Miramar Recycling Center
Cans and other metal scrap at the Miramar Recycling Center. Courtesy of the city

California’s environmental regulatory agencies are among the world’s best. But occasionally 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 single day, enough to fill our biggest 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 items would have nowhere to go. Having it pile up in streets and alleyways, in vacant lots and even dumped along roadsides and in fields would create an environmental disaster in its own right. Disadvantaged communities would disproportionately bear the brunt of the impact, many of which already suffer from more than their share of cast-offs.

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

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

There would be numerous complications and negative impacts if this recycling sector was designated as handling hazardous waste. The locations of these facilities are often in industrial or commercial zones that don’t allow hazardous waste processing.

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

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

Otherwise, the effects at both ends of the metal-recycling system would be enormous. 

California can’t create regulations which would result in millions of tons of end-of-life metal items with nowhere to go, 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 bring about the potentially disastrous 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 California’s Capitol works and why it matters.


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Ellen Bullock