This article is published in collaboration with Crosstown.
Last year, Californians sent 4.2 billion more cans and bottles to landfills than in 2016, according to CalRecycle data. That’s an 89% increase.
The state’s waste problem has been building for years, but it reached crisis levels during the pandemic when Amazon orders and supermarket home deliveries surged. As consumption grew, the system that was supposed to be California’s bulwark against waste hoarding – recycling – became distorted. In 2021, the state recycled 68% of its beverage containers.
Five years earlier, it had recycled 80%.
The collapse of the recycling system seems like a stain on a state that prides itself on its green credentials. A report of 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.”
As recycling rates have declined, recycling targets have become more ambitious. At the end of June, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill require all single-use plastics to be recyclable by 2032.
But the high consumption of cans and plastic containers during the pandemic has exposed the flaws in California’s recycling system. Currently, regulations reward the least efficient market players who produce the lowest quality recycled materials.
And that won’t be easy to fix. Many issues are enshrined in law — and changing them will require the state legislature to overhaul the existing system.
Redemption centers spread across the state were meant to be the backbone of California’s extensive recycling system.
Anyone who bought a six-pack – and paid for the California Redemption Value (CRV) when buying – could return the cans or bottles to one of these places to get their nickels refunded. The centers would then charge the state for the nickel they paid for and sell the containers for their scrap value.
However, this meant that centers depended on the going price of aluminum or plastic to make money. And the price of aluminum and plastic is volatile.
When prices fell in 2013, Ray Babb was forced to close the Imperial Valley recycling center he had operated for ten years. Recyclers, Babb said, “are at the mercy of the global marketplace.”
In 2019, rePlanet, then the state’s largest recycling center chain, 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 exchange their cans and bottles.
There are 63 cities and counties in California, like Manhattan Beach and Humboldt County, without a single recycling center, according to a calculation by Californians Against Waste.
Recyclers are supposed to receive a state subsidy to cover some of the labor and fuel costs needed to transport their materials to places where they can be processed. The level of the subsidy is calculated on the recycling costs of the two previous years. This means gas prices can skyrocket this year, but recyclers are compensated based on gas prices from 2020.
There is another layer to this. If scrap prices go down, these subsidies are supposed to go up – and if prices go up, payments are also supposed to go down. But it’s only adjusted based on how prices have changed over the previous year – and even then, the cost calculations don’t budge.
In 2016, with scrap metal prices plummeting, the money centers received from CalRecycle only covered a fraction of their costs. Most were already coping and lacked cash reserves to cover the shortfall.
Genevieve Blair, director of Recycling Zone in Fairfield, said she had worked in the industry for more than 30 years and was growing increasingly disillusioned with the system.
“It just seems like they want us to recycle, but they don’t want to subsidize the difference in what it costs us to run the recycling centers,” she said. “They’re trying to get everything out of the waste stream, out of landfills, but they don’t want to subsidize where people want to come and recycle.”
The big blue bin
Many residents, especially those in urban areas, may not have noticed the mass closures of recycling centers. That’s because they had gotten into the habit of throwing bottles, cans, paper and plastic in their blue bin. But this massive shift to so-called “single stream” recycling, where all materials are grouped together, has had dramatic consequences.
Single-stream recycling is significantly less efficient and produces lower quality recycled material. The difference in contamination rates, or the percentage of unusable materials, between curbside pickups and recycling centers is “night and day,” says Jeff Donlevy, general manager of Ming’s Resources East Bay in Hayward, who discusses materials from both recycling centers and the blue recycling bins at the curb.
“This Redemption Center material comes directly from consumers. It’s the cleanest, shiniest, shiniest material out there,” Donlevy said. “Material going into sidewalk programs gets put in the trash with other materials…it’s like watching a sock out of the dryer versus one that’s in the bottom of a sweaty gym locker. “
This curbside recycling must be transported to Special Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs, massive industrial sites that use a combination of mechanical sorters and human labor to disentangle cardboard from cans, plastic and other containers. and place them in different piles.
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Even then, about 30% of the materials cannot be salvaged and are sent to landfills, according to Marc Harismendy, 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 50%, depending on which city the trucks come from.
California Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Freemont) argues that the overreliance on single-stream recycling is a major reason the state’s recycling rate is declining. “Cardboard doesn’t mix well when mixed with mayonnaise jars,” he said. He lobbied for major changes to the system and is the author of SB-38which aims to place the responsibility on the beverage industry to create an accessible reimbursement system.
As inefficient as it may be, it’s an increasingly lucrative business for large waste haulers, such as Waste Management and Republic Services, Inc. That’s because they can take advantage of the CRV program of a way that small recycling centers cannot. When a can goes into a blue bin, the company collecting the bin also charges the state for the nickel. But instead of returning it to the consumer, they can keep it and also sell the waste on the open market.
“The program is good for us, it’s good to get that income back. I think it’s great to live in California and do business here, to be able to take advantage of the program. Other states don’t have that option,” Harismendy said.
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CalRecycle is well aware of how this system puts a strain on recycling centers. Last year he published a report specifying that 50% of owners of small, low-volume recycling centers earn an income below the poverty line.
Donlevy, of Ming’s Resources East Bay, said: “A lot of people who have been in the industry for a long time are really tired of everything that’s happened.” Although scrap metal prices have been rising in recent months, he expects they will eventually fall. “And I could see that when the markets turn around and the [payments] start to drop, I think that will trigger another wave of shutdowns where people are like, “Hey, the last two or three years have been really good.” Now we are on a downward cycle and I don’t want to bring it down.
California’s recycling system is supposed to ensure that when a local recycling center closes, consumers can return their bottles to a store. But a verification conducted by Consumer Watchdog revealed that it is 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, AB-1454by Reps. Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) and Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), aims to make recycling centers accessible to all Californians by increasing grants to existing recycling centers and providing financial assistance recyclers opening in underserved areas. areas.
Wieckowski hopes the rate cut will finally sound a wake-up call. Beverage makers who need aluminum, glass and plastic find it harder to source the materials needed to make containers. A better recycling system would reduce this constraint.
“It’s a good crunch to have,” Wieckowski said.