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Scavengers May Be Only People Profiting In Current Recycling Market

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- In the dead of night, five nights a week, a man we'll call "Daniel" goes to work at a San Francisco Dumpster.

"At least we're not out robbing people, breaking into cars, anything like that," he explained as he pulled a hand-built trailer through the city alley.  Actually, Daniel goes to work inside the Dumpster - harvesting bottles and cans from the drinks provided at one of the city's well-known tech companies.

Glancing up at the office building he notes that on "20 of the floors, all these drinks are free, every day."

While it's not exactly legal, the nighttime scavengers that comb through city recycle bins are cashing in on a market every Californian is paying for.

"Because when you buy these drinks in the store, you, the customer, you're already paying for it," said Daniel as he pulled hundreds of empty drink bottles out of the dumpster and on to his trailer.

It's easy to forget, but since 1987, California has encouraged and subsidized recycling with the California Redemption Value deposit. It is something everyone pays because California decided that recycling is just worth it.

For scavengers like Daniel, the game is all about weight. At the recycling center, the entire haul will land on scale. That weight then translates into cash.

From there, the economics of recycling get even messier for everyone.

Commodity prices are also in the Dumpster these days, meaning the resale value of recyclable materials is down dramatically.

For scavengers in the streets, however, the refund value remains unchanged.  So the recycling center is left managing tons of plastic that's only worth the state reimbursement you paid for - meaning the profit margin here is effectively zero.

"It's really, really, really, difficult to stay in business," explained Ors Csaszar, who runs Our Planet Recycling in San Francisco.

The same goes for many municipal recycling programs, forced by law to collect plastic that's now almost impossible to sell.

"In California, we're mandated. We the people are mandated to do this," says Joe Garbarino of Marin Recycling.

Since you also subsidize recycling through your garbage bill, you can expect that cost to rise as recycling collapses.

"Yeah, currently, we're only looking at the economics, and those aren't even working," said Jennifer Mangold at UC Berkeley's Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability.  She says that keeping our current recycling model going under the weight of cheap commodities won't be cheap.

"It'll have to be funded somehow, by consumers or legislation, or government agencies, somehow it will have to be funded to make economic sense," said Mangold.

So the concept of recycling ends up back at its very foundation, and faced with a question: if recycling really is worth it, how much more are people willing to pay if the current system can't help pay for itself?

Of course, someone is still making money during recycling's downward spiral, and that would be Daniel.

"$1,000 a week, $48,000 a year. Is that worth three hours of my time every night? 48 grand tax-free per year?" asked Daniel. "Definitely."

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