In Arizona, Shipping Aluminum Cans Out-Of-State Is Big Business

May 26, 2014

In a memorable episode of “Seinfeld,” Kramer and Newman fill up Newman’s mail truck with bottles and cans collected in New York and head for Michigan — where the return deposit is a nickel higher.

Well, unlike Michigan, Arizona doesn’t have a return deposit for containers — but that doesn’t mean its bottles and cans aren’t worth something, somewhere.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, KJZZ’s Alexandra Olgin reports.

Reporter

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson. Remember that "Seinfeld" episode, the one where Kramer and Newman fill up Newman's mail truck with bottles and cans collected in New York and then head for Michigan where the return deposit is a nickel higher?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

SEINFELD AND RICHARDS: (Singing as Jerry Seinfeld and Kramer) Nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine bottles of cans in the truck, 9,999 bottles in cans at 10 cents a bottle and 10 cents a can we're pulling in $500 a man.

HOBSON: Unlike Michigan, Arizona doesn't have a return deposit for containers. But that doesn't mean its bottles and cans aren't worth something somewhere. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, KJZZ's Alexandra Olgin explains.

ALEXANDRA OLGIN: Workers at C's Recycling in Phoenix are unloading wire bins of empty aluminum cans.

CESAR CASTENADA: We use that table to sort it, and it all ends up here. And then we throw it into that hopper.

OLGIN: Owner Cesar Castenada says he got those cans from individual collectors looking for a little extra money. After the aluminum goes through the hopper, 60-pound bags are loaded onto semi-trucks.

The aluminum beverage cans you buy here.

CASTENADA: And we sell them in California.

OLGIN: Castenada says he sells about 5,000 pounds of aluminum a week. He buys the cans in Arizona for up to $1.30 per pound and sells them in California for nearly $1.60. That's a 20 cent per pound profit.

CASTENADA: Right now we, as a scrap yard, we sell to another scrap yards. You know, we don't know what they do with their cans. But obviously they sell that as a CRV.

OLGIN: CRV is California Redemption Value. When a can is purchased in California, a 5 cent deposit is paid to the state. When that can is recycled, the person gets that money back. Just take a can of beer and check out the top. You'll see the initials of the states that will accept it for deposit printed there.

RICH GORDON: You don't know where they're sold. You don't know where it's been produced. So if you're a state who has a redemption program, you can be stuck on this.

OLGIN: That's California Democratic Assemblyman Rich Gordon. He says this can lead to recycling fraud. He wants to hold both the buyers and sellers of these cans accountable.

GORDON: We would be able to fine an individual who brings the material in and knows that it's from some other place. And we would be able to have some penalty against a big recycling center.

OLGIN: This is a big problem for California. Gordon says the state pays out nearly $40 million each year for cans that were recycled in California but never purchased there. More than 50 people were arrested for recycling fraud in the last two years. And Gordon is sponsoring a bill that would allow the state's recycling program to suspend or shut down companies illegally buying out-of-state cans.

MARK OLDFIELD: The difficulty is there's nothing illegal about transporting the material.

OLGIN: He is a spokesman for California's recycling program. He says because it's not against the law to bring the metal across state lines, the fraud is hard to stop.

OLDFIELD: That's an interstate commerce issue. There's nothing we can do to stop people from transporting it. It's only illegal when they take it to a recycling center and claim California redemption value for it.

OLGIN: Doing so could result in fines and up to a year in jail. Back at C's Recycling, owner Cesar Castenada watches as workers scurry around the warehouse. They're carrying trash bags of aluminum cans slung over their shoulders. Castenada says even though his business hurts California, it helps Arizonans.

CASTENADA: We have the homeless that feed from this, a lot of families that recycle their cans, and they make good money. I mean, you see they get $1.30. So they're happy with that price, and it helps them.

OLGIN: And this whole issue of exporting aluminum brings up another question - is it even worth recycling your can if it's put on a carbon-polluting truck and shipped out of the state? The answer is yes. Experts say the process of making a new can produces 20 times more emissions than recycling one. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Alexandra Olgin in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.