Recycling Efforts Take a Hit During COVID-19 Pandemic, but Officials Say Keep Filling Your Blue Bins

Story by Larry Altman

The Los Angeles city sanitation truck rumbled along the Lake Balboa street, lifting and emptying the block’s blue bins just before 4 p.m.

Following a day’s worth of scavengers rummaging through the containers, whatever was left behind was headed for recycling. Or so the Forbes Avenue residents might have thought.

Thursday’s recycling haul in the east and west San Fernando Valley went to the Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Sylmar to be buried along with the day’s garbage. As an unfortunate result of the COVID-19 crisis, recycling facilities have gotten only about half of Los Angeles city residents’ blue bin contents since stay-at-home orders began in mid-March, said Enrique Zaldivar, director and general manager of LA Sanitation and Environment.

In normal times, the cardboard, plastic, cans and other recyclables would have been delivered to Athens Services in Sun Valley for processing. Athens was unable to accept recyclables Thursday as it continued to grapple with how to protect employees by using a reduced workforce, social distancing and automation, Zaldivar said.

“We are talking about a matter of life here,” Zaldivar said. “Employees must feel comfortable coming back.”

At Los Angeles County’s solid waste facilities, officials took measures in early March to protect workers at landfills in Calabasas and Scholl Canyon; materials recovery centers in Puente Hills and Downey, and a transfer station in South Gate. But by March 19, all sorting ended and recyclables headed to landfills unless haulers found alternative recycling facilities to accept the material.

Recycling bin being emptied by truck

“We really don’t want to be wasting this material which gives us revenue, but we are in a position we have to,” said Nanvit Padival, senior engineer with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District.

Padival said physical distancing to protect workers posed a challenge, and there was too much uncertainty over employees coming into contact with the coronavirus on recently used containers.

Many recycling and redemption facilities are no longer accepting cans, bottles and other materials brought in by the public. Los Angeles County also has reduced its hours of operation for recycling centers and rescheduled workers to minimize their potential exposure to the coronavirus from garbage.

“Really we are in uncharted waters,” Padival said. “There is a lot of uncertainty with COVID-19. We are taking whatever steps that are necessary to protect our workers and our staff.”

The pandemic is the latest hit to the world’s efforts to recycle. As SoCal Connected chronicled in the documentary “Life in Plastic: California’s Recycling Woes” last year, China banned the importation of many plastics and solid waste for recycling beginning in 2017 and escalated those policies to stop even more foreign waste through 2019. The policy put recycling efforts in jeopardy around the world as the United States and other nations looked for other countries to replace China.

“It worked for 25 years,” Zaldivar said. “Suddenly it disappeared. Now we are struggling even more. We must develop reliable sustainable markets within North America.”

California Environmental Protection Agency officials are still requiring cities and counties to meet state regulations for recycling. Ken DaRosa, acting director of CalRecycle, which oversees the state’s waste management, recycling, and waste reduction programs, wrote to local officials April 21 that “the current situation does not change a local jurisdiction’s obligation to implement waste reduction, recycling, and composting programs to the extent practicable while maintaining health and safety protocols.”

But he wrote, “CalRecycle wants to assure jurisdictions that our evaluation of their compliance with waste diversion and recycling regulations will consider the impacts of COVID-19 and will specifically examine their good faith efforts to meet requirements in a time of diminished capacity.”

Some Los Angeles-area facilities continue to collect recyclables from commercial and residential pickup but won’t accept anything at their door from the public.

Workers at Burbank’s recycling facility, which is owned by the city and operated by Burrtec Waste Industries, are continuing to sort and sell materials from curbside recycling programs, said Kreig Hampel, recycling director for Burbank’s public works department. Burrtec officials told the city that because its workers have always worn personal protective equipment including goggles, masks, vests, boots and arm protectors, they could continue to handle what arrived on trucks from commercial and residential pickup, Hampel said.

“What was difficult for us, was having the public come in here,” Hampel said. “We get a couple hundred people in here a day.”

With many bringing in cans and bottles collected from the street, being open to the public made enforcing social distancing, wearing masks and sanitizing surfaces difficult, he said.

“We decided we had to close to the public,” Hampel said. “That’s the sad story. So many people who do depend on this small income from bottles and cans are cut off from one of the cash economies.”

Padival agreed. Shutting down redemption at some county facilities for people who collected cans was a difficult decision because it halted a source of income for them.

“I feel for those people,” he said.

Closing redemption facilities during COVID-19 was the latest setback for bottle and can collectors seeking a small profit for their efforts. Consumer Watchdog reported that in the past five years, 40% of state-certified redemption centers had closed, with hundreds more closings expected. On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that will temporarily allow retailers to stop redemption of beverage containers in stores to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Many recycling and redemption facilities are no longer accepting cans, bottles and other materials brought in by the public during stay-at-home orders. These materials are instead going to landfills.

Zaldivar said city efforts in Los Angeles to recycle will be handled “day-to-day” throughout the stay-at-home order. Although on Thursday, recyclables from the San Fernando Valley ended up in landfills, recyclables picked up south of the Santa Monica Mountains were properly processed at two other waste facilities, including one in San Pedro, that remained open.

Processing each day will depend on whether sorting centers have the capability and workforce to do the job, Zaldivar said.

Gary Clifford, Athens Services vice president, said the company is “trying to do as much recycling as our company can without putting anybody at risk” and without violating city, state and federal orders.

Clifford said time of day, available capacity, mechanical ability to sort and process recyclables, and the number of workers available all play a part in deciding whether recyclables end up in a landfill. They also need a market.

“We are a landfill avoidance company,” Clifford said. “We want to pick up waste, recycle and reuse and then not go to landfill.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, Athens has worked to create social distancing, provide thermometers to help identify workers who might be sick, and coordinate shifts to try to handle the loads that arrive.

“We are responsible for the people we employ,”  he said. “I’m focused on trying to get people back to work safely.”

Because so many businesses are closed, overall commercial garbage collection is down, while residential is up. Sanitation agencies also have seen upticks in green waste and bulk pickup as residents stuck at home tend to their gardens, clean out their garages and perform spring cleaning.

Clifford said green waste and other non-recyclables also are ending up in blue bins. Last year, when SoCal Connected visited the Burbank Recycling Center, workers had to manually pick out plastic bags from blue bins because they are not recyclable. Even more such bags are surely headed to landfills since coronavirus prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom to suspend the state ban on grocery stores handing out single-use plastic bags.

Regardless of whether some recyclables might end up in landfills during the pandemic, officials asked the public to keep loading up the blue bins.

“It’s an investment that has taken place over the last 20 years,” Zaldivar said. “It has become a habit. We do not want it to backslide. It’s worth keeping it going.”