California Must Address Its Dwindling Recycling Capacity

Mark Leary
Mark Leary served as director of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) and prior to that was executive director of the department’s predecessor, the Integrated Waste Management Board.

California has for decades led the world in recycling and in making the connection between recycling and environmental and economic sustainability. State laws and policies promulgated in Sacramento have promoted this leadership. Individual Californians have also enthusiastically embraced recycling because they know that it helps reduce pollution, fights climate-change, reduces the need for raw materials, preserves natural resources and reduces the energy used to mine and process native ores.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of California’s recycling has relied on Asian markets that are now diminished and as a result, opportunities for Californians to recycle are declining. The state has seen the closure of hundreds of recycling facilities for consumer items (bottles, cans, paper, etc.), yet residents dutifully fill their recycling bins every week, without realizing that much of this material has nowhere to go.  Trash haulers are now advising customers to discard various plastic items that were previously recycled

However, one part of the state’s recycling infrastructure – scrap-metal recycling — remains strong.  The scrap metal recycling industry has been an integral part of our recycling culture at least as long as our environmental ethic has been in place. As the largest state, and a world economic powerhouse, California industry and consumers generate vast quantities of scrap metal every single day, adding up to millions of tons per year. 

For more than 50 years, the metal-recycling industry has efficiently processed the overwhelming majority of this scrap metal each year, using a variety of safe and environmentally responsible technologies, including metal shredding, sorting and separation. It is important to note that the processes used to shred and separate scrap metal are purely mechanical and do not involve the use of any chemicals, heat, incineration or any other material or technique that could be considered hazardous, toxic or poisonous.  Over the past two decades, metal-recycling facilities have invested tens of millions of dollars in state-of-the-art environmental upgrades, all designed to minimize the environmental footprint of their facilities and to increase their ability to efficiently process this vast and increasing amount of material.

This mass of metal includes more than 1.5 million cars and other vehicles that have outlived their useful life, and consumer items such as used appliances and other metal-containing items. Under California law, recyclable scrap metal items cannot be disposed of in landfills – and even if this prohibition on disposal did not exist, all the landfills in California combined could not accommodate the huge volume of scrap metal generated in the state. 

But even this critical recycling sector is under a threat from over-regulation that, if sustained, could destroy our in-state metal-recycling infrastructure and eliminate the associated climate-change and other environmental benefits. The metal-recycling industry is already extensively regulated by numerous federal, state, regional and local authorities, including regional water boards, regional air districts, local fire departments and other entities that manage and regulate land use.  

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is now proposing to designate metal-recycling facilities as “hazardous waste treatment” facilities, requiring that they obtain hazardous waste permits and comply with an extensive set of regulations that apply to hazardous waste. But scrap metal is not a waste, let alone a hazardous waste, and has never been classified as a hazardous waste under either California or federal law. 

These facilities are not a public nuisance or health threat. Rather, they provide a vital public service, making sure that the tons of scrap metal produced every day are put to beneficial use and do not end up in our neighborhoods, streets, back alleys and vacant lots. 

The hazardous-waste regime the department is pursuing is, in my view, a classic case of over-regulation with no environmental benefit or justification. Worse, this new regulatory regime may be so onerous and uneconomical that the existing metal-recycling facilities will be forced to cease operating. Without the ability to process the millions of end-of-life vehicles, appliances and other metal items produced in the state, these materials will pile up in huge numbers.  Some of this material may be re-directed to out-of-state recycling facilities or overseas, but this is neither economical nor environmentally responsible in the long term.  State lawmakers and regulators in California cannot expect other states or countries to step in and fill the void created by enactment of our own misguided policies. 

California must urgently and seriously address the glaring and growing deficiencies in our recycling capabilities across the board. The state’s long-standing environmental policies mandate that action be taken to protect and promote these vital industries.  State government should be taking prompt and effective steps to restore and enhance recycling opportunities and capacity across all sectors, and not engage in actions that only serve to further diminish the state’s capabilities in this regard.    

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