Larry Skinner sits on a picnic bench and smokes a cigarette, taking a quick drag every few seconds. His skin is a permanent light brown with sunburns tinting his shoulders dark red — a testament to how hot this summer has been, how hot the past 10 summers have been.
Skinner makes his living collecting cans. He became homeless several years ago after his wife died, and he moved to Lodi in 2000.
Growing up with a parent in the Air Force, Skinner has done his fair share of moving around, but now he says he's too old to walk the alleyways looking for recyclables. The 62-year-old purchases cans from friends at 80 percent of their buyback value and then takes them to a local recycling center.
He said he could make up to $50 a day if he was back on the beat, collecting for himself.
But Skinner's friends say there aren't as many recyclables as there used to be.
The economy has hit everyone hard, and a lot of people are holding onto their cans to get the buyback money, says Thomas P. Collins, 50, who makes his collection rounds daily. Collins said he can bring in up to $15 for about an hour-and-a-half of work.
Justin Caporusso, a communications manager for Waste Management, has also noticed a dip in the number of recyclables.
"The economy is starting to turn around, but waste and recycling has dropped," Caporusso said.
The Lodi Waste Management processes 566 tons of recyclables from Lodi a month. But Caporusso says the company hasn't been doing as much business compared to previous years. Economic woes have halted construction projects and locals aren't buying as many products, which means less material put out on the curb.
Waste Management is still spending the same amount of money to collect recyclables, but now gets a lower return. Those like Skinner and Collins who rummage through the bins do not help matters. Technically, their actions are illegal, but Sgt. Fernando Martinez says the Lodi Police doesn't issue many citations to can collectors. Generally, he adds, the suspect is never found or the homeowner doesn't end up pressing charges.
Yet such issues can be a problem for the recycling center's bottom line.
"Rates are based on what we expect to collect," Caporusso says. "We take a hit if commodity markets are down and volumes are down."
Overall, the company has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent drop in recyclable volume through the Central Valley Transfer Station over the past two years.
Recycling is affected by a global economy as well. Recyclables are baled and shipped off, mostly to China.
Though the influx of recyclables has lessened, the manpower needed to sort them is still high. Lodi has a three-tiered system to separate the co-mingled recyclables, which Caporusso said is a very labor-intensive process.
"People think recycling pays for itself, but it doesn't," he said.
Once a recycling bin is put out onto the curb, it is the property of Waste Management. Every week, the company sends out five trucks to collect recyclables, bringing them back to the center on Turner Road.
"The first sort is a presort," Josephine Vera, Waste Management plant supervisor, said, "which is removing any cardboard and trash."
The second sort removes mixed paper and shredded paper. Then the third sort picks out plastic, aluminum, tin and glass. From there, everything is baled and shipped, Vera says.
Despite dips in volume, the payoff for recyclables generally stays in line with market commodity prices. Each can or bottle is 5 cents if it has a CRV, or California Refund Value. Otherwise, aluminum brings in the most money at about $1.62 per pound, with PET (plastic bottles) paying off at $0.93 per pound and HDPE (e.g., laundry soap bottles) trailing in last at $0.51 per pound.
"It sounds like all we want is garbage, but our goal is to try and find value in all those materials," Caporusso said. "We want to help (cities) meet their sustainability goals."
The city of Lodi is mandated by California state law to divert at least 50 percent of its refuse from the landfill.
"We've been meeting the goal here for a long time," city spokesman Jeff Hood said, "The sustainability push is on everybody's mind."
But Skinner isn't interested in the sustainability aspect of recycling. He said he doesn't consider himself an environmentalist; he's just in the business to survive. He sees "going green" as good idea, just not the best move in this economy — an economy that keeps him supplied with recyclables and, thus, a living.
Attitudes like that make Caporusso's job harder. He said the mindset of those who make up a town has an effect on whether it's a major recycler.
"It actually has a lot to do with generational thinking, and children are kind of our best audience," he said. "It's hard when you have the mindset of the older generation, who didn't necessarily recycle as they were growing up."
Skinner says he may be disillusioned with the whole green movement, but the Lodi local added that recycling is a good way to make a living.
"(You can make a lot of money) if you've found a place that won't chase you away, and the cops won't come, and nobody has discovered it yet," he said.
Recycling at a glance
The Waste Management plant collects 20 to 30 tons of recyclables a month from their Lodi buyback center.
Lodi recycles 566 tons per month, a weight which is the rough equivalent of 230 cars.
- 22 percent is cardboard.
- 52 percent paper.
- 19 percent glass.
- 4 percent plastics.
- 3 percent metals.
For Lodi, diapers are the No. 1 contaminant thrown into recycling bins. They are not recyclable. Tissue paper, clothing, mirrors and pizza boxes are also not recyclable. Plastic milk containers, detergent containers and plastic bags are recyclable. Glass containers should be recycled with their lids removed. The numbers within the recycling sign, located on the bottom of most products, refer to the type of plastic that makes the container. For example, a number 1 is often a plastic bottle while a number 5 may be a yogurt container. The higher the number, the lower the quality of the plastic in the container.
— Sources: Waste Management; CalRecycle.