The Recycling Myth Debunked

By: Chief

This blog and commentary is the result of current events over the last year exposing CalRecycle as a farce and nothing more than a government mandated “feel good” program. This mostly came to a head with the shut down and bankruptcy of RePlanet, a large recycling conglomerate, on Tuesday of this week.

Citing the increased costs of processing recycled items, RePlanet, California’s largest operator of recycling redemption centers has closed, leaving 750 employees out of jobs.

The Ontario, California-based company has closed all 284 of its centers, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

Company President David Lawrence told the newspaper the decision to close was due to increased business costs and falling prices of recycled aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic.

California’s largest recycling redemption center operator RePlanet closes

Recycling was essentially mandated in California in 1989 and on its surface it actually was a good idea. The premise was that we should try to divert as much waste as possible from our landfills. The program introduced recycling and green waste composting programs to help toward a goal of diverting 50% of all waste over a period of 30 years. In Sacramento County, we had just a garbage cart, then we got a green waste cart for all yard waste, and got 3 small bins for recycling. We had to separate the recycling into a separate bin for paper, glass, and plastics and aluminum. As a result, instead of 1 truck picking up said waste now a 2nd truck was required since the yard waste and recycling is collected on alternate weeks. In some parts of California such as the Bay Area, recycling is picked-up on a weekly basis.

As with any government program, an entire new department was created “The California Integrated Waste Management Board” to oversee this program as well as the California Redemption Value Program (CRV). This CRV is what you pay to the State of California on most plastic, glass, and aluminum products when they are bought at the grocery or liquor store. Prior to this, glass recycling was done at a local level by the private sector. Buy a Coke or Pepsi product at the grocery store and return the bottle and you got a nickel from the store. Government was not involved or mandating this program, it was purely a function of the private sector. Now, what the store collects is remitted to the State. I will now discuss the demise and issues with this system.

First the city and county administered programs: I cannot blame them entirely since when the state mandates it, you either do it or face a daily fine until you comply. After a few years, the 3 separate bin system with replaced with an additional cart, for mixed recycling. This was due largely to more material being eligible to be recycled, but I have a feeling worker comp payouts mounted due to a person having to physically lift and dump these bins into a contraption that loaded into the truck.

I am in favor of collecting more recycling and diverting it from the landfill, but this was a case that backfired. There was never a system or check in place in regard to contamination….this is how the program was destroyed. You see the bin is collected, and the contents of the truck are compacted and smashed repeatedly until the truck unloads at a sorting facility. There workers manually separate, combine and package the recyclables to be sold to China or another broker who does the physical recycling. Up until a couple of years ago, China took everything and asked no questions. Recently, they have tightened up their contamination standards and as a result quite a bit of “recyclable product” has been diverted to the landfill. Please note that China’s change of heart on taking our trash to be recycled predates any controversy related to President Trump’s trade policies.

Yep, we aint recycling the contents of your recycle bin, just burying it in the ground like everything else…but hey…you still get to feel good about saving the environment and the planet (at least until you read this blog).

Let’s take look at how lucrative this program has been to Sac City residents….according to their website “recycling sales” or product sold to China/broker etc. totals .79% of the revenue….OUCH!

The reserves have been depleted to a point the City will be increasing residents monthly trash bills by $12 a month over the next 5 years. Think about that one! Also the City has to start collecting “food waste” by 2021, so an additional cart, added fees, and a new rodent problem anyone? The program is literally bankrupting a local municipality.

Now let’s take a look at the downfall of RePlanet. RePlanet is or was a recycling outfit known for their small container sized booths usually located in shopping center parking lots that collected cans and sometimes plastics for recycling and paid you for the product.

On Tuesday, RePlanet closed all of its 284 locations and laid off all 750 employees citing an uncompetitive environment to do business. Digging deeper, the dirty little secret of how this business failed should not surprise anyone, as 40% of all recycling locations have closed in the past 5 years. It was a scam. Did you ever notice that at the register you were charged $.05 or $.10 “deposit” on the product, that is per item, but if you then took the container to a recycler, you were paid a rate “per pound” meaning you collected far less than your deposit. So if you didn’t actually recycle the material yourself, say you put it in your bin, the state kept the money and subsidized these operations taking place all over the state. The state payments did not keep up with inflation/regulation and as a result, these recycling centers have disappeared.

As someone who recycled religiously, I can say firsthand that it started making very little sense to do so a few years ago. The payments became less and less to the point where you questioned even making the trip. Honestly, if you think about it, look at it this way; RePlanet–like any other non-government entity–is in business to make money. They have to rent the space for their booth (this isn’t cheap, and can run about $1000 a month by the way), pay the employee minimum wage (this company had Bay Area locations paying higher than Sac County wages), benefits, workers comp, and had to pay customers for the product. The numbers did not add up at all. Couple that with smugglers bringing product in from over state lines (NV and AZ don’t have a recycling program) so they use ours to their advantage and you have a basically bankrupt CalRecycle program. RePlanet’s demise is a very big hit to a portion of the population that recycles for the cash as a means to make ends meet, and believe me there are quite a few. In years past, you might remember homeless folks scavenging your recycle bin the night before pickup but they haven’t been doing that lately, now you know why.

So here we are, stuck in a nasty catch 22; on one hand, we have a state department of recycling mandating that we divert 50% of our waste (that number is going higher by the way) and on the other hand, we have China is no longer accepting our recyclables. State officials are presiding over a bankrupted system as far as redemptions go, but they are still happily collecting the CRV taxes.

I spoke to a member of my church who was heavily involved in creating the program for the state and he was very contrite with me saying the program had good intentions but has badly missed the mark…he even spoke of regret setting this system up. He said the idea of household recycling was great, except people intentionally contaminated their bin, leading to the load being trashed as opposed to re-used. You encourage people to bag their own recyclables and take to a recycler, but when you are paid only a pittance, what is the point? He also shared that before he retired, for 10 years in a row, more pounds of aluminum cans were recycled through one of these “redemption centers” than were actually sold in California! Try that one on! Especially when he said participation among residents could not have been higher than 20%. In addition, the cost to recycle items in this state far outweighs keeping them out of the landfill…his words not mine.

Final Thoughts: It should surprise no one this is ending badly; whenever the government gets involved, the outcome is less than ideal. A new department was created, hundreds or thousands were hired, and here we are trying to pick up the pieces and do an autopsy on the recycling program while the CRV program is charging full speed ahead on autopilot. It started as a great idea and it remains a good idea, which may upset some readers of this blog, but keeping things out of our landfill where they can leach into our water supply is paramount to our existence. The problem is when the program is taken advantage of by scammers or intentionally contaminated by people not caring. As a result everyone is losing, we pay more for garbage service, can no longer reap a benefit of recycling, and now have reusable bags and containers foisted upon us constantly.

I think the answer is something of a hybrid, I think the recycling system for residents should be optional… but you pay a higher price if you opt out. This stops people who don’t care or intentionally are contaminating. Opting in, gives the local hauler or municipality the right to inspect your container to make sure it isn’t contaminated…you’re getting a substantial discount so you give up privacy, sorry. The centers that collect products should be more readily available and maybe this is a collaboration of business and government where a detailed business plan and rate of return can be achieved. Ok maybe not the greatest answer to a problem, but once again a crisis has come out of something we thought was an easily solvable “green” answer.

The Chief

Editor’s Comments:

I think the State of California needing to ship our waste to another country to run a sustainable recycling program is proof that this recycling scheme was poorly thought out. By the way, California is not the only State shipping waste to other countries. To lift a phrase, what happens in California should stay in California. We should recycle our own waste. While I prefer a private sector solution, this might be something the Prison Industry Authority (PIA) might want to get involved in. How about some welfare to work program opportunities? Folks, as rare as it is for me to say it, this kind of problem is one where Elon Musk might actually be the go to guy. Elon likes to dream stuff up and use taxpayer money to make it happen; plus, he likes a challenge.