Recycling Industry Is Struggling, Bay Area Businesses Say

By Ilene Eng
Ilene Eng
Ilene Eng
Ilene is a reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area covering Northern California news.
July 27, 2020Updated: July 28, 2020

UNION CITY, Calif.—A long line of vehicles stretched along the road outside Tri-CED Community Recycling in Union City, Calif., on July 23, waiting to unload empty cans and bottles. The wait was anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. 

“There’s no other place. I used to go to Food Source, just around the block from my house—that was so easy. … Now, this is the only place I know,” Paul Rodriguez told The Epoch Times. “This is my third time here. It’s always like this.”

While recycling centers were already becoming more scarce before COVID-19, the pandemic has forced more centers to close. 

Richard Valle, president of Tri-CED, says the value of materials, especially plastic, has depreciated in the last few years; oil prices are low, so companies aren’t buying as much recycled plastic. 

The state reimburses Tri-CED the money it pays its customers. Then, Tri-CED makes a small profit by selling the materials.

“The margin right now … on plastic soda bottles, we make two cents a pound,” Valle told The Epoch Times. “It doesn’t make any sense, financially.”

Epoch Times Photo
Tri-CED Community Recycling in Union City, Calif., is one of the few recycling centers open for business in the area on July 23, 2020. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)
Epoch Times Photo
Vehicles line up outside Tri-CED Community Recycling in Union City, Calif., on July 23, 2020. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)

Tri-CED is getting by, but now the company has to pay for sanitation and personal protective equipment (PPE). 

“It becomes somewhat confrontational, because we won’t service you unless you are wearing a mask. So we’re having to buy masks for our customers, because a lot of them don’t have them. It’s an additional cost that we didn’t anticipate,” he said.

Because other sites have closed, he now sees about 350–400 cars per day, about 150 more than before the pandemic. The business now has two people doing full-time traffic control.

Tri-CED has a hard time keeping up with cash flow, the amount needed each day to pay people on the spot for the materials they drop off. Valle said the average payout is $40 to $75 per customer.

Epoch Times Photo
A small recycling center in San Leandro, Calif., is closed on July 21, 2020. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)

Across the Bay, Ors Csaszar, owner of Our Planet Recycling SF, is experiencing a similar struggle. 

His large facility is seeing many more people than before the pandemic, because other places have closed. He said the processing payment cycle isn’t keeping up with the current market situation, and his reserve is limited.

Our Planet currently sees 1,000 to 1,200 customers daily, he said, compared with the 800 prior to the virus outbreak.

Csaszar chooses to stay open because he knows the customers rely on his services to get by, and his 50-plus employees have families to support during this difficult time.

“The people really, really need this. Sometimes, it feels like a mini Robin Hood, because we really help the community,” Csaszar said.

He also doesn’t want to lose the business that he and his brother have owned for 11 years.

Tri-CED’s Valle also feels an obligation to those who use his services.

“We think it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as it is for them,” he said.

For many homeless people, collecting and redeeming recyclables is a primary source of income.

“This is how I eat. It gets us lunch, cigarettes, coffee, cat food, the basic necessities. It’s better than nothing,” a 52-year-old homeless man told PBS in 2016 for a documentary called “Dogtown Redemption,” which followed people who frequent Bay Area recycling centers. 

For many others, it’s simply a way to get some extra cash and keep waste out of landfills. Sonia Sebastian, who took the day off from work and got in line at Tri-CED on July 23, had been in line for 50 minutes when she talked to The Epoch Times.

“It’s OK, because we just have to be patient in today’s current situation,” she said. She had a companion to keep her company during the wait.

Recycling centers are considered essential and are encouraged to operate under the state’s recommended health guidance. CalRecycle has a search tool to find the closest in-store redemption sites for the California Redemption Value (CRV) regulatory fee paid by consumers on recyclable beverage containers.

The San Francisco Department of the Environment told The Epoch Times via email that four locations were open in the city before the pandemic, but two have closed.

“To maintain the health of employees, Recology limited public access to the transfer station, which resulted in the closure of those 2 locations for CRV redemption,” wrote Charles Sheehan, spokesman for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

Some Bay Area counties have relatively more recycling centers still open and don’t have a problem with long lines. For example, The Epoch Times visited Danny Recycling Center in Santa Clara on July 22 and found only a couple of people in line. 

Epoch Times Photo
Cans and bottles sit in bins at the Danny Recycling Center in Santa Clara, Calif., on July 22, 2020. (Ilene Eng/The Epoch Times)

In an emailed statement to The Epoch Times, Clifton Chew, management analyst for CalRecycle in Santa Clara County, said that businesses make the choice to operate, and that he hasn’t received reports of long lines at recycling centers in Santa Clara. He advises people to call local businesses for services and operation hours.