Politics & Government

Recycling advocates ponder expanding California’s program

The fact that you drag that recycling to the curb doesn’t mean it escapes the landfill.

In the years since California enacted a recycling framework, subsidized by the deposits paid on cans and bottles, people have generally been willing to do their part. Cities and counties have reflected that receptiveness by expanding the universe of materials eligible to be picked up curbside.

But putting recyclables in a bin forms just one link in a long chain allowing containers to live second lives as repurposed raw material. Once discarded goods arrive at a processing facility, their fate is governed by a simple business decision: given the resale value, is it worth the time and money to collect, separate or process?

A recent Californians Against Waste report found that most most cartons containing milk and juice end up intermingled with garbage – despite the fact that more and more cities encourage residents to toss those containers in with other recyclables. Styrofoam is technically recyclable but often becomes garbage.

“It’s important to make a distinction between collected and recycled,” said Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for CalRecycle. “It quite often comes back to, what do they have locally in terms of processing capability?”

California’s foremost recycling advocacy group hopes to expand that capacity. Fresh off a resounding victory as the Legislature passed a ban on the single-use plastic bags that gum up recycling machinery and clutter waterways, Californians Against Waste is contemplating legislation to expand the type of materials covered by the state’s program.

“Californians have been very responsive to curbside recycling, and if we tell them something is recyclable in their curbside program, they’re very happy to change their habits,” Californians Against Waste head Mark Murray said. “It’s coming in the door, but the problem is we need to create an incentive for the processing facility.”

That incentive could come in the form of a California Redemption Value deposit, commonly called a CRV. California’s so-called “bottle bill” covers items like plastic and glass bottles, although wine and liquor bottles are exempted.

Included items carry five- or 10-cent deposits that fund a complex system of payments designed to increase overall recycling rates. It begins with manufacturers paying an upfront fee for the recyclable products they sell. Later, recycling processors can claim payment and fees for handling those materials.

Murray and others credit the program with both prodding consumers to cash in bottles and paying processors to make recycling financially viable. Extending the range of products covered could divert waste from landfills. According to the Californians Against Waste study, less than 3 percent of the cartons flowing through California get recycled.

“There are alternative containers that are not getting recycled at the rate they should be or could be,” said Assemblyman Richard Gordon, D-Menlo Park. “The recyclers that I’ve been meeting with, they’re working very hard to figure out how to catch all materials in a cost-effective way. I have not found them to be antagonistic to this – maybe they don’t have the equipment they need, maybe they’re not fully prepared, but they want to be ready.”

Some materials simply have a higher intrinsic scrap value than others. Corrugated cardboard tends to be worth more than office paper, for instance. But with every item that collection trucks unload at sorting and processing facilities, a basic question determines what happens next: is there a market?

“Just because something’s recyclable doesn’t mean there’s a market for it,” said Bert Wallace, who runs a Truckee facility called Eastern Regional Landfill. “Anything can be recycled – it’s just, how much does it cost and how do you recover it? And if the processor doesn’t make a profit, he’s not going to recover it.”

Like other recyclers, Wallace gets a CRV-funded processing fee for pulling materials like aluminum and glass. When it comes to items that aren’t under the CRV umbrella, Wallace said, “a lot of it ends up in the landfill.”

“The beverage containers that are not CRV, the juice boxes and milk jugs, the paper vendors don’t want it,” Wallace said. “With the CRV there is an incentive to pull as much as possible out.”

Assessing what gets recycled and what gets dumped can vary from city to city or from processing center to processing center. The city of Sacramento encourages residents to toss styrofoam in their bins. At Recycling Industries, one of two facilities that contracts with Sacramento County, chunks of styrofoam sit in a bale bound for the landfill – a rarity for this center, whose owner estimates 95 percent of what he receives is recycled.

“The cost to pull it out, matched with the value you get in return – the economics aren’t there,” said general manager David Kuhnen.

But Kuhnen worried that widening the range of CRV-covered items would afford more opportunities to cheat a system already plagued by fraud. Processors throughout California have to contend with people cashing in cans and bottles from Nevada and Arizona.

“Expanding the (CRV) program, all I think it’s going to do is create more fraud,” Kuhnen said. “We’ve been advocating to simplify it and restrict it to prevent the fraud that’s going on.”

Any effort to broaden California’s deposit system will also almost certainly encounter industry opposition. California generates money for recycling programs by having the manufacturers producing containers pay an upfront fee. That cost then flows to consumers, who pay an additional deposit fee when they buy a six-pack, and the revenue is doled out to processors.

“I don’t know that it’s the right thing for cartons,” said Jason Pelz, who is vice president of recycling projects for an industry group called the Carton Council and works for Tetra Pak.

Pelz touted the work that carton manufacturers already have done to boost recycling, noting the rate of curbside collection for cartons has jumped both nationwide and in California.

“No, not 100 percent of cartons that make it to the (facility) go into the right stream, but what we’re doing is working with the (facilities) to improve that,” said Pelz, who questioned the Californians Against Waste study’s accuracy. “There’s also been great growth not just in carton access but also in the carton recycling – the volume of cartons they’re working with is clearly growing.”

Milk retailers also have a stake in the issue. While containers made of the same plastic mix as milk jugs – also used for laundry detergent, for example – do fall under the CRV umbrella, milk jugs themselves do not. The dairy industry argues it would be unfair to treat milk the same as more expendable products.

“If you’re buying soda or beer, you’re making a choice there that you choose to do that other than for nutritional purposes, as opposed to a basic staple in a family’s food purchases,” said Rachel Kaldor, executive director of the Dairy Institute of California. “Milk is generally part of a family’s food budget, and the idea of adding additional cost to those would be a little bit more burdensome.”

Proponents of enlarging the deposit system say the additional cost is essentially the point. The price of recycling, Murray said, should fall on those producing and selling containers in the first place. Otherwise, the economics simply do not work.

“We can do anything,” said Wallace, the facility owner. “It all depends on who wants to pay for it.”