Recycling, here and in much of the nation, has hit a serious bump. As the system falters the environment will be injured, but so too will the needy, who often suffer most when government programs fail to deliver.
The problem involves the plunging price of key recycled materials: plastic, aluminum, glass and paper. The value of a bale of recyclable plastic has dropped in the past year by more than half. Compounding matters is that the cost of transporting, separating and rejuvenating the material is rising.
And at the bottom line, evidenced here where folks stand for hours to collect a few dollars, is the fact that deposit programs in most states are based on phony math: the system only works if a high percentage of people don't ask for their money back.
Last month California's largest recycler, rePlanet, abruptly closed 191 recycling centers, leaving open only a handful of understaffed facilities. Many people who had been able to walk or ride a bicycle to a nearby center are now forced to find auto transportation to more distant points.
Nationally, Waste Management, the country's largest recycler, has closed 30 plants that sort and ship materials around the world. Nearly 1,000 jobs were lost.
At the rePlanet redemption facility in Sand City, on California's Central Coast, the line "is like this from the minute we open until we close," explained the man on duty, who identified himself only as "Lee." His co-worker had just walked off after complaining of back pain due to the increased loads, and Lee indicated he might quit for good when his shift ended. "We never get a break," he said.
Because states must pay companies like rePlanet to handle material – even the bottles and cans on which a 5- or 10-cent deposit has been paid – the programs lose money unless enough people decline to redeem the containers. According to rePlanet, recycling centers in California will only reopen if the state increases subsidy payments.
Recycling among private citizens takes two major forms, both of which had been successful until the recent downturn in commodity prices. One is curbside collection for which residents place recyclables in separate bins for pickup along with regular trash. In many areas the public has responded too well. Residents toss an increasingly wide variety of materials into recycling bins, which creates a much more expensive sorting process for firms like Waste Management.
The other is refundable deposits paid on bottles and cans at the point of purchase. For many consumers this amounts to a tax, since they have little interest in actually claiming a refund. Closing recycling centers pushes more folks into this why-bother category, increasing the volume of litter as containers are carelessly tossed away.
Meanwhile, the lines at remaining facilities are populated by people who, for the most part, really need the money. Some earn their meager livelihood by picking up discarded bottles and cans in parks and along roadways and redeeming them for cash.
State and local governments must face up to their obligation to adequately fund recycling programs, especially during times when the resale market for materials is low.
The long line in Sand City underscores the fact that our recycling systems are every bit as fragile as the natural eco systems they are designed to protect.
(c) Peter Funt. Distributed by Cagle syndicate.