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Recycling Can Be A Lifeline For People In LA, But Places To Do It Keep Disappearing

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Consumers sort bottles and cans at a recycling center in Eagle Rock, Aug. 9 2019. (David Wagner/KPCC)
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Under California law, you're entitled to a nickel or dime for each bottle or aluminum can you bring to a state-certified recycling center.

But in many parts of Los Angeles, it's getting harder to find any centers that will take your empties.

The state's largest recycling center chain, rePlanet, recently went out of business, closing all of its locations across the state, including dozens in L.A.

Since 2015, the number of beverage container recycling centers throughout California has declined by 46%. That number is down by 31% in L.A. County. Areas including Hollywood, Pasadena and basically the entire Westside now don't have any recycling centers.

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The rePlanet closures put 750 employees out of jobs. In a statement, rePlanet president David Lawrence said prices for aluminum and plastic have gone down, while minimum wages and other operating costs have gone up. The result, he said, was a business that was no longer sustainable.

Those recycling center closures have a much wider ripple effect, making things harder for people who rely on the income they get from recycling.

WHEN EVERY DOLLAR MAKES A DIFFERENCE

Outside a Macy's in Eagle Rock, a homeless man named Michael hauled a bag full of bottles and cans to a parking lot recycling center.

All the centers where he lives in Pasadena have shut down, and recycling is his only source of income. So Michael had to take a bus just to redeem what he'd collected.

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"A full bag is $10," Michael said. He'll typically find bottles and cans outside of gas stations.

"The gas station is my ATM," he said. He uses the money to pay for his cell phone and bus fare. His bike needed a new tire, and he said he'll only be able to fix it by turning in more recycling.

Even for those with other sources of income, recycling can help ease a tight household budget.

Jesus Adela Cazares said her family can earn up to $40 a month coming to this recycling center. Every dollar helps, especially since the monthly rent on their Highland Park apartment just went up by $100. Cazares said they could have used that $100 on other expenses.

"I'm going to school," she said. "I could have used that for book money. Or my sister, she's in high school. She could have used it for new school supplies. That's all going towards rent now."

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Cazares said she, her parents and her sister all work, but their jobs only pay minimum wage. Recycling may not pay much, but she said, "whatever money we can pull together is helpful."

With so many other centers shutting down, Cazares said she's noticed more people coming to this recycling center.

"If this one shuts down, that's like $50 a week for some people. It's sad."

WHERE ELSE CAN I RECYCLE?

Recycling advocates have been pushing the state to increase funding to prevent further closures. Some want to require supermarkets and other retailers to redeem bottles and cans in-store.

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California already has a rule that requires large retailers to redeem bottles and cans in-store if they don't have a recycling center within a half-mile radius. The penalty for non-compliance is $100.

Dozens of gas stations, pharmacies and supermarkets in L.A. redeem in-store. You can download a full list from the state recycling authority, CalRecycle, here.

Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom told KPCC's AirTalk that he thinks the state must play a bigger role in propping up the state's recycling system.

Newsom said, "It is an incredibly frustrating and vexing issue that's a little more challenging than it would appear."

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