Recycling ravaged

Pollution-preventing businesses threatened by budget crisis

Betty Morales is hoping that the Legislature does something to buoy the coffers of the Department of Conservation. Raids by the state have contributed to the bankruptcy of the state’s recycling program, putting many recyclers out of business.

Betty Morales is hoping that the Legislature does something to buoy the coffers of the Department of Conservation. Raids by the state have contributed to the bankruptcy of the state’s recycling program, putting many recyclers out of business.

Photo By melissa daugherty

Rob’s Recycling sits just off of the west shoulder of Highway 99 in the middle of Los Molinos. Blink and you might miss the modest facility. It’s owned by Betty and Rob Morales, a hardworking 40-something couple who opened the business in 2001. Eventually they established two similar but smaller operations—one in Durham and another in Rancho Tehama near Corning.

At the Los Molinos location, business is bustling. In fact, Betty estimated she serves 40 to 50 customers a day—about double the amount seen last year on a daily basis. The problem for the Moraleses, who run the facilities with the help of their son and daughter-in-law, is that the state has repeatedly raided the funds used to pay recyclers. And now there isn’t enough to go around.

“They’re making it almost impossible to survive,” Betty said on Monday, speaking over the din of aluminum cans being sorted and crushed.

California’s container program is managed by the Department of Conservation. It was established in the mid-’80s to promote recycling and is funded through deposits generated through purchases of certain aluminum, glass or plastic cans and bottles. Consumers will recognize it as the California Redemption Value—generally 5 or 10 cents—they pay on a variety of beverages. Purchasers get a CRV reimbursement by taking the containers to recycling centers, while the centers earn handling fees and sell the material to a processor.

The 23-year-old program was designed to be self-sustaining, meaning the unclaimed deposits paid by consumers would subsidize the recycling handling fees. In these tough economic times, though, more people are recycling. While increased recycling rates mean there’s less unused money in the program, recyclers blame the now bankrupt system on state grabs.

Mark Oldfield, a spokesman with the Department of Conservation, said the state has borrowed about $450 million from the California Beverage Container Recycling Program over the past decade and that none of the money has been repaid. In the current fiscal year alone, $99 million was siphoned into the general fund and $35 million was allocated to the California Air Resources Board for carbon-emissions-reduction initiatives.

Oldfield replied to the CN&R’s questions by e-mail because of pending legal action by several large recycling companies who are challenging the legality of the loans. He acknowledged that 187 recycling centers have been decertified in the last six months. He noted, however, that 160 centers received certification in the same time period.

Among the casualties is the Morales family’s Rancho Tehama site. To stay afloat, the family has reduced the hours of the other locations. What’s been most difficult, though, Betty said, has been laying off workers—five since July. That’s when recyclers saw an 85 percent reduction in the handling fees that have helped them run their operations. Then, early last month, the remaining fees were cut, too.

Selling aluminum as scrap is now the main source of income for the family, but even that market has taken a huge hit with the recession. Betty said the metal’s worth 30 cents a pound, down from the 80 cents per pound the couple took in last year. The Moraleses have been using their savings to keep afloat, but they can’t do that for much longer.

A few months ago, recyclers and recycling advocates placed hope in a state Senate bill as a way revive the struggling program. Authored by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), the legislation would have buoyed the recycling program by including other types of beverage containers, particularly plastics, and extending the 10-cent CRV to containers 20 ounces and larger.

SB 402 bill passed both houses, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it in October, citing several issues with the bill, including the fact that hard-alcohol and wine remained exempt.

Betty grew up in Los Molinos. She’s the president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, the vice president of the Women’s Club and sits on the board of the Kiwanis Club. She’s knows her customers well and is worried about the impacts on them should the facility have to close its doors.

“I would say at least 30 percent of the clientele here in Los Molinos are recycling because they need the money; they need to put gas in the car, buy a loaf of bread,” she said.

Another concern is what will happen to all of the recyclables. Since closures will require people to drive farther to recycle, Betty’s also concerned some folks will forgo the practice altogether. That will put a lot of pressure on landfills.

Rob’s Recycling accepts all kinds of products that the family makes little or no money on. The facility doesn’t make a dime by picking up paper from the local high school and post office, or from the plastic bags from the local supermarket.

“Whatever I can do for my community, I do,” Betty said.