Recycling center sees big returns

COSTA MESA — Times are tough indeed.

One unorthodox financial gauge is the recycling business at Orange Coast College's Recycling Center. It's going gang-busters.

More and more people find themselves unemployed and at the steps of the student-run recycling center on Adams Avenue, hauling in pounds of plastic and glass and aluminum and paper and cardboard. They get paid for it by the pound, and many of them are becoming regulars.

In fact the economy is so bad that the recycling center turned a $140,000 profit last year, the largest in the history of the 40-year-old operation, said Mike Carey, the sustainability coordinator who runs the joint and has been working there since 1985. He said that the center on average turns an annual profit of $30,000 to $60,000.

A good portion of the $140,000 will now be turned over to OCC's Associated Student Body to be used for all sorts of academic-related items and purchases for the total good of the student population.

In some cases, student scholarships have even been doled out. One such lucky recipient is Loretta Drummond, 28, who received $1,050 to help pay for tuition.

"I have always been a big fan of the recycling center, but I never dreamed I would receive money to help put me through school," said Drummond, who graduated from OCC with an Associate of Science degree in Ornamental Horticulture and has been accepted to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she will work toward a bachelor's degree in Landscape Architecture.

And the choice of scholarship would seem logical.

Drummond said she plans to promote the environment in her future endeavors. For the past three years, she's worked at The Plant Nerd, Inc. in Huntington Beach. Her task focuses on designing residential landscapes that reduce water usage and prevent urban runoff.

Like tin cans and plastic bottles of water, water too can be recycled.

When you think about it, just about anything can be recycled, for that matter, if one takes the time out to become a steward of the land and air and sea.

And yet, as much as Carey loves to see the recycling center operate at a fast clip, at time it can also be a bittersweet moment at times, seeing some of the impoverished regulars haul in the recyclables on a daily basis for a payout.

"This lousy economy is definitely motivating people," said Carey, who, after more than two decades in the business will be teaching a course this fall online called "Introduction to Environmental Sustainability."

But these days, in the heat of the summer, Carey has no other option but to tend to the 400 tons of plastic and aluminum dropped off at the center on a monthly basis. And there, a $70,000 monolithic, almost archaic-looking baler condenses all the recyclables into more manageable and saleable material, which Carey then sells on the open market.

If you're wondering where your plastic bottles go, Carey said much of it goes to China, then back to the United States in the form of some plastic toy or any of the other products the Chinese happen to specialize in.

All of those aluminum cans, from soda pop to beer and beyond? A vast majority is sold to Anheuser-Busch and they become Bud and Bud Lights.

All that paper, those scraps and receipts you keep and tear up or shred in fear of identity theft? It makes its way to a paper mill in Pomona, then reappears again in the form of newsprint, making articles such as these possible.

For the record, Carey hates to sell the recyclables overseas, so he always sees it as a small, local American victory when he manages to find a buyer within striking distance of Orange County.

For example, a few months ago, he found a company in the city of Perris in Riverside County that buys plastic — and it will eventually be recycled and found in just about anything that's polyester, including those popular working-class pants, "Dickies."

Just as fascinating as the end destinations (if there is such a thing, for everything can continue to be recycled) is the sort of stuff that the 46-year-old Carey ends up laying his hands on.

Without question, the images are a blast from the past.

"One guy brought in one of those old gigantic wooden console television sets the other day," said Carey. "You know, the kind where you used to turn on as a kid and have to wait about a minute or two before the screen even lit up."

As for all the electronic parts, including those old bulky computers, even they are monuments to the advent of the computer age, a piece of nostalgia just sitting in the center's yard, its metal and silver scraps something of a commodity in China these days, Carey said.

Next up is the 40 solar panels that will soon generate the entire operation.

"I like to say that each panel represents each year we've been here," he said. "We like to practice what we preach. I live it. I'd have a hard time teaching it if I didn't believe in it."

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