F. Castro / SFVS

Javier Rosas with his recyclables.

Georgina and Javier Rosas begin unloading a car full of glass and plastic bottles, cans and even detergent containers. They pour them all into a big bucket and head into JD Recycling, near the corner of Maclay Avenue and Foothill Boulevard in Sylmar.

Someone’s trash is someone else’s treasure.

The couple know this perfectly well. They don’t miss the opportunity to pick up a can or bottle someone left behind on the street, the park or even at Javier’s job at a restaurant.

It all adds up in a couple of trips every month to the recycling center, where they receive between $80-$90 in exchange for the load.

“This helps me complete my car payment,” says Javier, who works at a restaurant.

“A lot of people feel ashamed,” he adds, though he admits he felt a little ashamed in the beginning. But that’s long gone.

“Shame is to die of hunger,” Javier said.

They’ve come to know that doing good for the planet by recycling plastic bottles and cans helps them make ends meet. 

“You can pay for a trip to the market with this,” Georgina said, adding that people who pick up recyclables also help keep the city cleaner.

“If we don’t pick it up, you’re going to see trash all over the place, with flies,” she said.

Centers Are Closing  

But many people who recycle like the Rosas are finding it harder to reap the rewards.

Recycling centers are closing up and down the state. Prices have dropped due to the oversupply of recyclables after China and other Asian countries stopped buying American recyclable waste in 2017.

In 2016, the United States sent 760 million tons of plastic to China. But that figure dropped by 95% the following year, according to media reports.

Recycling processing centers are also spending more money trying to separate recyclable materials. Unfortunately, not everything that people place in their blue bins is recyclable.

RePlanet, the biggest such chain in the state decided to close 284 of its locations in California, including one in Canoga Park and another in West Hills. And the concern is that many others will follow.

“With the continued reduction in state fees, the depressed pricing of recycled aluminum and PET plastic, and the rise in operating costs resulting from minimum wage increases and required health and workers compensation insurance, the company has concluded that operation of these recycling centers and supporting operations is no longer sustainable,” RePlanet officials said in a statement.

Can’t Let Recycling Infrastructure “Crumble” 

Protect CRV, an organization made up of small recycling centers and customers which advocates for laws that protect this industry, reports that 1,300 of these businesses have called it quits in California since 2013 — a state where 16.2 billion articles are recycled annually.

In an open letter sent to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, the group notes that “the consequences for consumers and the environment are sweeping and ugly if we continue to allow our recycling infrastructure to crumble.”

The letter also asks to “immediately cease fining redemption centers for unintentional or non-impactful infractions”, “compel beverage manufacturers to shoulder their share of the costs for their containers”, and to “fast track a ten-day approval process for existing operators in good standing who wish to open new sites.”

The closure of RePlanet led Consumer Watchdog to call on the state to step in and require all grocery and convenience store chains to begin redeeming bottles and cans, and to increase the deposit customers pay when purchasing cans and bottles at the stores from 5- to 10-cents so that more people are motivated to recycle.

“We warned just months ago that the bottle deposit program was in crisis and today’s closure shows consumers are being left in the lurch by the failure of the state to keep recycling centers open,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker in a statement.

“Gov. Newsom needs to tackle this problem personally and make reform of the broken bottle deposit system a top priority this fall. CalRecycle has failed to deal with the problems we have raised and they have now become a full blown crisis for consumers and recycling in California.”

It’s a concern shared by Lorenzo Cifuentes who uses a supermarket cart to carry several bags of recyclables into the recycling center.

“(If they close these businesses) a lot of people are going to be affected,” said the 86-year-old, who used to head out with his wife to pick up bottles and cans on the streets, but stopped doing it because of knee problems.

Now he just recycles what is consumed at his home. Still, he gets about $100, which is helpful.

For Cifuentes, closing these businesses is not only bad for those workers who will be left without a job, but also for the environment.  

With fewer places where people can take things to recycle in exchange for money, he says, “people are just going to say ‘why do I store it and they’re just going to throw it out on the street.”