Another Sonoma County recycling center is closing, leaving consumers with even fewer local options to redeem bottles and cans
It soon will get even harder to score a bit of extra cash in Sonoma County for turning in bottles and cans.
One of the few remaining recycling redemption sites in the area, Brogard, in Windsor, will end its operation Aug. 26 after 19 years. The scrap metal site at the same location, West Coast Metals, will continue to run.
“We're not really happy about it because we have been a service to the community for so long,” owner Linda Gardner told me, “but just dollar-wise, we cannot keep open losing money every month.”
This is more bad news for consumers already struggling to recoup the 5- or 10-cent fee on containers as California Refund Value redemption centers and retailers have dwindled in recent years. California has lost almost half its container recycling operations in the past decade.
In Sonoma County, 85% of sites have shuttered in the past decade, and in some other Northern California counties, there are none.
The Press Democrat has reported on the state’s beleaguered recycling setup before.
California is one of 10 states with a “Bottle Bill” that applies a refund value to most glass, cans and plastic bottles in an effort to encourage recycling. While an effective tool in general, California’s system, managed by CalRecycle, has struggled, and the closure of site after site has made it difficult for people to cash in. That has led to more than $635 million in unclaimed deposits and a 61% redemption rate in 2021, lower than most other states with similar programs.
All recycling programs have had to contend with plummeting prices for reclaimed materials, such as plastics, because markets for them, especially in China, have shrunk. But California’s recycling system has also been plagued by fraud, loopholes and inefficiencies that recycling businesses say have made it hard to stay afloat.
“Over the years, things have gotten rocky. We haven’t made a lot of money, but we’ve been able to stay open,” Gardner said.
Lately, though, Brogard has struggled to absorb increasing traffic as other sites in the region have shuttered. Operational and labor expenses have shot up, and, at the same time, subsidies provided by the state have gone down.
“We just can't continue to operate at a loss,” Gardner told me.
“A lot of sites, especially in the higher-cost areas to operate like Sonoma County, have gone out of business,” said Jeff Donlevy, general manager of Ming’s Resource Corporation, a processing facility based in the East Bay.
“Those that need the money go find those very few recycling centers that are open,” he added. “They're faced with long lines and the sites, in a lot of cases, are overwhelmed.”
Operations like Ming’s purchase the empties from other recycling operations, including Brogard, and prepare them for resale to be converted into new products. Ming’s handles about one-third of all the California Refund Value containers in the state, and Donlevy estimated business is down 20% to 30% compared to seven years ago.
A major issue, according to recycling operators and advocates, is that the subsidies provided by the state, designed to offset businesses’ costs to recycle, are outdated, inflexible and inadequate.
“The commodity market for recyclables is very volatile these days, and the subsidies paid by CalRecycle are just not enough to help keep sites like Brogard in business,” Donlevy told me.
“It's a flawed accounting formula that winds up shorting a huge number of redemption centers every few years, and then they just go out of business,” said Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog, who has spent years studying this issue. “It's not profitable.”
Operations up north are put at a particular disadvantage, Donlevy said, because these subsidies are based on statewide averages, and with 70% of recycling centers based in Southern California, calculations are skewed toward the generally lower costs of doing business there since there are more facilities serving a larger population.
“Recycling centers are small businesses that face obstacles that many small businesses face, which can include rising rents, siting challenges, and wages,” said CalRecycle spokesperson Lance Klug. “Recycling centers also face a fluctuating market for plastic, aluminum, and glass ... Payments to recyclers from the program are not able to shift as rapidly as the market.”
Klug noted that changes to the accounting process requires legislative direction.
As sites close, major grocery and retail stores, who sell the bottles and cans in the first place and pass along the California Refund Value fee to consumers, are supposed to be a fallback in the program. Legally, they’re required to redeem the containers if there aren’t any recycling sites nearby.