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Seeking Full Redemption

By Phil Wayne
Staff Writer

July 24 -- The tired wheels of Ron Browning’s overworked shopping cart squeak loudly as he rolls into the Santa Monica Recycling Center, bulging bags of aluminum cans and plastic containers swinging to-and-fro off the sides.

The 48-year-old with piercing blue eyes and salty moustache will turn in his daily treasure of clanking recyclables for thirty bucks, maybe more. This is, Browning says, his “only income.” He depends on it.

Along with many thousands of other Californians, Browning recycles the beverage containers he collects and redeems them for their California Refund Value (CRV) -- four cents for the smaller ones, eight cents for each that held 24 ounces or more.

Ron Browning (Photos by Phil Wayne)

At least, that’s how much he should get back.

But is he getting his money’s worth? Maybe not. For Browning, achieving full redemption won’t be easy.

An investigation by The Lookout found that those who redeem their bottles and cans are often unaware of how a simple decision, such as whether to recycle by count or by weight, could earn them a much bigger payday at the recycling center.

In fact, many consumers get back only a portion of the actual CRV value for containers that they recycle. A few receive full value or better, while still others – many of whom recycle only for the good of the environment – get no money at all.

It depends on what consumers know, where they recycle, how much time they are willing to spend and, too often, how much they need the money.

Browning can definitely use the money.

Unfortunately, Browning doesn’t know that even more precious dollars might be earned if the containers he finds were recycled individually, by count, as opposed to using the more common by-weight method prevalent at many recycling centers.

“It doesn’t always work out as well by the pound as by count,” says Rudy Martin, supervisor at the recycling center.

For example, 100 empty Gerstel Brau beer bottles will garner only about $2.90 by weight, but will fetch $4.00 by count.

On such a small scale, it may not seem important whether one receives three cents per container or four. But multiply such differences by the billions of containers recycled each year in California, and the pennies add up dramatically -- both for the homeless who depend on each recycling dollar, as well as for large recycling companies.

The Lookout recycled thousands of containers at Santa Monica Recycling as well as other recycling centers. Considerable differences were found in the refund amounts received when recycling identical loads by weight and then by count.

Better by count on left.

Of the 16 different sizes and types of glass and plastic bottles recycled in the investigation, 11 returned greater refunds by count than by weight.

Yet, despite their frequent visits, many recycling center regulars such as Browning are oblivious to the disparity. Although he can rattle off the approximate prices paid out for a pound of CRV containers, he doesn’t know their individual value.

Browning hazards a guess: “These are like, 3 cents each,” he says, pointing to a plastic bottle. “Maybe less. Maybe 2 cents.” He’s not sure.

Hydi Invencion is also in the dark when it comes to the true value of her bottles and cans or how the State’s recycling program works.

“I see (CRV) being rung up” at the market, the native of Guam says as she tosses another armload of cardboard and paper into one of the center’s drop-off bins.

“But,” adds Invencion, who has a masters degree, “I never understood it.”

Hydi Invencion

In theory, California’s recycling program is simple: You pay a deposit on beverage containers when you buy them; you receive that deposit back when you recycle them.

Recycling by count -- the most fair and accurate method -- is time-consuming not only for the patron, but also for the recycling center attendant. The State therefore requires that centers count only 50 containers of each material type, including glass, plastic or aluminum.

The rest are usually redeemed by weight, using per-pound rates set by the Department of Conservation’s Division of Recycling.

But since CRV containers come in thousands of sizes, shapes and materials, their weights can vary considerably, and therein lays the problem.

An empty bottle of Miller weighs less than seven ounces, while a bottle of Westmalle Belgian beer tips the scale at almost twice that. By weight, each returns a different refund amount.

Better by weight on right.

In general, consumers are better off recycling by count if the containers are smaller and lighter, which means more per pound. However, if they are larger and heavier (i.e., fewer per pound), recycling by weight will generally net a larger refund.

Yet the option to recycle by count is often not mentioned by recycling center attendants, and many of those interviewed weren’t aware of it.

Patrons such as Invencion simply plop their recyclables on the scale and accept whatever is paid.

“They just do it by weight,” says Invencion, who was surprised to hear of the choice. “They’ve never asked” if she wanted to recycle by count instead, she adds.

But the Allan Company -- which runs the Santa Monica Recycling Center under contract with the City -- is “willing to count a reasonable number of beverage containers above and beyond what is required” by law, according to an email from the corporate office to The Lookout .

“We want to make it fair,” says Martin, the facility supervisor.

Deciding beforehand which items will be recycled by count or by weight may become a necessity for Invencion, who wants to become a savvier recycler.

“I’m going to be a starving student,” she says, explaining that she is set to enter nursing school and will need whatever extra cash recycling may provide.

As for Browning, he is happy to get whatever he can, regardless of recycling method.

Does he feel he gets his money’s worth at the center? “Oh yeah,” he says, sorting his cargo of water bottles and aluminum cans into rolling, color-coded bins.

“They’re very good…very fast; very efficient,” he adds.

Patron sorts his recyclables.

Soon, Browning will have an empty shopping cart and a pocketful of cash.

As the ever-present forklifts rumble loudly around the center, their constant beep-beep-beep providing counterpoint to the chink-chink-chink of breaking bottles and tumbling cans, Browning leaves the cashier’s window for the umpteenth time.

“I’ll be doing this again,” he says, rolling his cart down Delaware Avenue. “I’ll start all over right now.”


The Lookout has compiled a comprehensive list of recycling strategies, web links and contact info as well as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s)

This is part of an ongoing series on recycling

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