It used to be simple for John Sinapyan, owner of Sierra Recycling. People would bring in their plastic, glass or cans with the CRV designation, he’d pay them for it, then he would sell those containers to companies that would process the materials and send them to China, where they would be recycled into something else. Everyone made money.
It’s no longer so simple because China is no longer accepting as much, and companies don’t know what to do with their trash, nor do they know where to sell it. Sinapyan says he’s getting 25-30 percent less per pound than he used to.
“What can I do? We don’t have a choice,” he said. “Since July, it’s impacting us really bad.”
What’s happening now is actually a ripple effect two years in the making. In 2017, the Chinese government announced new standards for what recyclable materials it would receive. Before that, 10 percent of the seven million tons of garbage China bought came from the U.S.
According to the Los Angeles Times, China found that the United States often shipped contaminated and poorly sorted recyclables. The Orange County Register reported that last year, China forced the return of any bales that weren’t 99.5 percent recyclable. Diapers and food waste, for example, are not recyclable and usually end up in landfills. Most haulers are also unable to recycle plastic foam or any paper product with a plastic lining, which includes virtually all disposable beverage cups.
This year, the Chinese government said it would accept only the most valuable plastics and paper, which total less than 1 percent of what it took in 2016.
China’s refusal to take the world’s garbage has led to some investment in U.S. recycling plants, but scrap waste is piling up in warehouses and parking lots, the Register reported. Some is ending up in waterways, oceans, landfills and incinerators. In nearly all cases, waste disposal is more expensive and increases pollution.
Other countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, are getting more plastic garbage but lack the ability to process as much garbage as China, NPR reported.
“China’s trying to do something. That’s the problem they’re having,” Sinapyan said. “I hope the United States will open manufacturing (centers).”
Because it’s more expensive, and because no one wants the garbage, people aren’t buying as much material to recycle. Larry Vaccaro, a 22-year veteran of recycling in the state, said it’s a matter of economics. Right now, raw material, such as oil, is cheap, and cheap oil makes it cheaper to make more plastics.
“The economics favor the landfill when it comes to our own trash,” Vaccaro said.
Another bad sign are the complete closures of all 284 RePlanet recycling redemption centers, including the ones at a Ralphs in Valencia and Albertsons in Saugus. RePlanet was the state’s largest recycling redemption center. Now, 750 employees are out of work.
Lance Klug, a spokesman for CalRecycle, a state agency, told the Times that 996 such centers have closed since 2015.
Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that studies issues in California’s recycling industry, estimated to the Associated Press that more than 40 percent of redemption centers have closed in the last five years, resulting in consumers getting back only about half of their nickel and dime deposits on bottles and cans.
These are concerns posted on Facebook. Kathleen D. Carver wrote that the last time she recycled; she was paid less than in the past for her year’s supply of cans and bottles. “Someone is pocketing all that money,” she wrote.
Dawn Doherty Matthews posted that she has been recycling to teach her granddaughter its importance. “She’s collected five big bags. Now what do I do?” Matthews wrote. “This is so sad.”
The closures mean people will either throw their recyclables directly into the garbage or place them in curbside recycling bins, which are often filled with contaminated material that must be discarded.
Mayor Marsha McLean said she favors waste-to-energy plants that incinerate trash at high temperatures, producing energy and decreasing what’s put in landfills. Reports vary about how much pollution it creates, but McLean believes education is necessary to prove its merits.
“We tried to do our recycling center out here; people got up in arms,” she said. “Right now, no one is willing to invest in facilities to get rid of stuff to get rid of landfills.”
Meanwhile, McLean said, the city has recycling agreements with Waste Management and Burrtec that if any resident needs containers, they are provided free. And there are some recycling centers still operating within the city limits that pay for some items. McLean suggests the website www.earth911.com to find a local place.
Sierra Recycling is one such location. Sinapyan said he has seen an uptick in business, and it helps that he has exactly one employee and low rent. He would like to see Congress pass legislation protecting mom-and-pop centers such as his from monopolies, but it’s going to take the citizenry petitioning its leaders for that to happen.
“It’s not fair,” he said. “The United States is based on small businesses.”
Vaccaro said there is a discussion centered on something called Extended Producer Responsibility, in which manufacturers take responsibility for what happens to the products they make at the end of the products’ lives.
Without using the EPR moniker, several state bills address this. Assembly Bill 1080 and Senate Bill 54 would require 75 percent of single-use plastic products be phased out by 2030, and AB 792 would require beverage-container producers to have no less than 75 percent postconsumer recycled plastic content on and after January 1, 2030.
It remains to be seen what will happen. Vaccaro said, “Recycling will never be the answer by itself.”
It also remains to be seen if Facebook poster Angie Southwick’s opinion becomes the norm. She wrote, “It’s not worth the time and money put into it.”