It was the perfect storm of problems: Recycling values for aluminum, plastic, and glass had bottomed out. People were cashing in on single-use plastic water bottles more than ever before. The state had announced it would slash funding. After 46 years in operation, the Larrabee Recycling Center could no longer afford to stay in business. At the end of 2016, it shut its doors—following in the footsteps of hundreds of recycling centers across California. The closure left Santa Maria with three California Refund Value (CRV) buyback centers.
The Larrabee center averaged more than 200 customers each day, according to co-owner Shannon Larrabee. During its last week in business, daily foot traffic reached 386 customers.
“That last week was brutal, saying goodbye,” Larrabee told the Sun. “If you saw some of our customers, we had some of Santa Maria’s poorest people coming in. They really depended on that money, and it was heartbreaking for us to say we’re closing to them.”
She added that it was “terrible” to say goodbye to the center’s regular customers—people who come in weekly, or even daily.
“I’m really frustrated with the state of California,” she said. “They have this program in place and it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.”
That program is the Beverage Container Recycling Program, through which consumers pay a CRV fee when they buy certain recyclable materials, but should be able to redeem that fee at a buyback center.
CalRecycle, the state department in charge of the recycling program, helps subsidize the cost to recycling centers for disposing of materials. The amount subsidized by the state changes periodically based on a formula, and at a Dec. 1, 2016 meeting, CalRecycle told recycling centers to brace for that subsidy to drop in 2017 because the CRV fund was “under stress.”
On top of that, commodity buyback values had hit rock bottom. Aluminum, once Larrabee’s “biggest moneymaker,” was selling cheap. Glass had become more expensive to recycle than to bury in a landfill, to the point where the Larrabee center owed about $500 for every 20,000 pounds of glass they processed. Plummeting oil prices had driven down the cost for producing plastic, therefore lowering its scrap value as well—meanwhile, Larrabee said, customers were bringing in single-use plastic bottles in huge volumes.
And as surrounding recycling centers struggled and closed, customer traffic headed to Larrabee’s, which faced the costs of new staff hires, increasing machine maintenance needs, and the purchase of a plastic crusher.
So when CalRecycle announced a projected decline in funding, it was the last straw.
“That’s when we made our decision to close our business at the end of the year,” Larrabee said. “And now people are left with two centers operated by rePlanet that have one staff person, one scale. They can’t handle larger loads. They close down for an hour and a half each day during lunch.”
“It really leaves folks in Santa Maria with not a lot of good options,” she added.
Hugh Bedford, co-owner of Bedford Enterprises, said he’s noticed an uptick in customer volume at the company’s Santa Maria-area recycling terminal since Larrabee’s closed—but for now, it’s not putting too much pressure on his business.
“At times [customers] come right in and get right out,” Bedford told the Sun. “At other times I look out and there are a few cars or pickups [lined up]. But I don’t think people have really had a problem with it.”
He said that Bedford Enterprises is in a different situation from Larrabee’s because Bedford also deals with scrap metal and solid waste, meaning they can shoulder the burden of processing low-value CRV containers.
“As long as it doesn’t add too much congestion to what we already do, then we’ll keep doing it,” he said.
But if their business relied solely on CRV buyback, that would be a different story.
“It’s not the greatest,” Bedford said. “The state needs to pay some more money. But we can offer a service right now without really being hindered. If we were to live off of that, no, it wouldn’t work.”
For the time being, though, Bedford will keep trying to accommodate the business’ customers and “keep them recycling.”
“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “That’s what we want: for people to keep on track and pick up those bottles.”
Larrabee pointed out that without recycling centers, CRV stops acting as a deposit and instead becomes a tax. She said it didn’t make sense that the CRV fund was “under stress,” because it’s supposed to be prepaid by the consumer.
Mark Oldfield, communications director for CalRecycle, acknowledged that dipping commodity values and government subsidies have “put the squeeze on recycling centers,” especially the low-volume ones.
“We totally understand that if [the subsidy] goes down, it’s going to have a negative effect on these businesses,” Oldfield told the Sun. “But again, we’re locked in this formula. We’ve been doing it this way for 30 years.”