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Recycling is Broken

Lloyd Alter at treehuggers: The only thing that really works for recycling is full producer responsibility. If a producer sells a product, the container is theirs and the contents belong to the customer. This is how it used to work with beer, pop, milk, water for the water cooler. It is what consumers and producers have to get back to achieve zero waste and a circular economy.

California has a long history of calling for deposits on both PET plastic, aluminum, and bottles under the California Redemption Value (CRV). At one time the recycler ePlanet had 600 facilities collecting drop off recyclables throughout California where people could get their deposits back.

On August 5, ePlanet closed down the remaining 284 recycling plants laying off 700 workers. In a statement:

With the continued reduction in state fees, decreased pricing of recycled aluminum and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic, and the rise in operating costs from minimum wage requirements, required health and workers compensation insurance; ePlanet has concluded the operation of these recycling centers and supporting operations is no longer sustainable.”

A three-month investigation by Consumer Watchdog found the reason for the failing California recycling system which left consumers fewer options each year on where to redeem their empties. It also found special interests such as grocery chains, beverage distributors, and trash haulers could get rich at the consumer’s expense.

Besides the closures limiting where to take recyclables, grocery and big box stores are not taking back empties either in spite of a law requiring them to do so. Accounting scams by retailers such as Walmart and also beverage distributors are prevalent. They undercount the paid deposits for each item they sell and by under reporting they keep the difference.

Over the last five years CalRecycle (state agency) which oversees California’s beverage container recycling program has not publicly imposed a fine on distributors scamming the system or retailers not taking recyclables back. CalRecycle has purposely accumulated an ~$300 million reserve as of 2018 rather than disburse the funds to recycle centers to help them survive.

The commercial fraud and state agency issues need to be resolved.

Also troubling the industry today is the availability of less costly virgin material. Virgin PET is cheaper than cost of cleaning and processing of recycled material which is due to the abundance of natural gas. There is also an abundance of recyclable aluminum in the market today which has driven prices down. Prices have dropped from “75 cents per pound last year to 55 cents, the lowest it has been since 2009.” Since the golden-haired child in the White House has imposed tariffs on China, the Chinese have imposed tariffs on US scrap imports which is part of the reason for the low prices created by a growing US glut. Lower price results in increased recycling costs for consumers today and especially in rural areas. Then too with the price drop I would think US manufacturers could use recyclable material more readily than virgin material. It is just a matter of making them do so.

The results of a failed recycling system scream for a solution and one which product and package manufacturers will not like. If product manufacturers want to use aluminum and plastic for packaging their products such as soda, water, etc. than they have to take it back and work with the packaging manufacturers to recycle it into more packaging or other uses. Today, the packaging does not go back to the user of the packaging, the product manufacturers, and is recycled outside of their responsibility. This enables them to side step the responsibility.

We have to go beyond a circular economy and get rid of single-use plastics entirely. It is clearer every day that passes the US never had a real recycling system. It was just a very long linear onegoing from the producer through our homes to China.

treehugger’s Lloyd Alter “Today’s recycling is BS.”

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