Jonathan Kraut | The Challenge of Recycling in Calfornia

In Santa Clarita, trash-free curbs and avenues, three bins for refuse pickup, and paying 5 cents per plastic container at the store are hallmarks of our local community.

Many, to include my wife, have almost a religious dedication to ensuring that every scrap of paper, every bottle or can, whether glass or aluminum, and every container and shred of plastic, end up in the proper refuse container. Indeed, she and others may feel a sense of holiness when recycling.

Californians for dozens of years we have been very conscious of recycling bottles, plastics, paper, and even Styrofoam. We hold the common belief that turning our waste into new goods is about as honorable and sin-free as humanly possible.

What a disappointment, however, when my wife delivers five 33-gallon trash bags full of used plastic bottles to the recycling site near the rear of the Canyon Country post office only to receive about $10 for her trouble.

We estimated that each trash bag held 150 plastic bottles. The CRV- the “California Redemption Value” fee for each bottle is 5 cents. While we paid into the system about $40, used five large plastic bags to hold the recycled goods, and she burned a gallon of fuel and spent an hour in the process, we still lost $30.

Clearly it is cheaper and more efficient to just throw away plastics in our blue recycle bin than waste further resources and time on the process of turning in our goods at the recycling center. The state’s estimates of a self-funded business of recycling has never come to pass and is heavily subsidized despite millions lost to non-refundable CRV fees.

With Trump’s trade war with China, some new elements have creeped in that are actually already greatly impacting our recycling endeavors.  

China sends hundreds of thousands if not millions of shipping containers by sea to our shores every year packed with cheap goods we consume with a frenzy. Rather than being refilled with American products in these same containers to be sent back to China, generally we have filled these containers with our trash.  

It is almost impossible to process recycled goods in California due to our strict pollution control laws. So, ironically, much of the recycled goods collected, to include, paper, plastic and glass, travel across the Pacific for re-use in China where regulation regarding factory pollution is nominal. 

Of course, air pollution from Chinese recycling drifts over the Pacific and in time we get the air pollution we were trying to avoid.

The news is that China has recently almost shut down this reverse flow of materials. Imagine that, China does not even want our trash?

In addition, monitoring bodies, such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition, show plummeting recycling rates for plastics. Estimates are that the U.S. plastic recycling has dropped from 9 percent in 2015 to a little above 4 percent in 2018. 

This rate decrease is not because Americans are not recycling. Instead, there are fewer takers of our trash in Asia and we just end up dumping tons of plastics, glass and paper in our local landfills. 

While more efficient plastic production is keeping the prices of manufacturing new plastic goods comparatively low, the cost and trouble of recycling is getting more expensive and difficult.

No wonder the U.S., despite our focus and efforts, still ranks around 20th on the list of countries contributing to plastic pollution in our oceans. Current estimates are that up to 242 million pounds per year of American plastic end up in the ocean.

These are some ideas to better address our recycling challenges:

1) Ban the manufacture and sale of throwaway plastic and aluminum containers. Let’s not be lazy and just refill our multi-use bottles. This also means we can eliminate the CRV fees and worthless infrastructure that likely encourages more waste in fuel, time, and energy than it saves.

2) Move back more to glass — while we can’t refill a bottle of wine or beer, glass just takes heat to re-use and is made of very available and un-depletable silica (sand).

3) Create paper recycling hubs through the state, perhaps along train lines, so that we can recycle paper here instead of exporting it overseas and then importing it back.

4) Require the use of renewables at fast food chains, like paper, bamboo, and other degradable wood-like materials for cups, trays, utensils and plates that can be put back into the earth without depleting finite commodities such as oil and natural gas.

Jonathan Kraut directs a private investigations firm, is the CFO private security firm, is the COO of an Acting Conservatory, a published author, and Democratic Party activist. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal or of other organizations.         

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