Why Sorting Your Trash Into Blue Bins Isn't Recycling

Blue bins in Cupertino, California | Photo: Peter Kaminski/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" has been produced in tandem with this story. Watch it here now.

About 25 years ago, America went through an environmental revolution, and it showed most prominently on television. Sets for shows from dramas to sitcoms suddenly sprouted blue plastic bins in kitchens and garages, and actors would casually put cans and bottles in those bins as they voiced dialogue.

It was a remarkable cultural shift, largely coinciding with the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, and promoted by groups like the Environmental Media Association who pushed producers to include recycling on their shows the way product placement folks pushed them to show brand name consumables.

Since then, recycling has really taken off: it's hard to find a community in the United States that doesn't have at least a modest recycling program. You might be tempted, gazing out on a nation awash in blue bins, to conclude that recycling has won that environmental revolution that started 25 years ago.

You'd be wrong.

New Map by UCLA Shows Factory Toxins in L.A. County

Cal EcoMaps showing factories and population densities.
| Screenshot: Cal EcoMaps"

UCLA has launched a new interactive map tracking the impact of toxins from local factories on the environment in Los Angeles County. Developed by seven students, it details more than eight million pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment during 2012.

The group looked at the petroleum, chemicals, primary metals, and fabricated metals industries, which make up 89 percent of toxins in the county. With data from 172 facilities that are required to report toxin releases to the government, students developed an environmental impact rating system. For example, Exide Technologies, which has been under scrutiny for pollution from its battery recycling operation in Vernon, scored a 78, one of the highest. Two other businesses, Pacific Alloy Castings in South Gate and Quemetco in the city of Industry, received higher scores.

Teaching Through Trash

Inside the Trash for Teaching warehouse. Photos by Lata Pandya

Greeted with lines of bins piled high with plastic tubing, cardboard boxes, fabrics, and micro-plastics it's a kind of wonderland walking into the Trash for Teaching warehouse. Located in Gardena, CA it is part classroom, part recycling center, it is all possibility and the permutations are endless.

A non-profit member-based organization, Trash for Teaching takes unused materials that would have otherwise been on the way to a landfill and brings them into classrooms. With approximately 600 members, the group serves about 400 different schools across Southern California. From pre-made kits illustrating science concepts for classrooms to "shopping" in the T4T warehouse, at two dollars a pound the organization is giving new meaning to the idiom "one man's trash is another man's treasure."

Some 90 million tons of waste is created in California each year and about a third of it ends up in a landfill. Trash for Teaching partners with more than 200 companies and has diverted over 240,000 pounds of materials from landfills. From art to science, materials go from discarded to integral tools.

At their Spontaneous Creations Workshops on Sunday afternoons, families can come in and work on school projects or just create something fun using the materials they find in the warehouse.

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