News

Where do your recyclables go? Palo Alto struggles to track their destination as material heads abroad

New report suggests haulers, brokers remain reluctant to disclose their clients

An employee at the GreenWaste MRF sweeps excess mixed paper as it is baled and made ready for sale to international buyers. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Palo Alto leaders often tout the city's strong record when it comes to shifting waste away from landfills.

Between 2007 and 2016, the city's rate of diversion — which includes recycling, composting and reuse — jumped from 62% to 82%. By 2030, city officials hope to bring it to 95%, a key goal of the city's Zero Waste Plan.

But even though local numbers appear strong, things get really murky as soon as recycled goods leave town. The city's hauler, GreenWaste Recovery, brings local recyclable materials to its material-recovery facility in San Jose, where items are combined with tossed goods from other communities, separated by type and baled. The materials are then marketed to brokers, who ship them off to various destinations around the world.

When the City Council signed its most recent agreement with GreenWaste, council members made it clear that they would like the hauler to track the final destination of the city's recyclables so as to avoid shipments to places with poor environmental or human rights records. GreenWaste was charged with requesting information from its purchasers about the disposition of local recyclable materials. The hauler was also required to analyze this information and, relying on credible media reports from the nations that receive local materials, assess if there's any risk of environmental and human rights violations associated with waste operations.

To date, however, GreenWaste has failed to meet the council's expectations. Its most recent report, which was released this month, states that some of the brokers claim they don't know where local materials are going. Others know but don't want to tell. Others seemingly don't want to know.

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At one point, GreenWaste explored the option of placing GPS units in bales of materials, a project it pursued after discussions with the Ecology Center in Berkeley. The hauler said that after discussing this option with brokers, the brokers made it clear that they don't want the GPS bales in their units and that if tracking units are found, bales may be returned to the sender, which GreenWaste states comes at "a great cost."

Despite the lack of information, most of the local materials continue to get exported, much of it to destinations unknown. GreenWaste reported that about 61% of the 164,651 tons that it recovered from local recycled material in 2021 went abroad, while 39% went to domestic markets. GreenWaste reported that 100% of the paper it received was exported, as well as 95% of all rigid plastic and film plastic.

The biggest questions pertain to cardboard. GreenWaste recovered 67,593 tons of cardboard from local recycling bins, making it by far the largest category of materials. It exported 95% of its cardboard, working through brokers such as Novato-based CellMark Inc., Orange-based Newport CH International and Berg Mill Supply, which is based in Los Angeles. All three of these companies declined to disclose where the cardboard goes.

OGO Fibers, which is based in Canada, was somewhat more forthcoming, reporting that the cardboard it gets from GreenWaste goes to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Korea and India. The brokerage Super Link Plastic, which is based in Oakland, also sells to all of these nations, as well as to Indonesia and Taiwan.

While some of it goes to Asian nations such as India, Thailand and Malaysia, much goes to destinations unknown. With few exceptions, brokers have not been forthcoming about where the waste goes next. And GreenWaste acknowledges in the new report that the haulers dealing with these brokers have not been keen on pressing the issue.

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The report from GreenWaste claims that the life cycle of commodities is "extremely difficult to track" and, given the current state of the market, brokers are "not in a position to place requirements on customers."

"Moreover, information on commodity markets, pricing, buyers and other information pertaining to commodity sales transactions constitute confidential and proprietary corporate Trade Secrets," the GreenWaste report states.

Sorters at the GreenWaste MRF sort volumes of PET and HDPE plastic, most commonly found in water bottles and drinking containers. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

Both GreenWaste and its brokers, the report claims, "stand to be harmed by the disclosure of Trade Secrets." This could include losing markets for specific materials such as clamshells or film plastics, losing some markets and "jeopardizing relationships with buyers, with the potential to lose business."

The problem of tracing the destination of local trash became more acute in 2018, when longtime purchaser China closed off its market to almost all recyclable goods, leaving many nations, states and cities scrambling for new markets. The uncertainty in the market, as well as questionable labor and environmental practices in new markets, prompted the council to adopt the new tracing policy. Just before the council voted in 2019 to approve the new GreenWaste contract, with the traceability provisions, City Manager Ed Shikada said that he believes Palo Alto is "really breaking new ground in taking responsibility for what really is an international crisis."

GreenWaste argues in the new report that the task has proved all but impossible for some of the material that gets shipped abroad. At the same time, it has been able to find domestic markets for other materials, including for 100% of locally recycled aluminum cans, aluminum foil, tin and glass. It also has found domestic markets for 99% of local high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic (which is commonly used for milk jugs and shampoo bottles), as well as for 99% of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic (the type that is often used for soft drink bottles).

In its report, GreenWaste offered other ideas for ensuring that local waste is diverted from landfills. One proposal is a pilot project in which mixed paper is shredded and composted. Another is creating a process for GreenWaste and the city to quickly responding to availability of domestic processors, even at a higher cost. Yet another calls for exploring gasification for diapers and problematic plastics, a process that would convert these materials to natural gas (to date, the technology has been cost-prohibitive, according to the hauler).

The city is also considering alternative strategies. A new report from the Public Works Department acknowledges that given the lack of information from GreenWaste and its brokers, "it is not possible to definitively determine whether the materials are being recycled properly or whether they may be causing environmental or social problems." In response, staff is having conversations with other cities that have their recyclable materials processed at the GreenWaste facility about "requesting greater accounting of secondary markets utilized for recyclable materials."

"Initial feedback is that the majority of jurisdictions do not have recycling traceability requirements within their contracts but are interested in either joining a discussion forum or minimally being informed of Palo Alto's progress," the report states.

The city is also communicating with local legislators about developing policies that would require tracking of recyclable materials. This could involve creating a certification process to verify that recyclables are actually recycled and to "keep recyclables within the United States where laws and regulations can protect the environment and human health."

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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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Where do your recyclables go? Palo Alto struggles to track their destination as material heads abroad

New report suggests haulers, brokers remain reluctant to disclose their clients

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Jan 28, 2022, 9:36 am

Palo Alto leaders often tout the city's strong record when it comes to shifting waste away from landfills.

Between 2007 and 2016, the city's rate of diversion — which includes recycling, composting and reuse — jumped from 62% to 82%. By 2030, city officials hope to bring it to 95%, a key goal of the city's Zero Waste Plan.

But even though local numbers appear strong, things get really murky as soon as recycled goods leave town. The city's hauler, GreenWaste Recovery, brings local recyclable materials to its material-recovery facility in San Jose, where items are combined with tossed goods from other communities, separated by type and baled. The materials are then marketed to brokers, who ship them off to various destinations around the world.

When the City Council signed its most recent agreement with GreenWaste, council members made it clear that they would like the hauler to track the final destination of the city's recyclables so as to avoid shipments to places with poor environmental or human rights records. GreenWaste was charged with requesting information from its purchasers about the disposition of local recyclable materials. The hauler was also required to analyze this information and, relying on credible media reports from the nations that receive local materials, assess if there's any risk of environmental and human rights violations associated with waste operations.

To date, however, GreenWaste has failed to meet the council's expectations. Its most recent report, which was released this month, states that some of the brokers claim they don't know where local materials are going. Others know but don't want to tell. Others seemingly don't want to know.

At one point, GreenWaste explored the option of placing GPS units in bales of materials, a project it pursued after discussions with the Ecology Center in Berkeley. The hauler said that after discussing this option with brokers, the brokers made it clear that they don't want the GPS bales in their units and that if tracking units are found, bales may be returned to the sender, which GreenWaste states comes at "a great cost."

Despite the lack of information, most of the local materials continue to get exported, much of it to destinations unknown. GreenWaste reported that about 61% of the 164,651 tons that it recovered from local recycled material in 2021 went abroad, while 39% went to domestic markets. GreenWaste reported that 100% of the paper it received was exported, as well as 95% of all rigid plastic and film plastic.

The biggest questions pertain to cardboard. GreenWaste recovered 67,593 tons of cardboard from local recycling bins, making it by far the largest category of materials. It exported 95% of its cardboard, working through brokers such as Novato-based CellMark Inc., Orange-based Newport CH International and Berg Mill Supply, which is based in Los Angeles. All three of these companies declined to disclose where the cardboard goes.

OGO Fibers, which is based in Canada, was somewhat more forthcoming, reporting that the cardboard it gets from GreenWaste goes to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Korea and India. The brokerage Super Link Plastic, which is based in Oakland, also sells to all of these nations, as well as to Indonesia and Taiwan.

While some of it goes to Asian nations such as India, Thailand and Malaysia, much goes to destinations unknown. With few exceptions, brokers have not been forthcoming about where the waste goes next. And GreenWaste acknowledges in the new report that the haulers dealing with these brokers have not been keen on pressing the issue.

The report from GreenWaste claims that the life cycle of commodities is "extremely difficult to track" and, given the current state of the market, brokers are "not in a position to place requirements on customers."

"Moreover, information on commodity markets, pricing, buyers and other information pertaining to commodity sales transactions constitute confidential and proprietary corporate Trade Secrets," the GreenWaste report states.

Both GreenWaste and its brokers, the report claims, "stand to be harmed by the disclosure of Trade Secrets." This could include losing markets for specific materials such as clamshells or film plastics, losing some markets and "jeopardizing relationships with buyers, with the potential to lose business."

The problem of tracing the destination of local trash became more acute in 2018, when longtime purchaser China closed off its market to almost all recyclable goods, leaving many nations, states and cities scrambling for new markets. The uncertainty in the market, as well as questionable labor and environmental practices in new markets, prompted the council to adopt the new tracing policy. Just before the council voted in 2019 to approve the new GreenWaste contract, with the traceability provisions, City Manager Ed Shikada said that he believes Palo Alto is "really breaking new ground in taking responsibility for what really is an international crisis."

GreenWaste argues in the new report that the task has proved all but impossible for some of the material that gets shipped abroad. At the same time, it has been able to find domestic markets for other materials, including for 100% of locally recycled aluminum cans, aluminum foil, tin and glass. It also has found domestic markets for 99% of local high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic (which is commonly used for milk jugs and shampoo bottles), as well as for 99% of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic (the type that is often used for soft drink bottles).

In its report, GreenWaste offered other ideas for ensuring that local waste is diverted from landfills. One proposal is a pilot project in which mixed paper is shredded and composted. Another is creating a process for GreenWaste and the city to quickly responding to availability of domestic processors, even at a higher cost. Yet another calls for exploring gasification for diapers and problematic plastics, a process that would convert these materials to natural gas (to date, the technology has been cost-prohibitive, according to the hauler).

The city is also considering alternative strategies. A new report from the Public Works Department acknowledges that given the lack of information from GreenWaste and its brokers, "it is not possible to definitively determine whether the materials are being recycled properly or whether they may be causing environmental or social problems." In response, staff is having conversations with other cities that have their recyclable materials processed at the GreenWaste facility about "requesting greater accounting of secondary markets utilized for recyclable materials."

"Initial feedback is that the majority of jurisdictions do not have recycling traceability requirements within their contracts but are interested in either joining a discussion forum or minimally being informed of Palo Alto's progress," the report states.

The city is also communicating with local legislators about developing policies that would require tracking of recyclable materials. This could involve creating a certification process to verify that recyclables are actually recycled and to "keep recyclables within the United States where laws and regulations can protect the environment and human health."

Comments

PCarter
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 28, 2022 at 11:00 am
PCarter, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 11:00 am

We had one of our annual cleanup days on Thursday. I put an obsolete printer on the sidewalk, assuming it would be recycled as e-waste. Instead, it was tossed into the back of the big landfill truck and crushed, along with all my other junk, my neighbor's mattresses, etc.


Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2022 at 11:09 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 11:09 am

We have had the same experience as the above poster. When the system started and was well publicized, most of our items were taken the night before by interested parties who thought they could sell some of it. Our most recent pickup with a couple of nice items were just thrown into the back of a trash truck and squashed together.

When the clean up days were first touted we were told that the idea was others could reuse items and it was a way of recycling and reusing. Now the dates are top secret and it is quite apparent that they are just trash going to landfill.

On the point of tracking where recyclables end up, how much does this tracking cost? Whether or not they go to a suitable destination is a good aim, but it sounds an expensive aim to me. I would imagine that most of it ends up in a landfill somewhere in the world.


mjh
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2022 at 12:35 pm
mjh, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 12:35 pm

Last time representatives from the Utilities Department made a presentation to the council which included information about Palo Alto’s recycling program, staff were questioned about what happens to the recycled materials after it leaves Palo Alto. The phrase “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil” immediately sprang to mind.


Bob Wenzlau
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2022 at 2:54 pm
Bob Wenzlau, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 2:54 pm

For three years I have been engaged about the fate of our waste, realizing that the good act of "recycling" is doing harm. I appreciate our city's engagement with this topic but have found that the "study the problem" approach has inadvertently become the long term solution - while we study the problem, the harm of these materials continues.

As this article was written, I penned in the morning a letter to our Human Relations Commission (HRC). On Monday, in a joint session with the City Council, I was inspired by the concern about harm of racism within our Asian community. I asked the HRC to extend their view toward the global human impact of Palo Alto actions, and in particular toward the harm on the Southeast Asian community as they receive the waste papers and plastics Palo Alto generates.

As the article informs, our mixed papers and cardboard, as well as much of our plastics, are shipped to Southeast Asia. These materials have a devastating impact on Asian communities as well as the environment. This impact includes children picking through waste, uncontrolled burning and uncontrolled disposal often controlled by local gangs. A horrific human impact we are complicit in.

The difference between local and global is that we do not see the harm we do globally, but that harm is still there, and perhaps more severe. I invited the HRC to embrace and opine on by City policies that would cause adverse human impact beyond our boundaries.

I asked the HRC and ultimately Council to intervene to immediately STOP the shipments of paper and plastic overseas, rather than study. We have studied for 3 years, but each week we continue the shipments we do harm. After we stop the shipments we can regress to local disposal of paper and plastic, and celebrate that the harmful human impact has ended. This action would also be symbolic to other cities who also participate in this practice. This action would drive domestic and environmentally sound markets to emerge.


d page
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 28, 2022 at 7:05 pm
d page, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 7:05 pm

To learn more about plastic recycling check out this 9 minute video from climate town - both educational and humorous: Web Link


Samuel L.
Registered user
Meadow Park
on Jan 28, 2022 at 8:03 pm
Samuel L., Meadow Park
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 8:03 pm

Here's a story by John Oliver on Plastic recycling. **Some adult language***


Samuel L.
Registered user
Meadow Park
on Jan 28, 2022 at 8:04 pm
Samuel L., Meadow Park
Registered user
on Jan 28, 2022 at 8:04 pm
Chris
Registered user
Charleston Meadows
on Jan 29, 2022 at 10:36 am
Chris, Charleston Meadows
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2022 at 10:36 am

There's no need to track. Their refusal is enough to know how bad the truth is.

You silicon valley people are funny. You claim to be environmentalists. Well I've got bad news for you. Your primitive technologies will never be enough to save you from the fact that there are TOO MANY PEOPLE on Earth

There's nowhere for your trash to go.


Anne
Registered user
Midtown
on Jan 29, 2022 at 11:51 am
Anne, Midtown
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2022 at 11:51 am

So we should be mulching our paper and throwing our plastic into the landfill bin to make sure it doesn't go into the ocean?


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Jan 29, 2022 at 4:43 pm
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Jan 29, 2022 at 4:43 pm

This article on trash disposal stinks. For instance, just what foreign broker would pay for useless trash just to pay more to throw it into foreign landfills?

There is no discussion of cash flow here, and just in Watergate, following the cash is the key. How about just following the money trail as far as we can? For instance, does Palo Alto pay GreenWaste a lot of money to accept, sort, bail, and sell most of its trash? If so, what is the cash flow at GreenWaste for its secretive dealings with secretive foreign "brokers"? This is the key. Does GreenWaste SELL trash to its foreign brokers, or does GreenWaste PAY foreign brokers to haul off unprofitable trash that it can't dump for a profit in North America? SELL is the only logical business decision for GreenWaste (in my humble opinion, of course). Transportation to Asia is expensive, even in empty cargo containers going back to China. But wait!!! Those containers aren't going to China.

This trash thing does really stink. Follow the money!!!


Eeyore (formerly StarSpring)
Registered user
Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 30, 2022 at 8:41 am
Eeyore (formerly StarSpring), Adobe-Meadow
Registered user
on Jan 30, 2022 at 8:41 am

Excellent, if disturbing, article.

To echo Bystander, above: Our neighbors have sold their house and are moving out of area. They put quite a number of nice furniture pieces out on the curb for this latest cleanup day. I took some, others disappeared overnight, but a very nice small couch and other pieces were just tossed into the truck and crushed. It was awful to hear.


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jan 31, 2022 at 7:40 am
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jan 31, 2022 at 7:40 am

Focus on the art of the possible. Green Waste and waste commodity markets have become complicated. Seize this opportunity.

Economies of scale for hi quality, sorted trash can be initiated by cooperating "Green Waste" customers. If volume/quality of recycled trash bundles is improved, commodity markets will respond and optimize to a degree more acceptable to Palo Altans. We are a tiny village in context to world markets. However, a batch of cooperating "Greenwaste" customers can move world markets.

The only direct path forward is decisive intercity cooperation to create better supply/demand for higher volume of higher quality trash bundles. This tiny step forward is practical and powerful. Palo Alto voices could be heard around the world.


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on Jan 31, 2022 at 5:41 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on Jan 31, 2022 at 5:41 pm

@Neilson Although many are willing to use their time to sort their refuse in detail and clean/prep it for "higher quality trash bundles", I suspect most are not. As far as I can tell, what we are doing now is not significantly better for the environment than putting it all into a well-run modern landfill after removing the top recyclables like aluminum and glass. We would recover methane, plastics would not end up in the South China Sea, and rail transport to a landfill is quite energy-efficient.


Rebecca Eisenberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jan 31, 2022 at 9:35 pm
Rebecca Eisenberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jan 31, 2022 at 9:35 pm

I strongly support the comments made by Bob Wenzlau above, for the reasons he states eloquently. I also support the solution proposed by Neilson Buchanan, for the reason he clearly states as well.

This rational solution will rely on our city government doing something it has utterly failed to do in the past (and present): cooperating with other cities and communities. I profoundly hope we can expect our elected leaders to use skills its members should have learned in nursery school (yet perhaps did not): sharing and playing well with others.

To those who say that recycling is "impossible" - -I wonder how such a definitive lack of belief (and imagine) could be held by any genuine resident of a place that we used to consider -- proudly -- to be the innovation capital of the world! It also is a strange belief to hold given the actual progress being made currently in this very field.

Around the world, country, and locally, companies are generating sorting technologies that enable reusable materials to be separated from non-recyclables in order to divert to facilities that specialize in specific resource renewal. This has been happening, for example, with plastic bottles for years, and is increasing in usage as clothing and gear manufacturers are recognizing the opportunity to lower their cost of goods, and accordingly increase their profitability, by utilizing ocean-bound (or ocean-rescued) plastics instead of petroleum-based materials like polyester as raw material for fabrics. Re-purposing discarded materials as manufacturing components is a win-win-win for businesses, consumers, and our planet.

Given all there is to gain financially from repurposing discarded materials, it is shocking to hear that here in Silicon Valley, our valuable metals, plastics, fabrics, and likely, compostables, are going overseas to create pollution for human beings and our shared natural environment instead.

Palo Alto - of all places - should be leading the way to better solutions.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 2, 2022 at 1:19 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Feb 2, 2022 at 1:19 pm

This article gives me even stronger motivation to minimize my family's garbage waste. The mantra is Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Recycle is last because it is the last resort option when you have no other option.

One way to reduce packing waste is to shop at the Farmers Market for food. I have purchased washable net bags for produce, so I don't have to use plastic or compostable bags at the store. I wish the grocery stores would stop using so much plastic in the packaging of meat and poultry and other products.

I try to buy items that come in glass when I can, but it is getting harder and harder to find these. I try to buy things in bulk to minimize packaging waste. I try to cut up old cloths for cleaning rags in stead of disposable thins.

Honestly, it is hard not to avoid recycling some stuff. Yesterday, I bought a jar of mustard. There were only two brands on the shelf that were not packaged in plastic, and they were more expensive.


Chaz Miller
Registered user
another community
on Feb 3, 2022 at 9:28 am
Chaz Miller, another community
Registered user
on Feb 3, 2022 at 9:28 am

Since 2002, 15 California paper mills that use recycled paper as a raw material closed. Since 2017, more than 15 paper mills in the US have expanded their use of recycled paper. Three brand new mills have opened. None of these are in California. Perhaps California needs to clean up its age and become a destination for recycled paper.


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on Feb 4, 2022 at 11:22 am
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on Feb 4, 2022 at 11:22 am

I have first hand experience (semiconductor research and manufacturing) that CA is a notoriously difficult State in which to open and operate industrial businesses, particularly those that affect the environment, like paper mills. CA also has chronic water shortages. Mills both use a LOT of water AND need waste stream remediation to clean that water before it is discharged. That drives up operating and environmental regulation compliance costs and saps productivity. Just read online that "The US benchmark for water use within pulp and paper mills is approximately 17,000 gallons/ton of paper". Not sure if that applies to recycled paper and cardboard or just wood pulp.


SJW
Registered user
College Terrace
on Feb 5, 2022 at 10:24 pm
SJW, College Terrace
Registered user
on Feb 5, 2022 at 10:24 pm

Perhaps the honorable thing to do is to put plastics in the trash, thereby forcing people in this country to deal with the problem. Shipping it off to the ocean or Southeast Asia only increases the damage. It's time for government to get involved in a big way.


Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2022 at 3:11 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Feb 7, 2022 at 3:11 pm

I strongly agree with Neilson Buchanan’s post above! This is the time for and issue that the city of Palo Alto must engage with as many regional partner cities as possible to figure improvements to our recycling!
Cty officials CAN contact and engage with other city officials, especially GreenWaste contract customers.
Excellent article by Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Weekly.
This is the exact way our city officials can make a difference locally, regionally, nationally and in the world: not with endless hiring of consultants, virtue signaling blather and intangibles. Focus on meaningful topics, please. (I include Public Safety as a top one, also.)
THIS issue of authentic, effective and efficient recycling IS tangible to ALL of us!
I don’t think it’s impossible. Consumer Reports, etc. describe how packaging manufacturers must be closely engaged and rewarded when they improve use of revcled materials, for example. California certainly can throw its weight around on this!
And yes, I mean the caps.
Please share with a friend or neighbor.


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