Capitol Alert

Your local recycling center is in trouble – should California come to the rescue?

With recycling centers closing and Californians losing places to deposit their empty bottles and cans, the state is facing a question: What should be done, if anything, to save its recycling program?

More than 800 recycling centers that took in used bottles and cans and paid out nickels and dimes to customers closed over the last 3 years, recycling advocates say.

The state’s empty beverage container recycling rate fell below 80 percent for the first time since 2008, Cal Recycle said in its annual report last month, while the rates for other recyclable materials decreased simultaneously. The rate peaked at 85 percent in 2013, but steadily dropped to 79.8 percent in 2016 even though the year saw the second-highest volume of recyclable beverage containers.

The recovering economy is partly to blame. As consumption and construction rose, Californians produced more waste. But incentives for recycling have lessened as oil prices dropped to less than half of what they were a couple of years ago. That meant it became less expensive to create new products than use recycled bottles and cans.

“Some groups within the recycling program are hurting, and we recognize they need near-term assistance,” said Mark Oldfield, spokesperson for CalRecycle, which oversees the state’s waste and recycling programs.

rePlanet, the largest recycling collection network in the nation, closed 191 recycling centers and laid off 278 employees in California last year. Advocates argue a state subsidy program isn’t doing enough.

“We saw this issue coming some time ago, with the way the program was structured,” said David Lawrence, president of rePlanet. “We made some changes in early 2016 that basically eliminated recycling centers in rural areas to stay in business.”

Californians who lost their local recycling centers have fewer places to make a few dollars for their living, Lawrence said. Even though many believe only homeless people turn in scrap bottles and cans for cash, he argues that they are just a fraction of people that rely on those coins.

“Most of the customer population are average, normal people,” Lawrence said. “They are the ones that suffer from the lack of convenience, and they don’t get a lot of voice in this issue.”

The remaining recycling centers have been receiving a higher volume of waste, but not much else has changed. Ming’s Recycling Corporation in Sacramento saw a 20 percent increase, but couldn’t process and sell it for enough to cover the cost of extra work for its employees. The company is considering shifting some of its employees to part time if the current situation worsens.

“Lines are getting longer, and customers are frustrated,” said Kenny Luong, president of the corporation. “Scrap value continues to drop, and nothing is helpful with that. We are going to see more site closures if nothing is done.”

CalRecycle has proposed to reworking the state’s beverage container recycling program. It’s asking Gov. Jerry Brown to restructure processing payments and handling fees and have beverage manufacturers “share responsibility.” The agency also proposed restructuring its relationship with city and county governments.

“The closure of recycling centers over the past couple of years continues to be of concern to CalRecycle,” Oldfield said, “and we’ve actively raised awareness of the causes and impacts in hopes of framing potential solutions.”

Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fullerton, sought to push the state recycling agency’s wish forward. But his bill, SB 168, which would reduce CalRecycle’s administrative part and require distributors to implement a steward program, faced fierce opposition in the state Senate and was declared inactive Thursday.

Yet some believe that the state is complicating the situation by talking of updating the whole program. Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said it could fix the problem simply by returning subsidies to 2015 levels.

“Let’s just fix what’s broken and return the payments,” Murray said.

Jared Blumenfeld, former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s office under President Barack Obama, said it might not even cost the state more money. Recycling centers need just about $50 million to stay open, but CalRecycle currently does not have authority to spend its $250 million in surplus money for the purpose, Blumenfeld said. He said the Legislature could take that action.

“They certainly have the money to do it, and if nothing is done, the system will continue to collapse, and it will take a long time to get it back,” Blumenfeld said.

Walter Ko: 916-321-1436, @juntaeko