It feels good to recycle. Taking that little extra time to separate the paper from the plastic, and set that blue bin out on the curb, can make a Bakersfield resident feel like a good citizen of the Earth.
But all is not well in the world of recycling.
Municipalities sell recycling to private recycling centers, who process the material for shipment to industries. In Bakersfield, the city’s Solid Waste Department saw the price of a ton of recyclable material fall from $25 in 2017 to zero by the end of the year.
Now, the city can’t give the material away. It pays recycling centers around $70 to take the material off its hands.
For the moment, the department has stabilized the losses, and can continue to recycle all material it takes in. But the same cannot be said of all cities in California, and the whole system may soon be in jeopardy.
“It’s not only California, it’s the U.S. and Europe, and it’s not just a little bad, it is terrible,” said Kevin Barnes, Bakersfield Solid Waste director.
Before China closed its doors to the world’s trash, facilities in the country would take material such as magazines or paper from junk mail, and turn that material into tissue and toilet paper.
A rising tide of trash within China itself caused the country to severely limit the recycling it takes from outside its borders. Now cities across the U.S. are scrambling to figure out what to do with their recycling programs.
Bakersfield is struggling right along with the rest.
“I’ve been in garbage all my life,” Barnes said. “This is unprecedented. I think there’s been nothing in history this severe for the markets. So we’re in uncharted waters here.”
The city has survived by increasing fees for curbside pickup by 3.5 percent and by dipping into the reserve funds to offset the new cost of doing business.
It will cost the city about $750,000 this year to recycle everything. The money will come from reserves in the Solid Waste fund, which Barnes said could handle the loss for this year, but are monitoring the situation in the future.
Some cities in California have been forced to cut back on the material they can recycle. The city of Sacramento announced earlier this week it could no longer take mixed plastics for recycling.
So far, Bakersfield has been able to maintain the status quo for its recycling program.
Because the city owns its own composting facility, unlike other municipalities, it was in the position to compost mixed paper, which had previously been recycled. Now, instead of old junk mail becoming new Kleenex, it becomes the type of dirt found in potted plants.
Local agriculture facilities use this compost for their operations.
“You can still compost paper,” said Kern County Public Works Waste Management specialist Chuck Magee. “It’s just a tree that’s been cut into something else.”
The other recyclable material – plastics and glass – recycling centers are scrambling to sell the material to the few remaining markets throughout the world, Barnes said.
The situation could get better or it could get worse.
“We could be notified at any time, ‘sorry, this is going out,’” Barnes said. “We’re completely at the mercy of the world market.”
Some material, though, has not seen such a huge swing in fortunes.
Magee said the county has continued to sell scrap metal to local centers, and items like concrete, wood, electronics, and mattresses still could be recycled by the county.
“So, while we can’t find a market for the milk jug, we can find markets for the concrete,” Magee said.
As the city and county deal with the free fall of the recycling market, there is one thing local residents can do to help.
“Please don’t overload the system with non-recyclables,” Barnes said.
Bakersfield residents usually do better than their counterparts statewide when it comes to putting the right items in recycling bins. On average, around 10 percent of all material put in the bins in Bakersfield should not be there.
“All that does is cause a greater burden to the recyclers,” Barnes said.
Following the instructions provided in the recycling pamphlets is the best bet for helping out recyclers at a time like this, he said.