About a month ago, an article in the Sacramento News & Review asked, "Is recycling still worth it?"
Garbage has never been a sexy environmental issue. Glaciers calving spectacularly into the sea, polar bears stranded on bitty ice floes, sea birds suffocating on oil—these images can make you cry. These images are incontrovertible proof that recycling will always be worth it.
And yet new economics are threatening the viability of proven recycling programs.
For 33 years, ever since the bottle bill legislation made beverage containers in California refundable, we've accepted recycling as a bedrock principle of Earth stewardship. And as landfills neared capacity, we became aware of the true costs of our throwaway society. The specter of stinking refuse piling to the sky motivated communities across California to establish curbside pickup and recycling services, like our model program here in San Luis Obispo.
Recycling, in fact, educated many of us about our individual responsibility to safeguard Earth's resources. The simple act of redeeming our beverage containers made us partners in cutting pollution. When we recycled that aluminum can, we saved 92 percent of the energy required to make a new container.
Then there's the litter issue. Remember cans and bottles littering the beach? Remember those insidious pull-tabs? The horror!
We acted. The state Legislature and cities and counties accepted the responsibility to conserve resources, prevent pollution, and protect the environment through waste reduction and recycling policies and programs. By 2013, the bottle bill—along with the Legislature's passage of a comprehensive statewide recycling goal of 50 percent, and near-universal community curbside collection—resulted in California achieving an impressive 85 percent recycling rate.
Now the hard question: Why has that rate dropped to 79 percent? Why can't you find a buyback recycling center nearby?
According to Californians Against Waste (CAW), a grassroots group founded in 1977 to advocate for the bottle bill, we've lost as many as 50 percent of the mom-and-pop buyback centers in Northern California; we're down 30 percent in LA.
Patti Toews, program director for the SLO County Integrated Waste Management Authority (IWMA), explained to me, "We have 11 'dead zones' in our county which have no consumer recycling options, including Oceano, Morro Bay, and throughout unincorporated areas.
"Steve's Recycling in Los Osos only opens on Saturday, and the next closest centers are clear up in Paso and Creston."
Who's to blame? China, India, and other Southeast Asian countries have stopped accepting our recyclables, which often arrived contaminated with food and non-recyclables—and which needed expensive sorting.
Can't we just tariff them to force them to take our garbage? Trump's favorite shortsighted, strong-arm policy tool is not the answer; the problem is way too complex.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., costs have skyrocketed for other reasons. CAW Director Mark Murray explains that a precipitous drop in the scrap market has made the cost of collection and processing more expensive than the value of materials. Labor and health insurance expenditures have jumped. The original bottle bill anticipated market fluctuations and included "back-end" compensation for recycling centers in order to ensure market stability.
Trouble is, those compensation rates were calculated long before today's costs. Take plastics, which have overtaken a larger and larger portion of packaging because, among other reasons, fracking has made greenhouse-gas-producing plastics cheap in comparison to glass or aluminum.
"Take a deep breath," Toews said. "This is change; we can adapt."
Happily, John Ryan, local manager of the Cold Canyon process facility, had the foresight 10 years ago to develop domestic partnerships.
"We send our cardboard to a mill in Oxnard, glass goes to Strategic Materials in Modesto, Gallo buys all our curbside collection glass containers, and we sell our aluminum to Anheuser Busch and Coors," he said.
Can we further adapt to encourage more domestic markets? Yes.
Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) introduced AB 1583, the California Recycling Market Development Act. The bill stimulates our recycling infrastructure through sales tax exemptions, low interest loans, and new incentive payment programs. The Assembly has already approved the bill. You can help ensure Senate passage with a quick call to Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) to request his support.
Let's also update landfill tip fees to reflect the true cost of waste disposal and regulation. Let's use that new money—including the $5 million in reserves accumulated by the IWMA—to provide seed money and technical assistance grants to help re-establish and support those mom-and-pop buyback centers and to better educate us all on how, what, and where to recycle.
There's a lot more that can be done to make producers take full responsibility for the life cycle of their products. Product price should reflect end-of-life waste management, right?
But you and I also have a responsibility.
Figure out what can and can't be recycled. "Wishful recycling" means throwing whatever you want to be recyclable into the bin. IWMA has a very handy recycling guide at iwma.com/guide/.
Each of us can exercise our purchasing power to determine the market share of recyclables. As Toews points out, "You can make recycling happen when you buy an item."
Fact is, markets respond to consumer demand. And you and I are the consumers. Δ
Amy Hewes was one of the founders of Californians Against Waste. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.