Local waste managers to Sonoma: It’s not all recyclable!

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Which bin to put it in?

Recology customers (in Sonoma Valley outside of Sonoma city limits) can learn more at Sonoma Garbage Collectors customers can learn more at

Just when it feels like people are habitual recyclers and the blue bins fill up faster than the gray ones, a new bin comes along — and the rules change.

“It’s a process. We finally got people to the point where they don’t just drop (waste) where they are. Now they put it in a container, and that’s good,” said Ken Wells, who is a waste management expert and works with Sonoma Garbage Collection, the company which serves city residents.

But which container to put garbage in has gotten more confusing, said Wells, the former executive director of Sonoma County Waste Management Agency.

The United States used to ship tons of plastics to China for recycling, but that nation no longer wants America’s plastic waste — leaving municipalities scrambling to figure out how to manage garbage collection.

Sonoma County has three different collection companies, Wells said, and each has its own system and rules of what it will accept in the blue and green bins.

“One of the challenges is that there is no composting facility in Sonoma County,” said Travis Wagner, sustainability coordinator for the City of Sonoma. “It’s a problem because it’s all being shipped out of the county.”

Recycling plastics

Various types of plastics that were accepted in blue bins in the City of Sonoma are no longer accepted there, Wells said.

The rest of Sonoma Valley uses Recology waste management, which is able to accept a broader range of recyclables, said Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey. Harvey’s day job is with Recology as a Waste Zero Specialist.

A couple years ago, grocery stores in the City of Sonoma stopped accepting plastic bottles such as those used for soda that could be returned to recoup the CRV (California Refund Value) charged when purchased. That left residents forced to either drive outside the city limits to find a place that would exchange them for the refund, or toss them into the recycle (or blue) bin.

But the problem, Wells said, is that even if those and other plastics are tossed into the blue bin, and the resident is thinking they are doing the right thing, some of those plastics will get pulled out at the sorting facility and tossed into the garbage pile destined for a landfill.

If the item isn’t clean, which to recyclers means it is contaminated and can’t be ground down for reuse, it goes to the landfill, he said.

And, China rejects dirty plastics, Harvey said.


One of the more frustrating products for the experts is the so-called “compostable plastics.” They aren’t really recyclable in Sonoma County, Wells said.

“I think that is a greenwashing scam,” he said.

People think that if a container says it is made of “compostable” material it should go in the green bin with yard debris. Not so, Wells and Harvey said.

Compostable products take too long to break down, and facilities don’t have the time or space to handle those materials, Harvey said.

“It will probably go into the trash and this is unfortunate,” Wells said.

Just don’t buy plastics, they both said. Instead use items that can be cleaned and reused many times. If you are planning a picnic, opt for wood and paper-fiber materials, and stay away from cups or plates that have a coating because that prevents it from breaking down.

Which bin to put it in?

Recology customers (in Sonoma Valley outside of Sonoma city limits) can learn more at Sonoma Garbage Collectors customers can learn more at

Wood-fiber utensils and paper plates without a coating, such as Chinet disposables, are better options.

What some people might not realize is that they can put food waste in the green, or compost, bins — but just which items are acceptable is determined by the collection service. Sonoma Garbage will accept only plant material, no animal bones or meat. Recology will accept plant material of appropriate dimension as well as meat, fish, shellfish and bones. Both will accept dirty paper towels.

But, please, Wells and Harvey said, don’t use plastic bags in the green bins. People tend to use them to keep the bin clean, but plastic bags get caught up in the sorting lines and must be removed because they do not compost. Harvey suggested using paper bags instead.

If the bin won’t be picked up for a few days, put the food waste in the freezer until it’s time to go to the curb. That will help keep the bin cleaner, he suggested. But, he acknowledges he might be a little more enthusiastic about his bins than most people.

“I actually clean my cans,” Harvey said.

Plaza bins

Wagner said the garbage and recycling bins around the Plaza will be getting replaced this summer, and the new bins will better inform people as to what items to put into which bin. All that is accepted in the recycle bins are paper products and plastic with number 1 or 2 on it. Anything marked with a 3 through 7 must go in the garbage bin, he said.

The city received a grant that will help pay for the new bins; the city’s current bins have been problematic in the collection and sorting business.

“If you look at the Plaza, the bins there are quite unsightly,” Wagner said. They have open tops and when it rains, water gets in.

“The last thing you want is water in the bins,” he said. “You don’t want to haul water to a landfill.”

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