California Looks to Take Lead in Recycling

State officials say that California is the recycling leader of the United States, recycling more than half of its paper, plastic and other solid waste. Reporter Shirley Skeel details how the state plans to make recycling an even bigger priority.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Another California story now, this one about recycling. Californians recycle half their garbage. That's better than any other state. But officials are pushing for even more. Shirley Skeel reports.

SHIRLEY SKEEL: Seventeen years ago, Californians got worried that they could eventually run out of space for all their trash. So laws were passed requiring local councils to help the state achieve a target of recycling half its garbage. Margo Reid Brown, chair of the Integrated Waste Management Board, says Californian has now hit that target.

Ms. MARGO REID BROWN (Integrated Waste Management Board): California far exceeds any other state in the nation in their diversion efforts. California leads the nation.

SKEEL: It's at least one of the best, according to BioCycle magazine, along with Washington, Tennessee and New York State. One reason for California's success is that it has the country's biggest food scrap recycling program. Every day, scraps from 2,000 San Francisco restaurants are trucked to a plant run by Norcal Waste Systems. Foreman Toby Suarez watches the slabs being dumped as a truck arise from another nearby food establishment, Folsom Prison.

Mr. TOBY SUAREZ (Foreman, Norcal Waste Systems): What texture would you say that's in? Kind looks like it's been chewed a few times, doesn't it? Looks like they don't like their fruit very well, because there's lot of apples in there. Yup. There's the peas. I would have done the same thing. I always threw my peas out too. I wouldn't say it's a pretty sight, would you?

SKEEL: It's not a pretty sight, but after workers pick out the glass and plastic and the waste is ground up and dried, it makes great manure for farmers. Of course it's not exactly surprising that San Francisco and Berkeley are ardent recyclers. San Franciscans now divert a remarkable 67 percent of their garbage.

RUTH (Department of the Environment, San Francisco): Department of Environment. This is Ruth. May I help you?

Mr. JARED BLUMENFELD (Director, Department of the Environment, San Francisco): San Francisco's kind of remarkable because people treat recycling as a religion.

SKEEL: Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, says this is one city that didn't need the state threat of a $10,000 a day fine in order to meet its recycling target.

Mr. BLUMENFELD: It's not something that they had on a bumper sticker in the '70s and then forgot. People want to get more and more into the blue and green cans and see how much they can compost, how much they can recycle.

SKEEL: California has also taken its recycling initiative to construction waste.

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SKEEL: Berkeley architects Leger and Wanaselja use shredded newspaper as home insulation and old street signs for fences. Currently they're building a home out of recycled shipping containers. Karl Wanaselja and Cate Leger.

Mr. KARL WANASELJA (Architect): We are literally on the Hayward Fault, and that was one of the reasons we chose to use the shipping containers, because they're extremely strong. They're designed to be filled with up to 60,000 pounds of material and then stacked eight high and put on ocean-going vessels. They're...

Mr. CATE LEGER (Architect): That swaying in the storms.

Mr. WANASELJA: Swaying in the storms.

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SKEEL: But not everyone in California is recycling. In Daly City the recycling rate is only 26 percent. Daly City is generally a less affluent place, and there are a lot of apartment blocks. When your kitchen is tiny and you live 10 stories up, it's not easy to separate your trash. Just ask resident Charles Brough(ph).

Do you recycle your garbage?

Mr. CHARLES BROUGH (Resident, Daly City): No, ma'am. No, ma'am.

SKEEL: Why not?

Mr. BROUGH: Where am I going to recycle it at? Where am I going to put it? Because we don't have no room to put no recycle bin here. I live in an apartment.

SKEEL: Such details are not holding back California, however. Waste Board head Margo Reid Brown is talking to lawmakers about the new state recycling target. With Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger now pushing green causes ahead of the election, who knows, she may just get it.

For NPR News, I'm Shirley Skeel.

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