Opinion: Metals-Recycling Industry Is Key to California Environmental Progress

Opinion: Metals-Recycling Industry Is Key to California Environmental Progress
Miramar Recycling Center
Cans and other metal waste at the Miramar Recycling Center. Courtesy of the city

California’s environmental regulatory agencies are among the best in the world. But sometimes the state’s environmental goals and policies are incompatible, and leaders must consider the real-world impacts of their decisions.

Some industries regulated by our environmental agencies are themselves critical to achieving our environmental goals. Take, for example, the metal recycling industry. California produces tons of scrap metal every day, enough to fill our largest stadiums. This includes end-of-life cars and trucks, old household appliances, motorcycles and bicycles, boats, metal furniture and BBQs – just about anything you can think of that is made of metal.

Without the metal recycling industry, these millions of tons of scrap metal would have nowhere to go. Piling it up in streets and alleys, in vacant lots and even dumped along roads and fields would create an environmental disaster in itself. Disadvantaged communities would disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact, many of which already suffer more than their share of displacement.

My previous committee work in the state Senate involved oversight of environmental agencies, including the Department of Toxic Substances Control. Any attempt to define and regulate these scrap metal facilities as hazardous waste treatment facilities is worrisome and may be self-defeating.

State law specifically exempts scrap metal from regulation as waste because scrap metal is a recyclable and renewable resource. Approximately 70% of all metal items that consumers buy are made from recycled steel, establishing metal recycling as a critical aspect of our circular economy.

There would be many complications and negative impacts if this recycling sector were designated as hazardous waste treatment. The locations of these facilities are often in industrial or commercial areas that do not allow the processing of hazardous waste.

Additionally, the onerous requirements that would be imposed would result in facilities moving to other states because the end users of recycled metal—primarily the steel mills and smelters that turn it into new steel—are not designed to to process a certain commodity as hazardous waste.

Of course, the industry must comply with current water, air and pollution laws, and regulators must enforce them. But everyone involved can do a better job of keeping these vital industries here in California.

Otherwise, the effects on both ends of the metal recycling system would be huge.

California cannot create regulations that would result in millions of tons of end-of-life metal items going nowhere, frustrating our environmental goals of reducing waste and promoting a circular economy. Californians who are committed to recycling more and more products should be careful not to incur the potentially catastrophic consequences that would occur from designating metal recycling as hazardous waste treatment.

Former Democratic state Sen. Bob Wieckowski of Fremont chaired the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Resources, Environmental Protection and Energy. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how the California Capitol works and why it matters.

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