California’s recycling blues

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In California, you can go a recycling redemption center. Often found in supermarket and strip mall parking lots; these are businesses where people can turn in used aluminum cans, plastic packaging and glass bottles and get cash in return. The amount received depends on the quantity of recyclables brought in.

Norberto Ulloa frequently goes to a redemption center in the San Gabriel Valley community of Baldwin Park, where he unloads garbage bags full of used bottles and cans from his car.

“Basically, once I have four or five bagfuls at home, I get over here,” said Ulloa. “So whatever I can get back, it goes in the pocket, and it goes to bills, gas, whatever it is.”

Laura Adams, who makes weekly trips to a facility in mid-city Los Angeles says the $10 to $50 she makes per trip helps her survive when money is low. “It’s very important,” she said. “And when you are low on cash, you can always come here and get some extra cash from recycling.”

Adams said she uses the cash she earns from recycling to buy food.

A recycling redemption center in Los Angeles. Thousands of Californians earn extra income by bringing recyclables, both their own and what they collect on the street, to the centers. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But as redemption center customers struggle to survive, so to do the centers themselves. California’s recycling redemption center system is in a financial crisis, with hundreds of the facilities closing in recent years.

What’s the root of the problem? Well, even in eco-conscious California, it’s increasingly difficult to make a profit in the recycling business, especially if you’re trading in the raw material of recycling, all of those used cans, bottles and packages.

“Unfortunately we have had four years of the row of the commodities prices going down and down and down,” said Susan Collins, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, a non-profit group that studies the recycling market. 

Collins says a worldwide glut in recyclables has led to a sharp decline in the value of scrap metal, plastics, glass and paper. The result is that it’s much more difficult for California’s redemption centers to make money when they try to resell recyclables to larger raw materials processors.

“And it’s meant that the redemption centers have lost money, continue to lose money, as a whole throughout the state,” said Collins.

Because of the soft recyclables market, more than 800 California redemption centers have gone out of business in recent years, that’s roughly a third of their total number in the state.

A worldwide glut of recyclable products has lowered prices in the recycled good commodities market and led to the closure of hundreds of recycling redemption centers in California. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The redemption center closures, in turn, have made it more difficult for the people who earn extra income by bringing recyclables to the facilities. Many don’t own cars and rely on the convenience of centers within walking distance when hauling in their bagfuls of recyclable goods.

Seeing them integral to recycling goals, the state of California does provide subsidies to redemption centers to help cover their operating costs when prices are low in the recycling market. That money comes from the charge placed on recyclable cans and bottles in the state, 5 cents for small containers, 10 cents for larger ones.

But Susan Collins says that the recyclables market is now so depressed that the subsidies aren’t nearly large enough to keep the redemption centers open. She says over a billion dollars is in California’s recyclable fund and the state can just use a fraction of that to keep the redemption centers open.

  “S o there is plenty of room within the program to increase the payments to  make them fair payments and fix that now,” said Collins.

Environmentalists say the state of California can do more to help struggling recycling redemption centers by boosting subsidies. That money comes from the 5 and 10 cent redemption charge placed on recyclable goods in the state. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

However, California has already hiked subsidies for the centers in response to changes in the market, but that state law prevents additional immediate increases, according to Mark Oldfield of CalRecycle, the state agency that administers the state’s recycling subsidy program.

“We are allowed to adjust it every quarter and that’s what we are doing according to the statute that we are obligated to follow,” said Oldfield. 

Oldfield also notes that redemption centers are private businesses and like other businesses have to survive as markets change and commodities prices fluctuate.

Back at one of the remaining recycling centers in California, Norberto Ulloa is counting the cash he’s gotten back in return for his bags of old bottles and cans. It adds up to over $17, money he says he’ll use to pay for gas to get work.

Norberto Ulloa waits for his recyclables to get weighed at a redemption center in Baldwin Park. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)