SAN RAFAEL (KPIX 5) — For 60 years, Joe Garbarino has been moving Marin’s trash, and for many of those years he could do it at a healthy profit. Not any more. Despite the fact that he recycles seventy-five percent of everything that comes in to his facility, he’s getting crushed by the weight of cheap commodity prices.
“We want to keep doing the job, and prevent it from going to the landfill, but by the same token we can’t keep doing it and not make a buck at it,” says Garbarino, who started working as a garbage man in 1948.
It’s been a little while since recycling became a way of life in California. Back then, part of the promise was that saving the planet also made economic sense, that the time, energy, and effort spent collecting recyclable waste would be worth it, because someone, somewhere, would want to buy it. For many years, that economy has worked enough to keep the cans and bottles moving.
“China wanted it, Taiwan wanted it, Hong Kong wanted it,” explains Garbarino, rattling off his primary buyers over the past two decades, and for years, that was California’s dirty little recycling secret. A lot of our waste wasn’t getting recycled here, it was just getting shipped across the Pacific Ocean, so it could be gobbled up by China’s booming economy. All of this collapsed with that boom. When China’s economy went into the dumpster, so did the price of oil, which is directly tied to the value of our used water bottles.
“When oil prices were high, they were making plastic out of plastic, now they’re making plastic out of oil. It’s like a torpedo to the mid section, and we’re going down,” says Garbarino, now faced with the increasingly difficult challenge of moving mountains of plastic that are worth less than half of what they were this time last year. In fact, we’re no longer selling our used plastic to China, we’re paying them to take it off our hands. As Garbarino explains: “They’ll take it if you pay them to take it. That’s what people need to understand.”
If recycling is in trouble here in California, the rest of the country is in a full scale crisis. Soaring costs have forced major cities like Houston to scale back curbside pick-up programs, and dozens of recycling plants have been shut down altogether, sending untold amounts of waste directly into landfills. Waste Management, the nation’s largest garbage hauler, has closed one fifth of its recycling facilities.
“That’s very telling of that this system needs to be revamped or something new needs to be in place to make it work” says Jennifer Mangold director of research at Berkeley’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability. While she certainly supports the idea of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” she says our old model of curbside recycling may be nearing the end of its natural lifespan. “If you think about sustainability you want environment, economic and social. So if it’s economically not sustainable than it’s not going to work anyway. So that’s kind of a bottom line.”
For Joe Garbarino, the bottom line means he will likely have to hike collection rates for his Marin customers, to cover the cost of moving those towers of plastic that no one wants to buy.