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Culture and Identity

Recycling center closures hit homeless community in the pocketbook

KCBX News, Dylan Ring
A line forms at the RePlanet recycling center behind San Luis Obispo's Target store.

The recent closures of several recycling centers in San Luis Obispo County are putting a financial and time strain on members of the area's homeless population who regularly depend on the money earned by cashing in those California Redemption Value (CRV) cans and bottles.

The reduced number of centers is creating long lines at the few remaining locations that remain open.

“It never used to be crowded like this, you just go in and go out,” said Ronald Williamson who — like many in the San Luis Obispo homeless community — is cashing in bags full of recyclables.

“Most jobs now, you’ve gotta get a driver’s license," said Williamson. "And when you live outside, when you get up, you’re all gross and you can’t take a shower.”

So, Williamson has turned to recycling as his career. He goes to the RePlanet recycling center behind Target. Williamson said, it’s typical for there to be a line, but more recently, the wait to cash in can last up to five hours.

“Sometimes people come up with big loads so if they’re waiting two hours at least they get their money’s worth while they’re waiting," said Williamson. "I’ve waited two hours just for eight dollars. Takes longer to turn them in than it does to pick them up.”

The long wait and dwindling number of recycling centers discourages some people like David Davis from recycling—or as he calls it “canning.” He said he’s even paid people to recycle for him.

“I would pay somebody—let somebody have some of my cans—just to do the stuff in line," said Davis. "And then what happens is people say, 'well I’ve got to make it worth my wait. I've got to make it worth it to go that far when I go, so I’ve got to keep some,' but since most of us are homeless that do it... then they've got to hide it.”

Davis now relies on income from social security, but he said some who quit canning go to further extremes like panhandling, taking recyclables from homeowner bins or even stealing.

"Canning’s a legal way too," said Davis. "People do illegal things. If they can’t do it the legal way they’re going to do illegal things. They’re just going to pour into the society and shoplift because people need money.”

Now, many customers put off going to the center to avoid the long waits. And when homeless people don’t have a place to keep bottles and cans, some say they're putting their collections in storage—what Davis calls a "5x5 place where your life is."

“Now I've got nasty beer and juice and you can tie it up all you want but you store it long and now it’s a month’s of your belongings in a storage," said Davis.

Transporting a large load has been made more difficult because there are fewer centers open in San Luis Obispo and throughout the state.

Last year there were more than two thousand recycling centers in California, according to CalRecycle data. Now there are roughly 1700. Last year San Luis Obispo county had 22. Now there are ten. And last year in the City of San Luis Obispo, there were five centers. Now there are only two remaining.

CalRecycle communications director, Mark Oldfield told KCBX that the reason for the closures is largely a result of lower oil prices, making it less profitable to use recycled plastic when virgin plastic made with petroleum is more affordable.

“In a perfect world, we would see some of those closed locations reopened but again, it’s a business decision that those businesses have to make: whether they can make a go of it," said Oldfield.

He said the recycling centers weren’t intended to be a supplemental income source to support those who don’t pay into the program.

“...and when you talk about those folks who are scavengers essentially they’re going through curbside bins and taking out material, which is--generally speaking--a violation of local ordinances," said Oldfield. "It’s certainly a difficult situation and certainly something that a lot of folks will have sympathy toward. However, the beverage container recycling program was never established and never intended to be a supplemental income program. It’s a litter reduction program and it’s a recycling program.”

Oldfield said there’s no easy way to fix the problem, but CalRecycle is working on solutions with manufacturers and distributors. For the time being however, it’s a struggle to make the centers profitable based on oil prices and labor costs.

To find active recycling centers in your area, you can visit CalRecycle's search engine.