Is recycling collapsing in California? Advocates call on lawmakers to rescue it

Andrew Sheeler

When rePlanet closed its doors at its remaining 284 California locations earlier this month, alarm bells went up among recycling advocates.

The recycling chain cited a reduction in state subsidies, reduced prices for aluminum and plastic and rising operating costs as the reason for shutting its doors.

The closure of the largest recycling center in California is a symptom of a much larger problem facing the Golden State, argues Martin Bourque, of the Ecology Center, a Berkeley-based nonprofit.

“The paradigm of using disposable packaging for everything, and then ‘recycling it,’ that model is now showing its weaknesses,” Bourque said. “It has a lot of costs in it. We’ve been able to externalize those costs to other countries for the last 20 years.”

For years, the U.S. has relied on China and other developing countries to accept bulk, unsorted recycling — paper, plastic, and plenty of unrecyclable materials that have to be sorted out. But now, with commodities depressed in value, those countries are becoming much more selective in what they’ll accept, Bourque said.

“We can no longer externalize those costs. We’re going to have to face those costs here in the U.S.,” he said.

In California, one of the biggest areas that cost is affecting is the state’s can and bottle redemption program. The state is losing more of those centers than it is gaining.

From 2015 to 2018, California lost 1,770 recycling centers and gained 830, according to a legislative analysis.

“That’s a critical crisis on California’s recycling scene right now,” Bourque said.

One recycling expert is calling on state lawmakers to act quickly to save the ailing program.

‘A critical crisis’

Mark Murray, of Californians Against Waste, says lawmakers should resurrect the language of a 2018 bill, Senate Bill 452, that he says would provide critical support to small recycling centers across the state.

SB 452 would have fixed the state fees at 2015 levels, preventing them from dropping and providing a measure of security for recycling companies struggling with a volatile global commodities market, Murray said.

So what happened?

Jerry Brown’s veto

In the fall of 2018, SB 452 crossed then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

The legislation, which passed through both the Senate and the Assembly with near unanimous support, proposed to fix the state’s 32-year-old can-and-bottle recycling program by granting several concessions aimed at helping struggling recycling companies.

Brown returned the bill, Senate Bill 452, unsigned. In his veto statement, he said he refused to sign a bill that didn’t balance three goals: “fiscal sustainability, improved collection and incentives for innovative recycling.”

“This bill does not accomplish any of these goals,” Brown wrote.

Murray said SB 452 “was supposed to be a short-term quick fix” to an aging law.

“The statutory provisions of this law go back to 1986,” Murray said. “The problem that we have is that those policies are too rigid and too inflexible.”

When the beverage container recycling law went into effect, 60 percent of all containers were aluminum cans, Murray said, “and aluminum cans cover their own way.”

But over the last three decades, beverage companies have gradually shifted to plastic containers — Murray said more than half, 54 percent, of containers are plastic now — and plastic scrap is worth only about half the cost of what it takes to recycle it.

As a result, “the recycling sector loses $300 a ton,” Murray said.

An outdated law

“All of these recycling centers are more dependent on processing payments,” Murray said.

A processing payment is a money paid out by the state to help subsidize the cost of recycling. The problem, according to Murray?

“That provision, it was based on how the economy worked in 1986,” Murray said.

CalRecycle reimburses based on cost data that is a year, to a year-and-a-half old, he said. In that time, the value of scrap has continued to decrease.

“Each time the department makes an adjustment, it’s too late to make the recycler whole,” Murray said.

Murray said CalRecycle isn’t to blame for this problem — the law is.

“CalRecycle is and has been constrained by outdated and inflexible statutory provisions that have reduced incentive payments to recyclers at a time when they need to be increased.”

CalRecycle has the money to spend, but not the authority to do so, he argued.

Murray said it’s critical that lawmakers amend one of the many recycling-related bills to include language such as that found in SB 452 before the legislative session ends.

“They don’t have to reinvent the wheel, they don’t have to do a big study, they just have to adopt a policy that’s been sitting in front of them for two years,” Murray said.

The author of SB 452, Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, agrees.

The senator, through a spokesman said that, “We should revive the elements of SB 452 and send a bill to Gov. (Gavin) Newsom so that we can keep recycling accessible to all California residents.”

A crisis, and a silver lining

Can and bottle redemption is just one facet of the larger problem, though, according to Bourque.

Curbside collection presents a two-fold problem, he said.

For one thing, Californians have adopted the “dirty, single-stream approach” to recycling, with everything going into one blue bin. Often, that includes “residual” material, such as food or other un-recyclable matter, Bourque said.

That effort is encouraged by retailers, who Bourque said spread the mantra of “Everything is recyclable.”

“Those two things combined have really created a quality crisis,” Bourque said.

Once, overseas recyclers would take that material. But with commodity prices dropping, Bourque said China and other countries decided, “Why should we do the dirty work?”

“Because the overseas markets are no longer accepting this material, California Curbside programs and Material Recover Facilities are having to sort the material and dispose of the ‘residual’ at significant expense,” said Murray.

Murray said that on average, that “residual” material accounts for up to a fifth of what gets collected curbside.

“So on top of dealing with lower scrap prices for ‘recyclables’, programs are having to pay $50 to $75 a ton to throw away these residuals that they used to ship to China for free,” he said.

Bourque said that could lead to more expensive curb service for Californians.

“A lot of consumers in the state of California are going to face rate increases,” he said.

But there’s a silver lining.

Paying more could force people to be more thoughtful about how they dispose of their goods.

“Is convenience really worth the social, environmental and economic costs that come with it?” Bourque said. “Recycling is important, it’s alive and well in terms of cans, bottles, paper and cardboard. But recycling can’t be the solution for everything, and disposable plastic packaging is a real problem.”