By Nicole Hayden, THE PALM SPRING DESERT SUN
August 15, 2019
Starr Thornton was tired from the heat. She felt sticky with summer sweat. She apologized for the needs she wished she didn’t have. She had tried to collect more bottles to return, but her body hurt.
On Sunday, the 39-year-old woman was resting on a dusty blanket next to a bus stop in Indio, the same place she sleeps each night. It’s within walking distance of the U Save Market and the Venture Recycling Group, both around the corner from Calhoun Street and Highway 111.
She pointed to a black trash bag hanging off her grocery cart. It was about a third full of returnable bottles — sleeping near a recycling center had its perks.
When she’s hustling to collect recyclables that were absentmindedly thrown into trash bins and dumpsters, she can earn up to $250 a month.
But the summer sun slows her hustle.
With California’s largest recycling center operator shut down, individuals like Thornton will have a harder time accessing recycling centers — the sole income source for some and, like Thornton, an extra source for those scraping by on disability payments.
Ontario-based rePlanet shuttered Aug. 5, closing 284 of its centers across California and laying off 750 employees.
In the Coachella Valley, the company operated nine recycling centers. According to CalRecycle, there are at least 13 other recycling centers owned by other companies still operating in the local desert.
An honest hustle
On good days, Thornton would typically wind her way down Highway 111 on a bicycle, stopping at apartment buildings along the way to dig through trash bins — those were the best places to quickly find a bulk of discarded bottles and cans.
Traveling down Highway 111 also made it easy to hit multiple redemption centers in a single afternoon, which was necessary because the centers have limits on how much can be returned each day. State law says centers only have to pay customers for up to 50 of any single type of bottle per day. For example, a customer could bring in 50 aluminum cans, 50 glass bottles, 50 plastic bottles and 50 bi-metal cans, but not 200 of one type of bottle or can.
Two of the centers Thornton would stop at — the Stater Bros. along Highway 111 in La Quinta and the one in Indio — both closed with rePlanet's announcement, meaning her path is more dispersed.
She predicts this will have a ripple effect within the homeless community.
“It’s one way I found people can make it in life, regardless,” she said. “It’s a go-to hustle that is honest. I have a friend in his 60s that rides his bike for miles all over to collect and get to the centers and it makes him beyond exhausted. The closures will hurt people.”
The closures will make is more difficult for individuals who lack reliable transportation to travel to the remaining centers, said Arlene Rosenthal, director of Well in the Desert, a daytime resource center in Palm Springs for individuals who are homeless. She said many of her clients get around by walking, riding a bicycle or the bus.
"Recycling is one of the biggest things our clients do," Rosenthal said. "People often ask me how our clients can afford cellphones and this is the way they are able to. Their phone bill is what many spend their earnings on. And that cellphone is almost as important as food because it is the one thing most homeless people have that keeps them in touch with life and reality. It allows them to look for work or call a doctor."
“I guess an effect of this is there will be less homeless people coming to the grocery stores. They wanted to get rid of us anyways.”
Most glass bottles, plastic bottles and aluminum cans less than 24 ounces will bring home 5 cents each; bottles 24 ounces or larger are worth 10 cents.
What individuals earn varies. Thornton said she’s watched some of her friends make up to $600 in a month. Once, she even made $98 on a single day.
Mo Montoya, who was sitting in front of the Ralph’s on Highway 111 in Palm Springs surrounded by a mountain of garbage bags filled with bottles, said he typically makes about $225 a month recycling. When he was younger and more agile, he made about $600 a month.
The 57-year-old man said he got lucky after Splash House weekend and filled about a dozen bags after digging through the trash of local hotels. On Tuesday night, he was waiting for a friend to pick him up to drive him to a recycling center because it was too far to push his three grocery carts. He hoped to make enough in returns to make a profit after paying his friend for gas.
“It’s the hustle, you know,” Montoya said. “I guess an effect of this is there will be less homeless people coming to the grocery stores. They wanted to get rid of us anyways.”
But while there’s business to be had in returning bottles, the business of owning recycling centers is a dwindling one.
Recycling business hurting
RePlanet’s closure wasn’t the first sign of trouble. Three years ago, the company closed 191 of its recycling centers and laid off 278 employees. The company launched seven years ago and was the state’s largest can and bottle collector at grocery stores.
In a statement, rePlanet blamed the reduction in state fees, the falling prices of recyclables and the rise in operating costs spurred by minimum wage increases and the requirement to provide health and workers compensation insurance.
Advocates have urged the state to reform how it subsidizes recycling centers to account for rising operating costs as the prices of aluminum and plastic continue to fall.
However, public records show that rePlanet received nearly $25 million from the state last year, according to an investigation by CalMatters, a nonprofit online news service. The payment came from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery: $10.4 million for processing payments, $13.7 million for handling fees and $738,661 for administrative fees.
RePlanet received nearly 16% of the $66 million in overall processing payments the state made in 2018, and 28.5% of the $48 million the state paid in handling fees to recyclers that operate in grocery store parking lots, according to the CalMatters investigation.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators also included an extra $5 million in the 2019-20 budget to help redemption center companies like rePlanet offset their costs.
Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that studies California’s recycling industry, estimated that more than 40% of all recycling centers in the state have closed in the past five years.
China and other countries have started limiting the recyclables they will accept, making it more expensive for the U.S. to recycle. For years, California came to rely on foreign nations to process the recyclables into new products for global sale. This is largely how cities met state and federal recycling mandates.
In 2016, though, China enacted its Green Fence policy, restricting what kind of materials that could be imported and limiting contaminated plastics, fibers and paper. Soon after, China set a 0.5% contamination threshold. Other countries have mimicked China's policy. These countries want to focus on cleaning up their local environment by supporting domestic recycling instead of accepting contaminated foreign materials that are difficult to recycle.
Consumer Watchdog said the closures mean more containers made of aluminum and polyethylene will end up in landfills.
“People don’t realize we are doing so much more than making money for ourselves,” Thornton said. “So many people just through their recyclables away."