Will larger trash bins fix San Jose’s recycling woes?
A smaller trash bin and larger recycling bin in East San Jose. Some residents are getting larger trash bins as the city attempts to reduce recycling contamination. Photo by Jason Torres Iraheta.

    After grappling with years of people dumping trash in the recycling, San Jose is doubling the number of larger trash bins across the city at no extra cost.

    It’s part of a pilot program launched in July 2022 to provide bigger trash cans to nearly 4,200 residents in key areas with high recycling contamination rates. Now, city officials plan to expand the program to an additional 5,000 residents before the end of the year.

    The move comes after nearly a decade of city studies highlighting San Jose’s severe contamination problem and pleas from haulers to address the issue. Contamination often results in fines to both residents and the haulers themselves.

    Recycling contamination occurs when residents place non-recyclable items, such as food waste, paper towels, plastic wrap and other items, in the recycling bin. Residents often mix trash with their recyclables because the city’s standard 32-gallon trash bin is smaller compared to its 64- or 96-gallon recycling bins that come free with trash service.

    To get a larger trash bin, San Joseans must cough up an extra $51.40 per month, double the rate of the 32-gallon bin.

    At its peak the city’s contamination rate reached nearly 60%, with some routes having contamination rates over 80%, according a March 2023 city report.

    The program hopes to reduce recent spikes in recycling contamination that city leaders blame on the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “In addition to the larger garbage cart pilot, the city has been exploring multiple tactics for reducing recycling contamination in recent years,” Jennie Loft, a spokesperson for San Jose’s Environmental Services Department, told San José Spotlight.

    Those tactics include new lids for an additional 20,000 trash cans in areas with the highest rate of recycling contamination. The lids will feature directions for how to recycle properly in English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

    The city received $529,000 from a state bill that requires new labeling and education efforts, and implementation will be completed by spring 2024. The labeling tactic previously resulted in a 15% reduction in contamination, according to city documents.

    The city is also sending officials to survey and chat with residents in high contamination areas.

    Between 2015 and 2020, recycling contamination in San Jose increased by 19%. The spike was largely attributed to stay-at-home orders during the pandemic. Once those orders lifted, city officials hoped contamination would drop to pre-pandemic levels.

    However, recycling contamination increased to 57% in 2022.

    The first half of the city’s pilot program showed some promising results: Recycling contamination decreased an average of 19% in the four routes with the highest rates.

    A graph from a city report shows the results of the larger trash bin pilot program. Image courtesy of San Jose.

    But the success might be short-lived—especially if residents are forced to pay for the larger cans.

    A majority of residents in the program who wanted to keep their larger bins said they would not pay more, a city report found.

    The pilot program is also expensive. The city is on the hook for more than $1 million to roll out larger bins to five new routes and hire more trash surveyors.

    Haulers are expected to achieve a contamination rate of 30% to 35%, but they said it’s difficult to meet that standard due to the small trash bins. California Waste Solutions (CWS), the city’s main recycling hauler, has asked to city to upsize the trash carts for years. It has served approximately 175,000 single-family homes citywide since 2002.

    The city has repeatedly fined CWS millions of dollars for failing to meet that standard. Now, CWS is suing the city for $48.4 million and argues the Vietnamese-owned business is being discriminated against.

    CWS representatives said larger bins are key to addressing high contamination rates.

    “The bottom line solution is to upsize the (bins), because there’s only so much public education you can do,” Johnny Duong, chief operation officer for CWS, told San José Spotlight.

    In 2019, CWS almost lost its contract amid claims from the city that it failed to meet performance standards. CWS blamed the contamination problems on the small trash cans and advocated for the city to provide larger ones.

    The company also claims the owners’ ethnicity is a reason why it is held to a higher standard. However, the hauler remains committed to working with the city to address the issue.

    “We’ve been assisting the city on this pilot program,” Duong said. “And I think that for certain routes that are so highly contaminated the only solution to that is upgrading the garbage carts.”

    Follow Freddy Brewster at @freddy_brewster on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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