Waste – Don’t Waste It: Recycling Initiatives In Santa Barbara County

While recycling may seem like a simple word, this intricate process is old as the Earth itself. Just as a recycling plant recycles a newspaper that might later be reformed into a paper bag, the Earth recycles nutrients from insects, creatures or plants back into the soil for future organisms to gather energy from. The first time on record when humans began producing paper from recycled products was in 1031 AD in Japan and the first legitimate recycling manufacturing center was introduced in Philadelphia in 1690. Curbside recycling began in 1874, and the first trash sorting facility made its debut in 1897 in New York City. What originally started as an incentive program intended to convince people to recycle for a small profit is now a burgeoning industry worth around $500 billion globally.

I was recently fortunate enough to meet Matt Fore, manager of the Trash and Recycling’s Environmental Services division for the City of Santa Barbara. Matt educated me about recycling in and around the region – as well as his specific role with the city: the diversion side of waste management which includes setting up recycling programs at businesses and schools, establishing food scrap programs, and dealing with illegal dumping and litter prevention (assisting people who don’t have a garbage service or stockpile waste).

In the age of green-living, the notion of recycling might seem second-nature to many, yet much of Matt’s job consists of selling the idea of recycling and waste management programs to companies by informing them about how financially and socially beneficial they are. For example, did you know restaurants can cut their trash bill in half by recycling and using food scrap services?  Businesses are being presented with a win-win situation when it comes to corporate responsibility; if they are already working to minimize their environmental footprint, joining the recycling and composting program is just one more step.

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The Fate of Waste

One of my key questions for Matt was focused on the fate of recycling in Santa Barbara, most importantly, ‘what will happen when our landfill reaches capacity?’ As it turns out, the City of Santa Barbara just released an environmental impact report for a five-jurisdiction project that will eventually replace the Tajiguas Landfill which is expected to fill up around 2026. Relatively speaking, this is exceptionally soon, so City officials are currently working on alternative methods of disposal.

6f6bff2d813c640fc7116f3e979bfeabOne innovative approach to refuse is a waste management campus that would include the following two facilities:

 1. A Material Recovery Facility –> large sorting warehouse with conveyor belts, magnets, and blowers that will help separate trash from recyclables and sort the recyclables.

 2. An Organic Material Facility –> material will go into an anaerobic digestor where oxygen isn’t available. Bacteria that thrive under these conditions digest the material and produce methane, which is then captured and used as fuel to power generators and sell electricity (this process is done in an airtight container so the methane can’t escape into the environment). This creates renewable power which will not only power the facility itself, but has the potential to supply an additional megawatt of energy that could be sold to power homes.

While food waste will eventually be turned into captured methane, for now it is transported to a facility in Santa Maria called Engle and Gray where it is composted and sold to home supply stores and vineyards (meaning that the sandwich you didn’t finish during lunch last week could eventually help nurture wine grapes).


Now, we all try our hardest to sort our waste to the best of our abilities, but what happens to that one Trader Joe’s hummus can that accidentally makes it into the trash instead of the recycling? Never fear! All waste (both recycling and trash) is sorted further when it gets to the treatment facility where technology is then used to separate materials such as different metals and alloys (including magnets to extract steel, and systems using reverse polarity for aluminum). Until our community as a whole masters the art of waste management, it’s truly awesome that technology can meet us halfway. There are additional programs to help us get there as well.

In Santa Barbara, business level recycling education entails a one-to-one interaction in which a member of the Trash and Recycling program discusses the financial and environmental benefits with parties interested in adopting these programs. The City’s department is now partnered with 1,801 businesses here in Santa Barbara, with a goal of getting around 300 new members per year. For residential customers, schools are really where the impact begins because once you get a child on board they’ll “whip an entire household into shape,” Matt says. Speaking with around 2,000-3,000 kids a year, employees visit local schools to conduct environmental education presentations that focus on the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Compost.”

Adiós Plastic Bags!

Adopted by the Santa Barbara City Council on October 15, 2013, the ban on plastic bags (also known as the Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance) has barred stores from using plastic bags and requires businesses to charge $0.20 per bag for customers who wish to purchase and use paper bags. According to the City of Santa Barbara, approximately 47 million bags are used in Santa Barbara annually, of which less than 5% are recycled (plastic bags are “reusable”, not recyclable”). Sadly, most of these bags are are buried in landfills. The California statewide ban has since been signed into law but isn’t scheduled to take effect till July 2015. Regardless, the ban on single use plastic bags is a powerful example of expansive reach and influence at the grassroots level and has united communities to brainstorm and implement new ways to protect the environment. Here is a nice overview of the ban including why it’s important and what it means. To learn more about the issue of single use plastics or how to get involved, check out the Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics program.

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Worldwide, nearly two million single-use plastic bags are used each minute. Plastic bags have consistently been reported in the top five most common forms of ocean litter. For every square mile of ocean, there are about 46,000 pieces of plastic floating in it and it can take upwards of 1,000 years to degrade. While these figures are staggering, there seems to be more than a glimmer of hope as the number of single-use plastic bag bans is on an uptick!” –Angela Howe, Surfrider Foundation

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Other City of Santa Barbara Collaborators

  • For Regional Solid Waste Planning the city works primarily through a group called the “Multi-Jurisdictional Solid Waste Task Group” which is a collection of elected officials from the cities in Santa Barbara County and the County itself. This group provides guidance to staff on planning for future solid waste processing and disposal needs.
  • For outreach projects the city collaborates with staff from the County and surrounding cities to ensure a standardization of programs and recycling messaging to ensure clarity to South Coast residents and businesses.
  • When dealing with specific initiatives (such as the Bag Ban), City Trash and Recycling works with groups like the Community Environmental Council, Surfrider, and Heal the Ocean.
  • For improving diversion in specific sectors in the City, they have very strong and critical relationships with MarBorg (the waste hauler), the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization, the Milpas Community Association, the Santa Barbara Chamber and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Rental Property Association.
  • In terms of Classroom Education, they have had a contract for several years with Explore Ecology to provide solid waste and recycling education to several thousand students in schools located throughout the City.
  • They city also works with hundreds of volunteers each year on litter cleanup and graffiti abatement through the City’s Looking Good Santa Barbara Program.

Personal and Home Recycling at an Innovative Level

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Besides the obvious action of separating your home and business refuse into recycling, waste, and food scraps, you can get creative and turn everyday objects into fun and functional things. If Pinterest has shown us anything, it’s that creativity is around every corner, and if you can’t imagine it, someone else can! I checked out some boards on using refurbished materials and amongst others here are some of my favorite upcycled projects: recycled pallet gardens, old bunk beds turned into a star-gazing tree house, and even solar powered heaters made from aluminum cans. The sentiment of recycling can also extend to some less obvious options such as: purchasing items from consignment or second hand stores, buying goods made from recycled material (like Teeki’s sick yoga pants), and wrapping gifts in newspaper or magazine pages. Most importantly of all, simply think about a purchase before you make it; when the economy is good and people have more of a disposable income to spend, they buy more and consequently there is more waste. If you’re in Santa Barbara, head on over to Plum Goods on State Street which features an array of hand-crafted, fair-trade, upcycled gifts.

Recycling material means the following:

The Bottom Line

Recycling materials means the following:

  • Reducing material in landfills
  • Saving money
  • Saving space that would otherwise eventually be allocated to landfill use
  • Preventing the need to harvest new materials from the environment
  • Job creation in a variety of fields (the U.S. recycling industry alone employs around 1.1 million people, and this is just those who work at recycling and reuse centers. This number doesn’t take into account those who work in education and repurposing of recycled materials).


Luckily there are hundreds of practical actions we can take to create a huge difference in the community, as well as help each of us towards our goal of making the world a better place. In the new year, let’s raise our (reusable) cups to all the possibilities for improvement, advancement, and sustainability!

Cool Links:

Images Courtesy Of: 1. Wooden Cutout of the World  2. Hour Glass  3. Medical Recycling Poster  4. “What Goes in the Ocean Goes in You”  5. Girl Surfing a Wave with Trash  6. Cost to Produce and Clean up Plastic Bags  7. Plastic Bag and Bottle Diagram  8. “I want to be a bike”  9. 200+ Upcycled Projects  10. Bearshark





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