MARINA, Calif. - Lawmakers in California have littered their desks with measures designed to eliminate plastic products, such as bags and even straws. But in failing to provide an adequate system for recycling these items - along with glass, metal and paper - they have created an environmental mess and a socio-economic dilemma.
At the public park I frequent several times a week for baseball practice, I can pretty much set my watch by the arrival of Samuel, toting two or three bulging trash bags. He deftly lifts the lids on garbage bins and rummages a bit, looking for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. He also picks up what’s on the ground, leaving the park considerably tidier than he found it.
His scavenging brings him roughly $60 a week he told me, or at least it used to. Locating a recycling center where he can sell his scrap for cash has become increasingly difficult. This month California’s largest recycling operator, RePlanet, closed all of its 284 locations, pushing the state’s deeply flawed recycling system closer to chaos.
Redemption and recycling of bottles and cans, which came on the scene some 50 years ago, is based on a beautifully simple system. Consumers pay a nickel deposit - a dime for larger items - at the time of purchase, and get the money back when they return the empties. For consumers who can’t be bothered, most municipalities offer curbside collections of recyclables. California also has subsidized redemption depots, where folks like Samuel trade trash for cash.
Today, every aspect of California’s system is in disarray. Many stores simply ignore their obligation to take back empties; others prefer to pay a daily fine of $100 to be spared the hassle. Curbside collections, in which various recyclable products are commingled in a single truck, are yielding contaminated trash that increasingly winds up in landfills. Meanwhile, the global market for recyclables is shrinking, with buyers such as China paying less and demanding cleaner materials.
State auditors have repeatedly identified fraud in California’s system among retailers and recycling companies. And, when it comes to cash deposits, there’s the fact that a nickel doesn’t incentivize today’s consumers as it did half a century ago.
The nonprofit Consumer Watchdog organization notes that more than 40 percent of California’s redemption centers have closed in the last five years. Without changes in how the state subsidizes and regulates these businesses, the group concludes, “the recycling centers that are the centerpiece of the state’s bottle deposit law are doomed.”
Only 10 states have redemption programs for bottles and cans, with no states added to the list since Hawaii launched its program in 2005. However, six other state legislatures are now considering “Bottle Bills,” which is a hopeful sign, despite California’s recent struggles.
Here on the Monterey Peninsula in Central California, there is only one remaining redemption facility to serve seven cities and towns, with a combined population of 170,000, spread over 853 square miles. This “Buy Back Center,” operated by local government, was built years ago near the municipal dump. “It was designed to serve 10 or 20 customers a day,” explains Tim Flanagan, the general manager. “Today, we’re getting eight times that many people, some of whom arrive on bicycles or by foot on a road that wasn’t designed for public access, it was designed for garbage trucks. It was never intended that people would walk to get here.”
Flanagan says all of California faces “a total disconnect with recycling. The cost of labor and transportation are up, while state subsidies for recycling facilities have not kept pace.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom needs to take immediate action to clean this up. Requirements for retailers to participate in recycling must be enforced. Recycling centers must be adequately subsidized to reflect fluctuations in the world scrap market. Residents should be educated about which materials are appropriate for curbside collections. Deposits paid by consumers should be raised to 10 cents for smaller bottles and cans - as is the case in Michigan, where the results are impressive.
Because of its size, California’s failures - as well as its achievements - are magnified. With a vast coastline and natural wonders it should be a model for efficient recycling, not the poster state for environmental mismanagement and malfeasance.
Recycling empty bottles and cans isn’t rocket science. It’s actually one of the simplest things we can do to keep the planet clean, as explained to me at the park the other day by the guy with bags of bottles and cans, who was willing to stoop to conquer.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.