California’s largest operator of recycling redemption centers abruptly shut down Monday and laid off 750 employees.
RePlanet pulled the plug on all 284 of its centers, and company president David Lawrence said the decision was driven by increased business costs and falling prices of recycled aluminum and PET plastic.
The recycling center, generally operated by one or two employees in kiosks at shopping centers anchored by grocery supermarkets, had at least 20 San Diego County locations, including six along the State Route 78 corridor from Escondido to Oceanside.
The move came three years after RePlanet closed 191 of its recycling centers and laid off 278 workers.
Now many North County San Diego residents have few or no options for redeeming their recyclables, which is especially concerning for those who live in poverty or experience homelessness and rely on recycling for income.
Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that studies issues in California’s recycling industry, estimated that more than 40 percent of all redemption centers have closed in the last five years. The closures result in consumers only getting back about half of their nickel and dime bottle and can deposits, according to a recent report from the nonprofit.
The closures also mean that more bottles made of aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, will end up in landfills. People will either throw their recyclables directly into the garbage, or place them in curbside recycling bins, which are often filled with contaminated material that must be discarded. China, which has bought much of the U.S.’s recyclable material, has become stricter about what kinds of material it will accept.
Advocates are urging the state to reform how it subsidizes recycling centers to account for rising operating costs in the wake of continuously low aluminum and plastic prices.
Consumer Watchdog responded to news of the RePlanet closure by urging CalRecycle, the California agency in charge of recycling, to require all grocery and convenience store chains to start redeeming cans and bottles.
Earlier this year, California lawmakers proposed legislation that would require plastic and other single-use materials sold in the state to be either reusable, fully recyclable or compostable by 2030. The bill, AB 1080, passed the state Assembly and is under consideration in the Senate.
The closures also mean that more bottles made of aluminum and polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, will end up in landfills. People will either throw their recyclables directly into the garbage or place them in curbside recycling bins, which are often filled with contaminated material that must be discarded.
The recycling industry is in a state of upheaval. For years, America’s junk was China’s treasure. Chinese recycling firms paid good money for our used plastic and paper. But last year, Beijing started rejecting waste it deemed contaminated.
“China took around half of the plastic that we put into recycling bins, and once they stopped, local authorities and recycling companies went from making a profit to having to pay to get rid of the stuff,” said O’Neill.
There is still demand for many of the things we throw away, said Adina Renee Adler of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. She said it’s important to find profitable, second lives for things like soda bottles made of PET plastic.
“My husband and I both own a number of shirts that we wear every day. They’re woven by fibers that originated as a PET water bottle,” she said.
But demand needs to catch up with supply. Americans “supply” some 80 million tons of recyclable waste.