About 20 people pick through 5-by-5-foot bails of paper, their genders hidden since they are covered head-to-toe in protection from the sun, glass and metal shards, and the bees swarming nearby crushed soda cans for remnant sugar.
“I haven’t been here for about a year, so I’ve never seen this done before,” said City public information officer Jose Ysea, who is narrating a tour for the Light around the Allan Company’s 6733 Consolidated Way facility in Miramar, one of two destinations where the City’s recyclables get sorted and processed.
The cost of this extra sorting is only a small part of the trouble rippling from China’s decision, in late 2017, to stop importing certain scrap paper and plastics, and to drastically lower the contamination rates in what they will still accept.
“The entire industry is very concerned,” said Julie Sands, the City’s supervising recycling specialist. “Companies like the Allan Company are looking to find buyers elsewhere. If they can’t find a domestic buyer for a bale of cardboard or plastic bottles, they’re going look anywhere else in the world — Vietnam, Indonesia, other parts of Asia.”
So far, the Allan Company has been able to find alternative buyers for San Diego’s recycling, Sands said. Of all materials tossed in San Diego’s blue bins, about 85 percent gets recycled — on par with previous decades.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Sands said, “but they are not landfilling the materials that have been picked up by City trucks. I realize that is happening in some other North American cities, but it’s not happening here.”
Still, there is grave cause for concern about the future of recycling, which is an integral part of how San Diego intends to meet its near-zero waste deadline of 2040. Already, a recent report in the Los Angeles Times stated that more Asian nations are preparing to follow China’s lead. Recycling can only increase in cost and decrease in profit for so long before it collapses as a private industry.
Where can we return cans and bottles?
China’s policy changes — motivated by complaints of contaminated U.S. shipments and by changes in its economy — are part of the reason RePlanet, Calfornia’s largest operator of redemption centers, closed all of its 284 recycling centers last month, laying off 750 employees. (In La Jolla, RePlanet operated the center behind Vons.) Statewide, 996 redemption centers have closed since 2015, according to the state agency CalRecycle.
This leaves fewer options for people to redeem their recyclables, which is especially concerning for homeless and other poor people who rely on recycling for income.
“I don’t even know where I’m taking this,” said Vince Robertson, a man the Light approached last week as he pushed a shopping cart brimming with plastic bottles west on Pearl Street.
“I’m about to go down by PB or Mission Beach,” he said. “They’ll have some people who recycle there, who have vehicles and will buy your stuff off you. They know the cash value of it, so you negotiate a good deal.”
Robertson estimates the value of his bottles at $50, which he would have normally collected from RePlanet, although he may have to accept just $35 or $40 now.
“It’s a lot more of a hassle now,” he said.
The likely destination of his bottles is the Allan Company’s Consolidated Way facility, which still operates a redemption center near its entrance.
“That’s one thing we still have going for us,” Sands said. “That’s where people collect cans and bottles, so they can still get that money back.”
Keep filling your blue bins
The City wants it known that recycling still works for now, but that the public needs to scrutinize and rinse off, more than ever before, what it places in blue bins.
Not only does leaving contaminants in your recyclables compromise the value of the end product, it also clogs up machinery. Contaminants — especially plastic bags that are able to sneak past the sorters and into the machines — often have to be manually cleared from gears and pulleys, further increasing the cost of recycling.
Anything consumers can do to prevent the need for recycling to begin with — such as reusing containers and avoiding single-use packaging — would be even better still, Sands said.
In California, multiple reform bills are targeting the manufacturing and reuse of product containers. Assembly Bill (AB) 792 would impose minimum recyclable content requirements on beverage containers, while AB 1080 would require recyclability in all single-use plastic and packaging materials by 2030.
In addition, the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog is urging CalRecycle to require all grocery and convenience-store chains to start redeeming cans and bottles. (A CalRecycle spokesperson said that his company “does not have the authority to require in-store redemption at every private retailer across the state.”)
When asked whether she thought these and other efforts could help reduce San Diego’s landfill deposits to near-zero by 2040, or at least save recycling in the shorter run, Sands replied: “I do not know, I don’t have a crystal ball.”
How recycling (still) works
Step 1: Once you take your blue bin of recyclables to the curb, it gets trucked to one of two material recovery facilities run by the private Allan Company to process and prep the City’s recyclables for market.
Step 2: Trucks are weighed when they arrive to calculate the weight of the recyclables they dropped off. (Their empty weight is on file.) The trucks are then sent to the tipping floor, where they add to the mountain of recyclables waiting to be sorted.
Step 3: Next, a loader pushes recyclables toward a conveyor belt to begin its surprisingly high-speed journey through a giant sorting factory. Machines first separate the lightest material (paper) by blowing it upward. Then dozens of workers separate out any unrecyclable contaminants. Each worker is trained to remove only one specific contaminant from a specific section of conveyor belt. These contaminants then go to landfills. They include plastic bags and wrap, electronics, clothing and plant material — which can all be recycled, but not in blue bins. (Check your grocery or home-improvement stores for recycling options for these.)
Step 4: Larger recyclables like cardboard are separated and sent down their own belt, as are mixed paper, plastic bottles, and glass — which is then further separated by color — and cans. Aluminum cans are separated by passing all cans through a powerful reverse magnet that bounces out the metal ones.
Step 5: At end of the process, bales and bins of recyclables are prepped for shipping to buyers, who will (hopefully) turn them into new products, reducing the need for landfill space and new raw materials.