By Cari Spencer, KCET PBS-TV Southern California
August 16, 2022
Last year, Californians sent 4.2 billion more cans and bottles to landfills than they did in 2016, according to data from CalRecycle. That’s an 89% increase.
The state’s trash problem has been piling up for years, but it reached crisis levels during the pandemic when Amazon orders and supermarket home deliveries surged. As consumption rose, the system that is supposed to be California’s bulwark against mounting trash — recycling — buckled. In 2021, the state recycled 68% of its beverage containers.
Five years prior, it had recycled 80%.
The breakdown of the recycling system stands out as a blemish for a state that prides itself on its green credentials. A report from the public interest group Consumer Watchdog noted, "California’s bottle and can recycling program was once the envy of the world. Today it has become a failed model."
While recycling rates have declined, recycling goals have grown more ambitious. At the end of June, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill mandating all single-use plastics to be recyclable by 2032.
But the hefty consumption of cans and plastic containers during the pandemic laid bare the flaws in California’s recycling system. Currently, regulations reward the least efficient players in the marketplace who produce the lowest-grade of recycled materials.
And that won’t be easy to fix. Many of the issues are enshrined in law — and changing them will require the state legislature to overhaul the existing system.
The redemption centers spread out across the state were meant to be the backbone of California’s vast recycling system.
Anyone who purchased a six pack — and paid the California Redemption Value (CRV) upon purchase — could return the cans or bottles to one of these locations to be refunded for their nickels. The centers would then bill the state for the nickel they paid out and sell the containers for their scrap value.
However, this meant that the centers depended on whatever the going price for aluminum or plastic was in order to make money. And the price for aluminum and plastic is volatile.
When prices dropped in 2013, Ray Babb was forced to shutter the recycling center in the Imperial Valley he had been operating for ten years. Recyclers, Babb said, “are at the mercy of the world market.”
In 2019, rePlanet, then the largest chain of recycling centers in the state, closed all of its 284 outlets. More than a thousand other recycling centers have closed, leaving the state with about half as many places for consumers to redeem their cans and bottles.
There are 63 cities and counties in California, such as Manhattan Beach and Humboldt County, without a single recycling center, according to a calculation by Californians Against Waste.
The recyclers are supposed to receive a subsidy from the state to cover some of the costs of labor and fuel it takes to haul their materials to places where they can be processed. The level of the subsidy is calculated off of recycling costs from two years prior. That means that this year, gas prices may be skyrocketing, but recyclers are being compensated based on gas prices from 2020.
There’s another layer to this. If scrap prices fall, those subsidy payments are supposed to increase — and if prices rise, payments are supposed to take a cut, too. But it’s only adjusted on changing prices over a year prior — and even then, the cost calculations do not budge.
In 2016, with scrap prices falling, the money the centers were receiving from CalRecycle covered only a fraction of their costs. Most had already been scraping by and lacked the cash reserves to cover the shortfall.
Genevieve Blair, the manager of Recycling Zone in Fairfield, said she’s been in the industry for over 30 years and has grown increasingly disillusioned by the system.
“It just seems like they want us to recycle, yet they don’t want to subsidize the difference of what it’s costing us to operate the recycling centers,” she said. “They’re trying to get everything out of the waste stream, out of the landfills, but they don’t want to subsidize where people want to come in and recycle.”
The big blue bin
Many residents, particularly those in urban areas, might not have noticed the mass closures of the recycling centers. That’s because they had grown accustomed to tossing bottles, cans, paper and plastic into their blue bin. But this massive shift to so-called “single-stream” recycling, where all the materials are lumped together, had drastic consequences.
Single-stream recycling is significantly less efficient and produces a lower quality of recycled materials. The difference in the contamination rates, or percent of unusable material, between curbside pickups and recycling centers is “night and day,” says Jeff Donlevy, general manager of Ming’s Resources East Bay in Hayward, which processes material from both recycling centers and the blue bins from curbside recyclers.
“That material from buyback centers is coming directly from the consumers. It’s the cleanest, the brightest, shiny material,” said Donlevy. “Material going into curbside programs is put in the bin with other materials… it’s like looking at a sock out of the dryer versus one that’s at the bottom of a gym locker that is sweaty.”
That curbside recycling needs to be hauled to special materials recovery facilities, or MRFs, massive industrial sites that use a combination of mechanical sorters and human labor to unscramble cardboard from cans, plastic and other containers and place them in different piles.
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Even then, about 30% of the material cannot be salvaged and is sent to landfills, according to Marc Harismendy, the manager of a facility in the Sun Valley section of Los Angeles, run by Waste Management, Inc.
He said contamination rates can range from 17% to as high as 50%, depending on which city the trucks are coming from.
California Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Freemont) argues that the overreliance on single-stream recycling is one of the main reasons why the state’s recycling rate has been falling. “Cardboard doesn’t mix well when it’s tossed in with mayonnaise jars,” he said. He’s been pushing for major changes to the system and is the author of SB-38, which aims to put the onus on the beverage industry to create an accessible redemption system.
As inefficient as it might be, it is an increasingly lucrative business for the big waste haulers, such as Waste Management and Republic Services, Inc. That’s because they can take advantage of the CRV program in a way that the smaller recycling centers cannot. When a can goes into a blue bin, the company that collects the bin also bills the state for the nickel. But instead of giving it back to the consumer, they get to keep it and also sell the scrap material on the open market.
“The program is beneficial for us, it’s good to get that revenue back. I think it’s great to live in California and to do business here, that we’re able to take advantage of the program. Other states don’t have that option,” said Harismendy.
As California deals with the fallout of a global waste crisis, plastic manufacturers continue to spread misleading information about recycling, while spending big on lobbying efforts to keep their products on the shelves.
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CalRecycle is well aware how this system puts a squeeze on the recycling centers. Last year, it released a report detailing that 50% of low-volume, small recycling center owners are earning an income below poverty level.
Donlevy, of Ming’s Resources East Bay, said, “A lot of the people who have been in the industry for a long time are just really tired of everything that’s happened.” Though scrap prices have surged in recent months, he expects them to eventually fall back down. “And I could see that when the markets turn around and the [payments] start to go down, I think it’ll trigger another wave of closures where people have said, ‘Hey the last two years or three years have been really good. Now we’re on a downward cycle and I don’t want to ride it down again.’”
California’s recycling system is supposed to guarantee that when a local recycling center closes, consumers can return their bottles to a store. But an audit performed by Consumer Watchdog revealed that’s often just a fantasy. Two-thirds of 50 Los Angeles-area stores surveyed by the nonprofit advocacy group refused to refund empty beverage containers.
There are currently several proposed bills in the state legislature that seek to rewire how recycling works. In addition to Wieckowski’s bill, another one, AB-1454, by Reps. Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) and Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), aims to make recycling centers accessible to all Californians by increasing subsidies to existing recycling centers and providing financial help to recyclers who open in underserved areas.
Wieckowski is hopeful that the declining rates are finally sounding a wake-up call. Beverage makers that need aluminum, glass and plastic are finding it harder to source the materials to make containers. A better recycling system would reduce that strain.
“It’s a good crisis to have,” said Wieckowski.