By Sophia Kunthara & Elena Shao, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
August 7, 2019
Ophelia de la Cruz of South San Francisco found out Monday night that the recycling center in San Francisco she usually visits was closing. She tried another San Francisco center, but found herself at the end of a long line, as she lugged several trash bags of empty water bottles. She and other family members turn in their recycling every month.
“Every penny counts,” she said. “My mom is low-income, so whatever she can get, every penny — it counts.”
Three San Francisco recycling centers belonging to the Ontario (San Bernardino County) company RePlanet closed this week, leaving residents with fewer options to turn in recyclables for money and putting more pressure on the few operators that remain.
The company shut down abruptly on Monday, laying off 750 employees and closing its 284 centers in the state. Besides the three in San Francisco, RePlanet had 11 centers in Alameda, four in Contra Costa, one in Napa, seven in San Mateo, 10 in Santa Clara, five in Solano and two in Sonoma, according to California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.
Why RePlanet closed is unclear — it could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But experts point to the broader struggles of the recycling industry.
China has drastically reduced its imports of plastic and other scraps from the United States and other countries, according to Kate O’Neill, a professor of environmental politics at UC Berkeley.
“When China cut it off, for environmental and political reasons, it really sent recycling markets into a turmoil that they haven’t been able to recover from since,” O’Neill said.
Recycling is a precarious business anyway, O’Neill said, and while curbside pickup recyclers have been able to weather the change better, redemption companies like RePlanet haven’t fared as well without a market for plastic. There were 1508 recycling takeback centers in California before the RePlanet shutdown, and the closures represent 18% of those centers, according to CalRecycle spokesman Lance Klug. When RePlant closed 191 centers in 2016, it resulted in a 1% decline in the beverage container recycling rate, and the volume shifted to other open facilities.
The closure of RePlanet leaves just a few redemption centers in San Francisco. One of those is Our Planet Recycling, where de la Cruz ended up, near the intersection of highways 101 and 280. On Tuesday, owner Ors Csaszar gestured to the lot, which was crowded with people, each dragging behind them several large trash bags teeming with cans and bottles or unloading recycling out of parked cars while workers sorted containers and operate machines.
The surge in people has been dramatic over the past few days, he said, and it’s brought strains. “We’re going to need to hire more people, get more machines,” he said. So many people are waiting in lines that it’s hard to get cars in and out, according to Csaszar.
“Everybody’s closed — we’re the only one,” he said.
The aluminum stays locally. Our Planet Recycling handles the sorting and processing and sends it off to be melted down, and within weeks it’s back on the shelves. The plastic now has to stay in local markets too, with China refusing to take many plastics since early last year.
“The main problem is that (RePlanet) was the main (recycling) company in California, and they went out of business,” Csaszar said. “And, you know the reason they went out of business — look at all these people here, it’s not because people aren’t recycling. They’re not getting help from the state.”
A law passed more than 30 years ago requires California residents to pay a deposit, called the California Redemption Value — now it’s an additional 5 cents for beverage containers that are less than 24 ounces and an additional 10 cents for bigger containers. Consumers can return the containers to recycling centers to get their money. If they put the containers out for curbside collection, the operators of those curbside collection companies can get the deposit back.
“We paid a deposit for this, we should be able to get our money back,” said Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer at the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.
There have been about 350 billion beverage containers recycled since the law was implemented in 1987, according to CalRecycle.
RePlanet’s closure is troubling for those who depend on the income they make by turning in recyclable items.
“The ripples are being felt through the industry and, for me, one of the interesting things is Beijing’s making these decisions that are affecting the homeless people and the very poor people who rely on to a greater or lesser extent from the income” of turning in recyclable items, O’Neill said.
Certain grocery and convenience stores — at least 3,799 statewide — are required by the state to refund consumer deposits of empty beverage containers for recycling. But Cutler said that many could avoid doing so by paying a $100 per day fine. In Los Angeles, a Consumer Watchdog audit from April found that two thirds of surveyed stores refused to refund deposits or recycle.
CalRecycle will post a list of retailers who will be obligated to take back beverage containers, Klug said.
SB724, introduced in February, would exempt more stores from recycling obligations, specifically those with gross annual sales less than $2 million and less than 5,000 square feet in size. It can often be a hassle for these mom-and-pop stores to handle recycling refunds, and even more difficult to pay a $100 fine every day, said Scott Nelson, who volunteers at the Coalition on Homelessness. But it’s also important to find ways to make recycling easier, not more difficult, for consumers.
“The public thinks throwing something in a blue bin means now it’s recycled,” said Roland Geyer, a professor of industrial ecology at UC Santa Barbara. “The key process of actually recycling, taking the bales of old plastic and turning them into recycled plastic granulate, there isn’t enough capacity in the U.S. to do that.”