December 28, 2007
Cha-ching: More Californians redeeming cans, plastics
State officials say a rise in the refund value of containers helped push more Californians to recycle -- enough to shatter the state's record this year.
Californians recycled more than 6.9 billion beverage containers in the first half of 2007, up nearly 800 million from the same period a year ago, the state's largest recycling-rate increase in the past 15 years, according to a recent study released by the state's Department of Conservation.
The state didn't tally numbers by county, but local officials say they're sure Bakersfield residents have jumped on the bandwagon too.
In January, the state increased the California Refund Value to a nickel for small beverage containers and a dime for large ones. The respective one- and two-cent increases, they believe, might have changed many perceptions.
"If you see four pennies on the ground and you're walking on the street, are you going to bother to pick them up?" asked Mark Murray, executive director for Californians Against Waste, an organization that focuses on recycling. "Whereas you see a nickel or dime on the ground, you're likely to pick that up. The same thing goes to just seeing that value in a can and thinking, 'I'm tossing a nickel in the trash.'"
Officials can't know for sure why recycling has increased -- no one asks why people recycle or when they started -- but a view from the ground lends credibility to the notion that nickel-and-diming consumers has worked. Seven in 10 deposit containers are now redeemed, according to the study.
Sal Moretti, Bakersfield's solid waste superintendent, has no doubt about the connection.
"That has to be because the price for individual containers went up significantly," he said.
Josie Smith, who owns C&J Recycling with her husband, Craig, said more people have been bringing in their cans over the last year.
"A lot of people now are actually holding onto their recyclables instead of putting them in the blue cans," she said. "I couldn't tell you off the top of my head but I know the volumes have gone up."
And people are bringing in not just aluminum, but plastic bottles as well, Smith said.
Meridith Lanning, 35, a self-employed Hollywood resident, said she wouldn't be recycling if a friend of hers hadn't mentioned making $7 from a month's worth of recycling. That was three months ago. She's been collecting her refunds ever since.
"I've already paid the money; I might as well get it back," she said. Lanning always had recycled in her curbside blue bin, which allowed scavengers to redeem her bottles and cans, but she never thought of doing it herself. "If you buy a six-pack of something, that's 60 cents," she said. "It's real money ... and we could all use extra cash. The economy hasn't been kind to all of us."
The 6 percentage point increase to 71 percent in the beverage container recycling rate comes after state officials worried that Californians were buying more plastic bottles, especially water bottles, and recycling fewer. In 2003, state officials turned to a media-heavy campaign and, in the past four years, have raised the refund value twice.
In Wolfgang Braendle's case, the state is preaching to the choir. At first glance, Braendle looks like he works at the recycling center, from the dirty white cap atop his head to his grime-streaked white sneakers. Piled around him were seven 45-gallon trash bags, from which he sorted wine bottles and soda cans, spinning them onto the conveyor belt with a dexterity his fellow recyclers have dubbed a "magic touch."
A retired software company executive with three master's degrees, Braendle moved to the United States from Germany seven years ago. He has been a recycling devotee for the past 21/2 years, spending about four to eight hours most days gathering and turning in bottles and cans from neighbors and friends who often do not have the time or are not willing to parse the contents of their curbside bins. On a good day, he makes as much as $150, he said. Recently, his seven bags cashed out at $78.
The redemption program generates $200 million to $300 million in unclaimed refund value that is used to pay for recycling-related education and grants and subsidies to local governments and conservation groups.
An increase in overall recycling has played out in communities across the state, officials say. The city of Los Angeles estimates that it collected 230,000 tons of recyclables, including bottles, cans, cardboard, newspaper and wire hangers, from about 750,000 households this year, up about 10,000 tons from last year, said Neil Guglielmo, a manager of the citywide recycling division within the Bureau of Sanitation.
"When you consider all the plastics we're collecting, and polystyrene foam, it doesn't weigh much," he said. "So you need to have a really sizable increase in the amount of materials to have a change in tons."
State officials hope Californians eventually recycle at least eight out of every 10 deposit beverage containers they buy.
"It's such a hard number to get when the number of containers (used) just keeps increasing every year," said Bridgett Luther, director of the Department of Conservation. "If I was working on the numbers from even 10 years ago, I would have made it. I'd be at 100 percent. ... Sometimes it feels a bit like you're chasing your tail."
The cost of curbside recycling will drop to $48 a year for residents of metro Bakersfield but outside the city limits, beginning New Year’s Day.
That will bring the cost of the program down to the same level as for city residents.
Then the city and county will launch an advertising campaign aimed at getting more people signed up.
After the city lowered the cost from $84 to $48 last spring, participation in the program picked up. Currently about 5 percent of single-family homes in Bakersfield’s city limits have curbside recycling.
By the numbers
6.9 billion beverage containers recycled in the first half of 2007.
71 percent of the state’s beverage containers are recycled on average.
230,000 tons of recycled materials will be collected in Los Angeles alone during 2007, according to the city.