Slim pickings

Recycling’s economic downturn reduces options for those who can for cash

Rose Adams (aka “Mama Rose”) routinely hauls a loaded cart through downtown on her route from the Avenues to Fair Street Recycling.

Rose Adams (aka “Mama Rose”) routinely hauls a loaded cart through downtown on her route from the Avenues to Fair Street Recycling.

Photo by Josh Cozine

Rose Adams—better known, endearingly, as “Mama Rose”—walks the streets of Chico six days a week, filling her makeshift cart with any recyclable materials she can find. She then begins the long haul south from West First Avenue toward Fair Street, where one of the only two remaining recycling centers in Chico operates.

“Sometimes that walk is just too much. I have one ankle that gets so big from walking so much, but if I don’t go—that’s my means of eating,” she said. “There needs to be one somewhere on the other side of town again.”

Instead, there’s only Fair Street Recycling and Chico Scrap Metal, about a mile away on East 20th Street.

The recycling money she once used for charity—buying groceries and cooking large meals every Sunday for homeless folks—has become her sole source of income since she fell on hard times in December 2015, ending up homeless herself.

Adams, 58, has been recycling for nearly 20 years. As recently as two years ago, she would have found her way to a small mobile recycling center in one of the Safeway parking lots—saving herself a walk across town dragging a cart often stacked higher than herself and strapped down with recyclable goods.

Near the end of 2015, however, these smaller operations started to disappear, limiting recycling access in the area and laying off workers. The loss of such centers is inconvenient to the average resident, but it’s a painful obstacle to anyone depending upon recycling money for subsistence.

According to CalRecycle—which oversees waste management, waste reduction and recycling programs for the entire state—California recycling rates in 2016 dropped to the lowest point since 2008.

Despite the common misconception connecting Chico’s closures to issues with the homeless population, the real reason, according to local industry professionals, seems to be a combination of market-driven forces. In such a climate, it’s hard to see the smaller centers coming back anytime soon, meaning Chico residents likely will continue having only two locations to exchange their recycled goods for cash—a hardship for some, and a definite step backward for keeping the city green.

Sal Coniglio, general manager at Recology for Butte and Colusa counties, moved to Chico 2 1/2 years ago, just before the smaller operations closed shop. As one of the major garbage services in the area, Recology offers curbside pickup of recyclables.

According to Coniglio, the volume of recyclables collected within his service areas definitely has increased, but so too has the size of his client base—making it hard to determine if center closures are where the increase in volume came from. The state recycling average has declined.

Coniglio said that despite the increase in volume, the cost of doing business is still hard to keep up with, especially transportation and processing.

“We have to ship [the recyclable material] to Oakland and then it’s shipped to China,” he said. “About 90 percent goes to China to be recycled.”

Volatile fuel prices along with dropping commodity prices make it hard to stay profitable. As for what can be done to alleviate concerns, Coniglio says CalRecycle needs to increase subsidies for recycling programs or add fees somewhere else to make up the difference.

When the smaller recycling locations closed in Chico, Adams said, people blamed homeless people for the vandalism reported in and around the shopping centers. She referred to the offenders as troubled individuals but said most had homes.

“I wish [detractors] wouldn’t always single out the homeless,” she said.

The job loss caused from closing these centers contributed the growing homeless population—at least in one case.

Mark Langlois found out he lost his job at the rePLANET recycling center once located beside the Safeway on Nord Avenue when he showed up for work that day and found the trailer boarded up with a sign on the door saying it was closed until further notice. According to Langlois, the sign cited a reduction in state funding as the reason for the shutdown. Regarding any homeless clientele, Langlois said there was the occasional complaint but he received many more for long lines, as his site was busy nonstop.

After the sudden job loss, Langlois found it hard to find work and eventually ended up homeless himself.

“I had been getting the feeling it was about my time,” Langlois said, knowing just how quickly it can happen after years of interacting with the homeless community. A few months without a job, and his meager savings from 16 years of work ran dry.

“My raises barely kept up with minimum wage,” he said of all his years spent at rePLANET. “I could never really save much.”

A press release from rePLANET a few months after the closure cited increased operating costs due to a raise in minimum wage and a requirement to provide health insurance coverage for workers, along with a reduction in state fees received—all following “[12] months of unprecedented declines” in commodity prices for aluminum and plastic—as making the stations unsustainable.

Fair Street Recycling Manager Jerry Morano said he’s felt many of the same pressures. The main reason Fair Street is still in business, he said, is volume. Business picked up after the smaller centers shut down. Due to the size of his facility, he is able to take in that volume and store more at once—saving on increased shipping and handling fees.

Morano said scrap prices have improved slightly since the end of 2015, but it’s clear that profit margins in the recycling business are now very thin.

“The boon days are over,” he said.