Nearly a year after the Bakersfield City Council decided to “weather the storm” of the plummeting recycling market, conditions have worsened, and officials hope to hang on until things get better.
Previously, recycling companies could earn between $10 to $25 per ton of recycling, said Varner Brothers CEO Jacob Panero.
In 2018, those companies needed to pay $70 just to get rid of that ton.
Now, costs have increased to $90 to $120 per ton, with no sign of a recovery.
“We don’t think that there’s any relief in sight,” Panero said. “It’s bad across the board, and it’s the same screwed up market for everybody.”
China had been accepting around 60 percent of the world’s recycling, but in 2018, the country drastically reduced the types of material that it would accept. Paper and low-grade plastic (the kind numbered three and above) became much harder to sell as recyclers could not find markets that would take the material.
Facing the decline in the markets, the City Council decided in September of last year to maintain its program with relatively few changes in the hope that new markets would soon open up.
While those markets have yet to evolve, there are signs that paper facilities are being developed in the United States, and officials believe that the situation simply cannot get worse.
“We just have to continue to weather the storm and see if it can get better,” said Bakersfield Solid Waste Director Kevin Barnes.
He said the cost of recycling had increased by $720,000 over the last year, even as fees have remained unchanged.
“We’re still recycling. We’re still able to move the material,” he said. “So it doesn’t threaten it in the sense that you simply cannot move the material.”
It’s just gotten more expensive.
But luckily for Bakersfield and Kern County, paper and plastic recycling only represent a small portion of the overall material taken in at local sites.
“Recycling is so much more than that it’s not even funny,” said Chuck Magee, a manager at Kern County Public Works. “The markets that we specifically lost when China quit taking material were basically the low grade plastics and the papers. That’s really what got shut down, because there were still markets for the other stuff.”
He said the county recycled around 800,000 tons of material each year, and a quarter of that material was low-grade plastics and paper.
The rest — metal, appliances, mattresses, carpets, grass, and even concrete — can still be recycled cheaply.
And the county is taking in more every year.
Over the last two years, the county increased its overall recycling tonnage by around 70,000 tons.
“We’ve just really set up good programs for them to try to get as much as possible,” Magee said. “So hopefully one day, when the other materials come back online, we’ll get more.”
He said he was optimistic about the overall recycling market, and noted that the plastics numbered one and two are still recyclable.
As both Bakersfield and Kern County continue their plastics and paper recycling despite the unprofitability of the programs, rates are not expected to increase.
Despite the rocky waters, recycling will continue.