Graves offered a few practical tips on what to do with various questionable items, such as empty cereal cartons.
Toss them in the trash, he said. Same with empty beer cartons. Unless cardboard has a corrugated ripple, he said, there's not much of a market for it.
Also try to keep plastic twine and cables out of the blue carts, he asked. Like the film plastic that makes up shopping bags, these items tend to wrap around MRFs' sorting screens, which then have to be halted so workers can remove the material.
The worst of all, he and Price said, are needles and sharps. Anytime one is spotted, the entire machine has to be shut down while the work crew goes through a safety procedure. They said this results in an average of one hour of downtime every workday.
Hazardous materials and electronics should be taken to designated county facilities, he said. Large metal scrap, on the other hand, is best taken to a commercial dealer.
Spent peanut butter jar? His advice is to run it through a dishwasher at home before dropping it into a blue cart. Otherwise, it's contaminated and will have to be trashed.
"Just make sure it's all out of there the best you can," he said. If there's still peanut butter left inside when it hits the blue cart, "we have to make the hard decision here at the MRF."
John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.