Thursday, March 21, 2019

Answer: Where does your recycling go... really??

 I bet you're wondering what happened.  

Me too.  This took a LOT longer than expected... 

When I started, I wasn't sure if this would be easy or difficult...It's not obvious where you'd begin searching for this information.  

Luckily, for me at least, finding out where my trash and recycling goes is fairly straightforward.  So I thought this would be about a 30 minute search.  And it was. 

At least until you start to look for the rest of the story...  

Trash and Recycling pickup in Palo Alto. 
Green is compostable, blue is recyclable, black is trash

The Challenge for this week was: 

Where does YOUR recycling go?  How much of the stuff you carefully put into the recycling bins actually makes it into a recycled product vs. into a landfill? 

I started with the simplest query I could think of: 

     [ Palo Alto trash recycling ] 

That led to a bunch of results, including web pages from the City's official website that told me that the official trash-collection and recycling service is "Greenwaste of Palo Alto." I also learned that Stanford has their own program of recycling and trash management.  (Why do I care?  Because I wonder if my city and Stanford have a coordinated trash plan.  If not, they probably have very similar solutions.  If they don't, that would be interesting.)  

But I'd like to understand what Greenwaste's story of trash management is in contrast to what the City of Palo Alto thinks is happening.  That is, I'd like to find two different sources of information about trash.  (Yes, I realize this is all trash-talk, but you see my point!  Don't accept just one story about what's going on.) 

To do this efficiently I opened up TWO different browser windows.  One is for my searches having to do with Greenwaste, and the other having to do with things I find from the City of Palo Alto.  

In the first browser I searched for: 

     [ City of Palo Alto trash recycling ] 

(I added the "City of" terms because I learned that the city always puts "City of Palo Alto" on their documents, and I wanted to tilt the results towards official documents.) 

I then opened a bunch of tabs to follow up on links that I found in the City's website.  (See all the green tabs across the top?  Each of those is another page on the City's website.)  

At the bottom you can see the link to -- that's the link I opened in the second browser window.  Basically, each of my two browser windows are on a specific topic--the first one is all about recycling in Palo Alto, while the second one is all about GreenWaste, the company.  But naturally, as you search, new topics become relevant at different phases of your research.   I usually use different windows to group related topics together.   

So here (below), after just a couple of minutes is the second browser window, the one originally aimed at GreenWaste.  As you can see, a few new topics popped up here on the right side.  (Important point: you don't have to keep the browser tabs clean / pure.  They're just a temporary organizing system.  Use them as they work to keep things organized for you.)  

Notice that I found a link on the Greenwaste site that pointed back to the City's website (the second tab from the right side.)  That's a link to the City's "Zero Waste" program which is useful because that page connected me with the City's 2018 Zero Waste Plan!  

Reading through that document, I see that the City 

"...contracts with GreenWaste of Palo Alto, Inc. (GreenWaste) to provide comprehensive recycling and organics collection to all residential and commercial customers in Palo Alto...  recyclable materials are processed at the GreenWaste Material Recovery Facility where commodities are segregated and sold to domestic and international markets. Organic materials are processed at the Zero Waste Energy Development Corporation anaerobic digestion facility which produces renewable energy to operate the facility. Excess energy produced at the facility is sold to the power grid. The materials leftover from the digestion process are further composted at the Z-Best compost facility. The City also partners with the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale on the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Transfer Station (SMaRT Station). The SMaRT Station processes mixed garbage from Palo Alto and recovers recyclable and compostable materials that would have otherwise gone to landfill."

However, this notes that the City has "...contracts with GreenWaste, the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery Station (SMaRT), and Waste Management (Kirby Canyon Landfill) all expire in the Fall of 2021."  

This is getting a little confusing.  When I start to get too much information, I start making lists and drawing out diagrams to keep things clear in my mind.  

Laying out all of the players here in a list:  

1. GreenwasteOfPaloAlto the company; 2765 Lafayette St., Santa Clara, CA)  runs the trucks and staff that picks up everything and delivers it to one of.. 
2. Greenwaste Material Recovery Facility (MRF) 1500 Berger Dr, San Jose, CA. This is where trash and recycling, stuff that's all blended together, get sorted out.  They separate cardboard, glass, aluminum and different plastics into different piles.  These piles are baled and sent to processors to produce new products.  This plant recovers over 95% of the material it processes.  (This leaves me with a big question: What do the downstream "processors" do with the cardboard, glass, etc.? Do they actually recycle it?  We'll deal with that later.) 
3. Zero Waste Energy Development Corporation  (ZWEDC)  685 Los Esteros Rd., San Jose, CA. This is for anaerobic digestion and power creation from "digestible materials." They create compost and methane that they use to power the facility and "sell it into the power grid."   (Another big question:  Does this use up 100% of all digestable materials? Where do they get them from? From GreenwasteOfPaloAlto?  And how much electrical power do they actually generate?)  
4. Z-Best compost facility (ZBCF) - is for clearly compostable materials. 980 State Highway 25, Gilroy, CA.  Yet another question--what's the difference between ZWEDC and Z-Best (aside from location)?  How do "digestables" differ from "compostables"? Seems like most of ZBCF's input comes from ZWEDC.  Are there a line of trucks going from ZWEDC to ZBCF?
5. Zanker Material Processing Facility (ZMPF) - 675 Los Esteros Road, San Jose, CA (next door to the ZWEDC). They separate the materials that come in.
6.  Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Transfer Station  (SMaRT)-- which ALSO sorts out recyclable materials and compostables.  But the staff report I found on the City's website says that the SMaRT station only takes garbage materials.   But isn't that what the Greenwaste Material Recovery Facility (MRF) does?   The plan says "The SMaRT Station processes mixed garbage from Palo Alto and recovers recyclable and compostable materials that would have otherwise gone to landfill."   Like what?  Does GreenWaste (the folks who pick up our trash) actually deliver to the SMaRT station, or does it all go to the GreenWaste MRF?  
7.  Zanker Road Recycling (aka Zanker Road Landfill)  705 Los Esteros Rd, San Jose, CA.  This is the Zanker landfill site, run by GreenWaste.  Most of the GreenWaste unrecyclable trash ends up here.  From the trash stream they get, they extract more organics to make compost, mulches, soil amendments, and even aggregates (base rock, sand, drain rock) from the stuff we send them.   You can see the landfill pile behind the recycling center.  

8.  Kirby Canyon Landfill.  910 Coyote Creek Golf Drive, Morgan Hill, CA  Operated by Waste Management Solutions Inc., they run a set of 12 different landfills in California (and more across the country).  Kirby Canyon is the place where the non-recyclable and non-compostable trash ends up.  

Kirby Canyon Landfill way south of Palo Alto, near Morgan Hill, CA.

So... we have 8 players here.  And as you see, I have more questions now that when I started.  I have a lot of new questions, so I'm going to pick one and focus on that:  Where do the plastic (recyclable) bottles go?   

My research is all happening in a news environment where the price of recycled materials is dropping, and multiple cities are now not actually recycling their waste, but just dumping it in a landfill... even though they claim to be recycling.  (See these articles:  Pensacola, FL fakes their recycling; Bethel Park and Erie County, Pennsylvania; Candler County, Georgia; and St. Albert, Canada all no longer recycle glasscities in Arizona no longer recycling; etc. Even cities close to Palo Alto are having real problems with their recycling streams, they're sending more and more to landfills.)    

The big problem is that cities in the US have been sending their recycling to China for years, and late in 2018 China stopped accepting most US recyclables.  (See WasteDive's data on the changes in China's policy.  They're a waste industry site that collects industry news, so they're pretty up-to-date on changes.)  

The bottom line here is that collecting this information took me a LONG time.  So far, I've probably spent 9 hours on this Challenge.  

Why is it so complicated?  Largely because the websites are incredibly messy.  There's an convoluted corporate structure (see all of the Zanker sites above) and conflicting reports about who does what.  I'm a pretty compulsive and careful notetaker, but after I filled up two large browser windows and several sheets of paper, it's still a mess!  

There's also a huge problem with out-of-date information (old websites that are still active, but are years out of date... but their last update date information isn't really obvious).  There are also lots of not-yet-updated city content (e.g., the City of Palo Alto, which has a lot more information than they haven't updated in quite a while).  

What's a SearchResearcher to do in a situation like this?  

A:  Keep track of as much as possible, and when it gets too complicated, you need to start acting like an investigative reporter.  I have my browser windows and a large Google Doc with links pointing to everything.  But to help me organize all of this stuff I use a few sheets of paper with notes, boxes, arrows, and numbers.  

I've been doing that, and will report on what I find in the next update to this very complicated Challenge!   (Foreshadowing: It's not a tidy Challenge, but it's extraordinarily interesting.)  

Search Lessons

1.  When online research gets too complicated, you've got to start doing the offline research quest.  Take notes, write down names, places, and contracts.  Follow the money.  Phone calls coming up!  

Stay tuned.  This isn't over yet.  I've just begun!  

Search on! 


  1. To be honest, the soon I read the challenge three weeks ago, I was really surprised that this would be an easily verifiable research. I know it's extremely convoluted where I live (Lisbon, Portugal) and I usually believe that this kind of things involving private companies and lots of money in lots of hands is even harder to control and search in the US than in the European Union.

    Now I'm really curious to know more!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Remmij -- good to know someone's worried about me! (The same thought crossed my mind...)

    2. Well, in fact the only reason for me not to have been too worried is that you, Mr. Russell (if you're still reading this), like all superheroes, have insane training, incredible intelligence, and awesome willpower. I wonder if you lack amazing gadgets and virtually unlimited wealth though.

    3. "Well, in fact the only reason for me not to have been too worried is that you, Mr. Russell (if you're still reading this), like all superheroes, have insane training, incredible intelligence, and awesome willpower." — LMV
      …oh yeah Dan, this guy sent a text, said next time you were back east he'd like to have a talk with you - something about your recent search challenge… think he's in NJ… seemed like a good fella…
      said he'd bring 'walnuts & Manfred' whatever that means…
      D & T
      not sure who pays for the unitard/tights either, but black is very flattering…
      the cape
      a super SERP
      LMV - fwiw, I think I saw one of these fall out of his cape-pocket… not sure if it qualifies as an "amazing gadget and he does have Mikhaylovich's backing…"
      Mikhaylovich's SERP
      — and there is that Larry guy…
      the G-hues
      what would Search Kryptonite be?? is Astro on it?
      a digression:
      A. Teller
      The Secret History of the Future - Fork Fashions and Toilet Trends

      CTD, Super
      dan probably isn't a tighty-whitey man, but still wary of the Krypto… the cape seems indispensable…
      jfg -it is a musical Friday

  3. wondering where search is headed… or recycled…
    don't you end up searching for search and snacking on faux research?
    augmented search… Stefanie Hutka
    where are the goats?
    goats & mescal beans
    & yada

  4. Yesterday May 24, 2019 I asked the operator of our local island dump what actually happens to the huge piles of new/used gypsum drywall that I saw there. Turns out a big truckload of the stuff goes to Vancouver most every week where it is remade into new boards. jon

  5. I neglected to add that I checked with the company that does the making of new drywall boards, and its does do that. j

    1. Some how first part of this never showed up: I saw huge piles of drywall at the dump. I asked what happens to it. Was told it is remade into wallboard near Vancouver.

  6. Just in this morning 29 May 2019