Recycling woes hit Humboldt County, state

Alex Evans, left, and Stanley Rengulbai sort plastics and bi-metal cans at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority transfer station on West Hawthorne Street in Eureka on Thursday.
Alex Evans, left, and Stanley Rengulbai sort plastics and bi-metal cans at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority transfer station on West Hawthorne Street in Eureka on Thursday. Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard
Alex Evans helps sort plastics and bi-metal cans at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority transfer station.
Alex Evans helps sort plastics and bi-metal cans at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority transfer station. Shaun Walker — The Times-Standard

Five Humboldt County recycling centers have closed within the last 18 months, feeling a crunch from several national and international factors that have hit recycling centers hard across the state.

Brent Whitener, director of operations and facilities at the Humboldt Waste Management Authority, said the closures not only signal possible changes for how counties recycle, but could possibly affect those who use the refund system as a form of income.

Lawmakers and recycling industry stakeholders are scheduled to meet to discuss the troubled system next week in Sacramento.

Whitener cited several global forces which led to not only five closures in Humboldt County, but to 298 similar closures across the state during the first three months of 2016.

“Commodity prices are way down. China’s (commodity) market is way down; the price is very low,” Whitner said of global markets trading raw materials typically recycled such as aluminum. Whitner cited a 35 to 40 percent price drop of raw materials since 2011 throughout much of Asia.

“When you buy a can of soda at the store, you’re paying an extra nickel for the can. You have the right to bring it to us to get your nickel back,” Whitener said of the California Redemption Value program, which was originally introduced to incentivize recycling but has seen diminishing use in recent years.

Whitener added that his facility then sells the material into the manufacturing stream.

Whitener said when commodities markets are down their margins, and don’t allow recycling centers to break even.

“The margin is very close,” Whitener said.

Brian Sollom, operations supervisor at Recology Humboldt County, a waste management company in Eureka, said recycle markets were the lowest they’ve been in a while.

“They’re about as low as they were in 2008 when we were just hoping to get rid of the material with having to put it in a hole in the ground,” Sollom said.

Sollom also noted that the low price of oil has contributed to the closures, as plastic is derived from oil and its low price makes producing new plastic cheaper than recycling old plastic.

The five recycle centers that closed — General Recycling in Eureka, Redwood Acres Recycling in Eureka, Sherricks in Eureka, Arcata Resource Recovery Center, and a small neighborhood facility in Fortuna — are part of a long list of shuttered facilities in the state, something that will be addressed next week in a meeting hosted by Gov. Jerry Brown, according to Mark Oldfield a spokesman for CalRecycle, the agency in charge of the state’s recycling and waste management programs.

“There are going to be discussions about the program in general,” Oldfield said.

Whitener said the CRV program has seen declining usage in recent years as cities and counties continue to roll out curbside recycling programs as part of state requirements aimed at increasing recycling participation. Eureka introduced its curbside service in 2012.

“The state’s policy has been to pay people to incentivize them into recycling. Is it time to consider doing away with CRV?” Whitener said.

Whitener did note one effect of doing away with CRV, which allows bottles and cans to be returned for five cents each.

“Transients and the less fortunate rely on CRV. It’s their sustenance,” he said.

Oldfield said the meeting in Sacramento to discuss the program would involve various stakeholders within the recycling industry, including beverage manufactures, retailers, recycling center operators and consumers.

Marc Vartabedian can be contacted at 707-441-0509.

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