Recycling fading even as concerns about plastic surge

The state’s recycling program has seen its record get steadily worse since a 2016 reduction in reimbursement rates paid to recycling centers. About 1,000 centers have closed since then.

California’s already-troubled recycling system took another blow this month with the closure of Ontario-based rePlanet, which operated 284 recycling centers, the most of any recycling company in the state.

But despite complaints from environmentalists about 2 million recyclable containers a day being thrown away in the Golden State and from consumer advocates upset that state residents are losing $25 million in deposits a month, no fix is on the horizon. That’s even though there is general agreement on what would revive recycling: increasing the reimbursement rates that the California Department of Resources Recycling (CalRecycle) pays recycling centers that take in single-use glass, plastic and metal bottles. Legislation to increase rates appears stalled in Sacramento.

Another proposed solution is to increase the 5-cent deposit per small plastic or glass bottle to 10 cents, as Oregon and Michigan have done. Those states have 90 percent recycling rates, far better than the 75 percent rate reported in California before rePlanet shut down operations.

Fallout from China’s decision to stop buying recyclables

About 1,000 centers have closed since the state lowered reimbursement rates in 2016. Recycling in California and across America took a giant hit in late 2017 when China – by far the world’s biggest market for recyclables – stopped its program, concluding that processing other nations’ waste was not a good use of resources.

Given California’s history as a pioneering environmental state, green groups like Californians Against Waste are incredulous that state leaders like Gov. Gavin Newsom and predecessor Jerry Brown see fixing recycling as a low priority.

But China is far from the only player in the recycling debate which is rethinking recycling. Brown opposed increasing reimbursements on the grounds that it was time for the state to develop a “modern” version of recycling. 

In a policy debate with echoes of the present flap over whether dockless electric scooters actually help the environment, a growing number of economists are skeptical about whether recycling makes sense. They say the resources needed to process separate streams of waste use up considerable energy, especially because the industry has never been able to address the problem that most non-deposit plastic products placed in recycling bins aren’t recyclable. And with improvements in landfill liners and design, previous views of dumps as toxic sites have lost ground.

Another claim heard in the late 1980s when California and many other states launched recycling programs – that landfills were running out of room – no longer has many believers. 

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that since 2010, one landfill had been built and 36 landfills had been expanded in the state.

New York Times economics columnist John Tierney wrote in 2015 that “all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing.” 

Environmentalists see single-use plastic as huge problem

But this view of recycling as inefficient, expensive and not particularly helpful to the environment is rejected by greens and by many Democrats who have taken on a new goal of ending all single-use plastics. They see plastic – which can last hundreds of years – as a huge pollution problem. That plastics are made from fossil fuels is also considered a major shortcoming. This view drives environmentalists’ goal of ending all single-use plastics – not just straws and utensils but consumer packaging. 

Senate Bill 54 – the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act – would commit California to a 75 percent reduction in single-use plastics by 2030. With 12 co-authors, the bill passed the Senate in May and won initial support from the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on generally party-line votes.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to go even farther. He has promised to eliminate the “ludicrous” and “outdated” practice of sending garbage to landfills.


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  1. Queeg
    Queeg 21 August, 2019, 20:32


    No fear, deflect to the kids needing something, and jack up everything and soon…’s looking real real dicey out there-

    Reply this comment
  2. Dork
    Dork 22 August, 2019, 08:01

    green groups like Californians Against Waste

    If they were serious and truly cared they would pool their Own Resources from their members and Open up their very own Recycling Center to show everyone else how it is done.

    2/3rds of the walk in recycling centers have closed because the STATE was losing Money and they don’t want to give back the deposit you were forced to PAY!

    Reply this comment
  3. deweaver
    deweaver 22 August, 2019, 09:04

    How much of that “deposit” goes back to the homeless who collect the containers?

    Reply this comment
  4. Standing Fast
    Standing Fast 22 August, 2019, 11:46

    Well, to me the primary issue here is littering. It is the effective cause of the pollution problem caused by glass and plastic waste.

    When I was a kid in the early 1960’s, maybe ten or eleven, I hated seeing people throw trash out the window of their cars. When I was older and Lady Bird Johnson initiated her “Beautify America” program–which I understood as a voluntary effort of individuals to stop littering and pick up trash. I thought that was a great idea. After awhile there wasn’t so much trash all over the place.

    But then after a long time of things improving, all of the sudden the trash was back. All over the place. Walks in the mountains, in the desert, on the beach, anywhere were spoiled by the sight of other people’s garbage. Trash cans are all over the place but some people apparently don’t know what they are for.

    So, now the trash issue has turned into a pollution issue, and pollution, if not reduced or eliminated, will get worse. Pollution is not a necessary side-effect of prosperity. It is a side-effect of sloth. If we are too lazy to figure out a better way to do something, then we ought not to do it.

    God gave us this beautiful world to live in, as a blessing, and the responsibility to be good stewards of the land. Litter and pollution show that we are neither grateful nor responsible. Consequences are already showing up, and eventually will be impossible to reverse before cataclysmic damage is done. No, I am not an advocate of Climate Change Science. I am an advocate for Liberty–the kind that America’s founding fathers gave us for an inheritance.

    So, there is a crisis–the plastic & other trash in our waterways and oceans is killing wildlife and plugging up flood control channels. The oceans are covered with so much trash it can be detected by high-altitude heat-sensing gizmos I forget the name of. The heat is caused by the Sun’s rays on the trash, which then radiates the heat into the air above and the water below. This has to be affecting weather patterns on land.

    Fish, whales & dolphins & otters, turtles, and other sea creatures get caught in trash we’ve tossed into the street or gutters or rivers or elsewhere, and many of them die. A whale was found on a beach, asphyxiated by tiny items of garbage that had been inhaled unwittingly. I’ve seen photos of sea turtles who got caught in the loop of a six-pack holder at an early age and whose shells were deformed because they couldn’t get out of it.

    It gets worse. I buy bottled water and we like to donate the empties to people because we don’t need the money. But, if they cannot get a refund from a store or a recycle center, then I know it is going to end up in the ocean or buried in the ground where it will be forever before it decomposes. I can see that being able to get a refund on return bottles is a great way to curb littering and pollution. But, I always thought this was a private sector operation.

    I also do not agree with the assertion that our landfills are in good shape and we have plenty of room for more. We don’t live in a statistical matrix. We live in watersheds, everywhere we live is uphill on one side and downhill on the other–even if it looks to be flat and horizontal. We live in valleys, meadows, flood plains, hillsides, passes, mountains, cliffs, heights, lowlands, all over the place. We live near farms and ranches, near military bases and colleges, we live near parks and nature preserves. You put a landfill anywhere near us and it degrades everything. When it is full it has to have vents installed to release the methane. We can use methane for clean energy, but I don’t know if we are doing that.

    In the old days, people burned their garbage, but we can’t do that now because there are too many of us. Our air would be so polluted.

    In California there are so many people in order to find new landfill zones we have to go out into the pristine wilderness to throw away our garbage. Places proposed include active earthquake faults and fracture zones, hillsides visible for miles around, Indian burial grounds, archeological sites, historical areas, and so forth. Not acceptable to me. We should treasure our land, not plunder it.

    I do not believe in draconian solutions to problems unless we are at war or suffering from a natural or manmade disaster. So, though I support refunding for plastic and glass bottle returns in principle, no, I do not support Senate Bill 54 because it is a badly-designed bill that will cause more problems. I think this should be a private sector solution, and I think it can be if we put our thinking caps on.

    I’d like to see a real viable libertarian solution to this problem. There is one if we remember that Liberty is Freedom and Independence, meaning freedom to exercise self-control, self-government, self-reliance and self-restraint.

    Reply this comment
  5. T Steele, Director of Operations CWD
    T Steele, Director of Operations CWD 23 August, 2019, 19:48

    Standing F– YIKES!

    Pack N Ship is right! NEVER write a long 5150 type post out here. This will give you a tin foil hat reputation and over the years we have seen em come and go—- stay strong and pithy.

    NOW for my question— why do these gop trump cult dummies always want to destroy the planet? Whats in it for them?

    discuss– T

    Reply this comment
    • Ulysses Uhaul
      Ulysses Uhaul 24 August, 2019, 10:08


      The tome scribe is most likely Skippy, delusional Eck or that insane RAGWUS chaser…so sad….Why does CWD attract unemployable, student debt ravaged Cal State U liberal arts types.

      Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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