In a state that prides itself as a global leader in protecting the environment, recycling rates for beverage containers have dropped to their lowest point in almost a decade amid the continued closing of centers that pay for bottles and cans and the fallout from changes to California’s recycling program.
Beyond the environmental concerns, the financial effects are also growing — pinching large supermarket chains and low-income, and even homeless, residents alike.
Beverage container recycling rates in California have fallen below 80 percent for the first time since 2008, according to data recently released by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (known as CalRecycle). In 2016, 79.8 percent of beverage containers were recycled, down from 81 percent in 2015. The beverage container recycling rate had reached a high of 85 percent as recently as 2013
Bay Area residents have far fewer options to cash in on recyclables than they did several years ago. The value of plastic, glass and aluminum has decreased, prompting hundreds of recycling centers to close their doors in the past two years and putting pressure on the existing centers, which are struggling to meet the demand with little funds.
With fewer locations to redeem containers, people looking to get cash for their bottles and cans have to travel farther to existing recycling centers, which are often busy and subject to long waits.
An employee at the Tri-CED Community Recycling Center in Union City, Juancarlos Alayo, said the buyback center sees new customers daily, many of whom say they are coming to Tri-CED because their local recycling center shut down.
According to Tri-CED founder and Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle, the center typically serves about 60,000 customers annually, but this past year it saw about 70,000, he said.
Jane Greaney, a Union City resident, said that many times the line gets so long at the Tri-CED center that she turns around and comes back another day. Despite her city’s curbside recycling program, it’s important to Greaney to come to Tri-CED, where she brings everything from electronic waste to cans and bottles. She believes in the good work the center does in providing jobs and getting trash out of the landfill, but it’s also nice to get cash back from bringing the recyclables there, she said.
Many people depend on the money they get from redeeming their recyclables, and for them, the widespread closures of recycling centers is dire, Valle said. “We’ve done surveys and found that people living in homeless encampments in Oakland, Fremont and Union City have indicated they were raising $50 to $100 a day by picking up cans and bottles that were under the redemption law.”
Some grocery stores are taking a hit as well, thanks to a state requirement that supermarkets must have a recycling center within a half-mile radius of the store. Otherwise they must redeem the containers in the store or pay a daily fine.
Nannette Miranda, manager of public and government affairs for grocery chain The Save Mart Companies, said that as recycling centers have closed, almost 40 Lucky and FoodMaxx stores in the Bay Area have been left without recycling centers near them.
EBT-L-RECYCLE-0619-90The retailer chose not to redeem the containers inside stores because there is no room to do so in a sanitary way and because of the cost of paying out the redemption values to customers, Miranda said. Instead, the store pays an opt-out fee of $100 per day per store, which will add up to $2 million this year alone.
“For an industry that operates on less than 2 percent (profit) margins, that’s quite a blow,” Miranda said.
More than 300 of those recycling centers within a half-mile of supermarkets, known as “convenience zone” recycling centers, have closed since Jan. 1, 2016, according to an April report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Mark Oldfield, communications director for CalRecycle, estimates that in peak years, there were between 2,200 and 2,300 recycling centers in the state, but as of today, the database shows 1,680. Processing centers, which take recyclables from these centers, have closed, too. There are 183 active ones in California, down from 196 in 2016 and 217 in 2015.
Environmentalists also have cause for concern. Mark Murray, executive director of environmental advocacy group Californians Against Waste, said the closed recycling centers mean that more than 3.5 million additional containers are littered or put in the landfill every day. And because oil is needed to produce beverage container materials, the closures have led to the missed opportunity to save the equivalent of 222,000 barrels of oil and prevent tons of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
Part of the reason for the closures is that the value of scrap materials have declined in recent years and remain low, experts say. Low oil prices have made producing goods from virgin materials cheaper, creating competition for recycled material, said CalRecycle’s Oldfield. Because recycling centers that are under the California Redemption Value program are required to take all types of CRV-eligible material, the program stipulated from the beginning that the state would subsidize the costs of materials like plastic and glass that generally do not pay for themselves.
CalRecycle has to adjust the processing payments at least every January, according to the statute. But critics of the program say the formula is not responsive to what’s happening in the market right now. Oldfield said CalRecycle is determining whether it will adjust payments in the remaining quarters of the year.
Murray said his group and other advocates have suggested potential fixes, such as returning subsidy payments to previous levels and allowing CalRecycle to provide supplemental money to rural recycling centers, which are most affected. The state Assembly’s budget subcommittee on natural resources introduced some short-term adjustments to the program, but after the state Senate rejected its inclusion in the main state budget bill, it’s unclear if or when those fixes would become law.
Until the state revamps the program in some way, advocates say recycling centers could continue to struggle and even close, leaving even fewer options for the many people who rely on them for income, and chipping away at California’s efforts to increase recycling overall.