My Time as a CalRecycle Student Assistant
It's safe to say that a year ago, I knew very little about the recycling industry in California. But since I joined CalRecycle’s Knowledge Integration Section as a Student Assistant in April of last year, I have become somewhat of an expert.
Studying environmental policy at UC Davis, I was excited to join CalRecycle and gain as much knowledge as I could on what goes into the regulatory process. In my time here, I’ve done countless eye-opening activities such as sitting in on meetings with my supervisors, assisting with rulemaking packages, and attending site visits of Northern California material recovery facilities.
Site visits are easily my favorite part of working with CalRecycle. After attending the safety training, I was able to visit four facilities in the area (Sacramento, Galt, etc.) that collect and sort waste, retrieving the recyclable material for resale.
Donning highlighter yellow vests and rubber boots, my colleagues and I were led on tours of these facilities, learning more about their operations and how the recent China bans have affected their business. Most places detailed the difficulty of selling their recyclables with new contamination standards in affect overseas.
Juliet Vaughn models a safety vestand hard hat on a site tour.
Seeing trash being moved and sorted on a conveyor right in front of me was an eye-opening experience. Giant tractors push waste into a pile that makes its way onto a conveyor belt. Coffee cups, to-go boxes, and laundry detergent containers rush past you as a worker picks off certain types of plastic from the line. It goes to show how there really is no “away” and just how important laws like banning plastic straws really are. One of our site visits was to observe a sort crew for the Waste Characterization Study our office conducts. Workers take a large sample of waste and hand sort it by material type (see a previous In The Loop blog post for a video). The goal of the study is to better understand the makeup of California’s waste, with special attention to organics.
Another part of my work I enjoy is being able to put the knowledge I gain in school to good use. There have been plenty of times when I learned about something at my university one day, only to encounter the exact concept at work soon after. When a colleague was trying to remember what “SEP” stood for, I said, “Supplemental Environmental Project!” with confidence, having learned the acronym in an environmental law class. Putting together rulemaking packages for AB 901, I’ve encountered plenty of documents I learned about in class, including CEQA notices and economic impact statements.
What they didn’t teach me in school, however, was the tremendous amount of work that goes into crafting a regulation and finalizing it. The packages I put together were upwards of a thousand pages, the product of the hard work put in by people in my office. I took a special interest in all of the thought that goes into the wording of a regulation and how it is interpreted by stakeholders. Replacing just one word in a regulatory text could mean changing everything.
As I prepare to graduate in June and attend law school in the fall, I won’t forget my time here at CalRecycle. Working with the Knowledge Integration Section has given me insight into all the work that goes into making regulations and the importance of fighting for environmental protection in California. This office has become my community, and I hope to continue working with CalEPA in some capacity one day.
Juliet Vaughn is a student assistant at CalRecycle.