In 1848, Samuel Brannan ran through the streets of San Francisco, shouting “Gold! Gold from the American River!” To this day, California has maintained an almost-magical allure: the Golden State, a place where wealth seeps from the earth and lingers in the air, a promised land of economic prosperity. And so over the last two centuries, when times are tough, emigres have flocked to the fields of yellow poppies in search of gold hidden in the soil or jobs as fruit pickers and reprieve from the horrors of the Dust Bowl. But like the Rush of the 1840s and the rumors of economic mobility during Great Depression, California’s latest guarantee to those in need — earning money collecting recyclables — is falling short.
In 1986, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 2020, known as the Bottle Bill, to encourage recycling and reduce litter by offering monetary redemption values on beverage containers. Up until recently, the bill has been wildly successful. The state has become a leader of environmental policy with Californians redeeming over 85% of all containers within the Bottle Bill guidelines, an amount that equals 5 billion units annually and consists of 20% of all beverage recyclables in the entire country. And as an added positive, thousands of California’s homeless have earned a steady income by collecting cans, glass, and plastic bottles and exchanging them for cash.
“This is how I eat,” a 52-year-old named Johnson told KQED News outside of Our Planet, a recycling center in San Francisco. “It gets us lunch, cigarettes, coffee, cat food; the basic necessities. It’s better than nothing.”
The sun has not yet risen over the hills, but the pavement outside of Our Planet is already crowded with collectors. Clutching garbage bags and leaning on shopping carts heaped with cans, glass, and plastic bottles, the collectors will patiently wait until 7:30 when the center opens and they can trade their findings for what they need—the money that will allow them to survive.
Johnson’s partner, Jackie, explains that he often heads out to collect materials at 11pm and returns in the morning. Most homeless people who collect do so at night, scouring event venues and sorting through blue bins before heading to recycling centers at daybreak, carrying somewhere between 3 to 10 bins of recyclables. Ors Csaszar, the owner of Our Planet, estimates that an average person waiting in line earns anywhere from $15 to $35 per day. Other studies have shown that people living in homeless encampments in nearby Fremont, Oakland, and Union City can earn as much as $50 to $100 per day.
The lives of many homeless are entirely dependent on the operation of recycling centers. However, over the last two and half years, more than 20% of these centers have closed in California. In January 2016, a single company announced it would be closing a grand total of 191 centers. With fewer locations to buyback goods, total redemption payback throughout the state has decreased by $3 million per month.
In 2016, following the shutdown of Alliance Recycling Center, right across the bay in Oakland, 400 homeless and marginally housed people lost their only source of income. For years, Alliance was essential to the city, serving as a rare form of economy and organization for those who mostly live without it. Food Not Bombs and church groups often provided bagged lunches to frequenters of Alliance. Richard, an East Oakland resident, told the East Bay Express that there “ain’t no other recycling place like this one. It’s like a community.”
In the months following, the closure left many people displaced. Mike, who spent 19 years bringing recyclables to Alliance, told the Street Spirit that he plans to “go someplace else” because the other centers in area, all much smaller than Alliance, will not be able to handle an influx of traffic. To many, the closing of the center was a sure sign of the creeping force of gentrification.
The closing of recycling centers like Alliance has twofold significance. In addition to uprooting the homeless, the decline is indicative the decreasing value of the American recycling system as a whole. From as early as pre-school, Americans are taught the importance of recycling, its beneficial impact, and the potential environmental catastrophe that would occur without it. Recycling continues to be a popular topic of conversation among politicians and celebrities, pandering to the needs of supporters who want a relatively easy way to feel as though they are making a positive impact.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (known as CalRecycle) reported that recycling throughout the state has dropped below 80% for the first time in nine years, a decline that is occurring throughout the country.
Despite the national obsession with recycling in both policy and public discussion, a variety of economic factors makes recycling difficult to maintain. The low cost of oil is incentivizing manufacturers to simply make new products rather than use recycled goods. Furthermore, a lot of American recycled materials have previously been shipped overseas. However, in 2013, China put restrictions on imported waste, limiting the demand for American recyclables. New developments in technology are also reducing the need for raw materials because packaging producers can make cans and bottles thinner than ever before.
Although long heralded as one solution to environmental degradation, recycling may not have as much of an impact as one might think. As John Tierney wrote in the New York Times, “the recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing.” He explains that, in reality, recycling actually poses little positive environmental impact compared to other waste management processes. While he concedes that recycling offers benefits in reducing greenhouse gases, he clarifies that “once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.”
Additionally, while recycling seems as simple as separating certain materials from the trash and hauling a blue bin out to the curb once a week, the system is often misused. People think that their broken Christmas lights can be recycled come January. And when their rubber garden hose pops a leak in spring, they think that they can recycle that too. Or they might just be lazy. Nevertheless, contaminated recycling is causing its value to decrease rapidly. When recycling programs were first implemented 30 years ago, the value of the recovered materials was intended to make up for the cost of the sorting, shipping and processing. But because of the increase of recycled materials being tainted with food waste and mixed-in non-recyclable materials — even a broken glass bottle can ruin everything in an entire bin — the whole system is declining in value.
A study by Rob Taylor of the State Recycling Program in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reported that the average market value of a ton of mixed recycled materials fell from $180 in 2011 to just over $100 over the following six years. That loss of about $80 per ton of recycled materials—a year’s worth of plastic bottles alone accounts for 300,000 tons — can no longer be used to keep open recycling centers.
So what is to be done? With the limited success of recycling, how can consumers make an environmentally conscious decision when dispelling their waste?
Thomas C. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, has proposed subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and imposing a $15 tax per ton of trash. With that system, the tax would take care of the environmental costs and recycling overall would decrease immensely.
Mark Murray, executive director at Californians Against Waste and an advocate of recycling, has other ideas about how the problem might be fixed. However, he similarly calls for subsidies on recycling. By offering subsidies to recycling centers, they would be able to cover their costs and continue to give money to the homeless in exchange for recyclable goods. The only question is, would giving value to the recycling of only some metals, as suggested in Kinnaman’s plan, be enough to help the homeless?
Until California and states across the nation implement legislation and policy changes to keep recycling centers in business, it is unclear how the homeless will make do under the failing system.