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Recycling Rates Lag as San Jose Fights its Biggest Hauler

Used diapers. A full can of beans. Batteries. Wadded-up toilet paper. Food-caked takeout containers. Greasy pizza boxes.

“It’s trash,” says Corona, the chief operating officer of California Waste Solutions(CWS), which picks up about 75 percent of the San Jose’s curbside recycling. “We aren’t equipped to deal with this much of it.”

Some of the worst things people have chucked in recycling bins, he says, include dead animals, hypodermic needles—some of which have punctured workers, forcing them to undergo blood tests—batteries and toxic chemicals. In summer 2014, sorters found an explosive device meandering down a conveyor belt, prompting a visit from the San Jose Department's bomb squad.

At the CWS plant in north San Jose, optical sorters, crushers and massive conveyer belts divert thousands of pounds of plastic, paper and other recyclables from the landfill each day. But roughly 40 percent of the haul from single-family homes is non-recyclable garbage—six times the rate in Oakland.

The extent of the problem came to light in an audit last fall, which ignited tensions between the city and its largest recycling collector. CWS has racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for falling short of its goals.

A city-hired consultant says that’s because the company lacks workers and relies on outdated equipment. CWS maintains that it’s the fault of residents for tossing too much trash in their recycling carts, and the city for failing to penalize them.

Despite the city’s goal to reach “zero waste” by 2022, auditors found that landfill diversion rates—the amount of recycling collected in those big blue bins—have fallen citywide. Recycling rates for single-family homes fell from 36 percent in 2008 to 27 percent in 2014. But auditorys say diversion rates are much worse in districts covered by CWS.

Contamination rates nationwide have risen since companies in the early 2000s switched to single-stream recycling—that is, having consumers put reusable items in one big bin instead of sorting them in separate carts before pickup. While the simplified process upped recycling participation by 30 percent, the quality of the recyclables took a hit, according to the Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center.

Duong defended himself in a letter to the council last fall, noting his “company has already been wrongfully fined nearly $1 million and suffered losses of over $9 million as a result of [the city’s] failure to fix the single-family dwelling recycling program.” He said San Jose’s “inaction is the cause of the problem.”

Others on the council worry that CWS is trying to shirk responsibility, blaming residents for the excess trash while their counterparts deal with it. CWS issues about 3,600 non-collection notices a month; GreenTeam, only 11. Corona says that’s because GreenTeam, which processes recycling for 15 percent of the city, subcontracts with Green Waste Recovery.

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