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So. Cal. Chronicles - Redemption For $28.69

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Not that kind of redemption. It's the amount I received for my recyclables yesterday. I'm no Ed Begley, Jr., but I try. Most of the lighting in my house except for some odd-sized lamps uses compact fluorescent light bulbs. Many of the appliances have now been replaced with Energy Star ones. I have double-paned windows to help improve insulation. On very hot or very cold days, I close off rooms. My modest compact car still gets about 35 miles to the gallon, and my next car will be a hybrid. And I separate my recyclable garbage into piles of paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum. My neighborhood has curbside pickup for recyclables, which is what I usually use. However, since the summer I decided to save up my plastic bottles and soda cans to take to a redemption center myself.

It was the last day of my husband's staycation (nope, we didn't go anywhere), and we realized that one of the errands we overlooked (party animals that we are) was taking the recycling to a center. First, I did a quick Google for centers in my area. We drove about seven miles to the closest one, which turned out to be the Public Works office of City Hall. A kindly clerk recommended a redemption center about another seven miles away in a shopping mall near a Ralph's grocery store. "It's open the most hours," he said. We drove there but couldn't find the center. We asked for directions to it at Ralph's, and the manager directed us to the spot next to the mall's Taco Bell.

The center was a small shack with two redemption machines on either side and one man with wire baskets, blue rubber garbage cans, and a scale in the middle. The lines for the machines, which give the full redemption value of 5 cents for containers under 24 oz. and 10 cents for those above 24 oz., had long lines of people with bags and bags of recyclables. The woman at one machine pushed in bottle after bottle, as they have to go in one at a time. She was surrounded by mountains of bags, which meant a long wait. And there were others behind her. The second machine had a similar situation. Someone said to us, "There's no wait if you use the scale." We thanked them and decided that even though we would receive less money for the weighed trash, it wasn't worth the time to stand in line. We waited for the one person ahead of us. It is a very humbling experience to stand next to your trash - remnants of my bottled water and my husband's caffeine-free Diet Coke. We entered our bags into the wire baskets for the weigh-in quickly, as people had lined up behind us and were antsy. Everybody brings recyclables in some sort of bag or container, but the redemption center didn't provide receptacles. Someone left several Trader Joe's bags on the ground. The man at the center yelled after her to pick up the trash.

And the clientele? Just like the demographics of my county, which consists mostly of Latinos and Anglos. These people didn't look like they were here to save the planet, to divert metal and glass and plastics from landfills for use as manufacturing feedstock, thereby reducing energy and pollution and conserving resources. They needed funds and wanted to make a few legit bucks. I thought back to when my daughter worked as a barista during her college years at our local Starbucks. Starbucks hired a woman who was living in her car until she could make first and last rent money. When the woman cleaned the store, she would take bottle and cans out of the trash. The management took her aside to tell her, "We don't do that here. It looks bad to the customers." And my husband, who runs at 4:45 a.m., often sees an elderly couple, a man and a woman, under the cover of pre-dawn go through the dumpster at the high school, collecting bottles and cans. According to the California Bottle Bill Resource Guide, Californians have an overall recycling rate of 74%. A lot of that must come from curbside pickup. The face of personal recycling is the face of the poor.

But the story doesn't end here. The man at the recycling center gave us a receipt redeemable only at the nearby Ralph's. So there we went. We tried the self-serve, but the transaction required assistance. The clerk looked it over, nodded her approval as though this was a good sum, and gave us the $28.69 in cash.