Ty Woodward recalls when members of the North Hollywood Optimist Club last year loaded bundles of old newspapers into his Dodge van, hauled them to the Woodsy Owl recycling center in Van Nuys and walked away with as much as $80 a ton.
Recycling used newsprint was so lucrative that one Optimist Club drive raised enough money to send 20 boys from Troop 3 of the West Los Angeles Council of Boy Scouts to camp for a week.
But these days, if the Optimists want to raise money, they would be wise to try something else. The same advice applies to nonprofit organizations, schools and churches throughout Southern California.
Last week, the going rate for a ton of papers at most recycling centers in the region was $20; in some places it was low as $15 a ton.
"It costs me more to take (the newspapers) out there than it pays," said Woodward, a semi-retired businessman who has been organizing newspaper drives for two years.
Woodward said he continues to make deliveries because of his commitment to the Boy Scouts. But others are finding that the payoff is not worth the effort.
"It looks like we're going to have to get our funds from somewhere else," said Mona Burkholder, a paper drive organizer at Gordon H. Beatty Elementary School in Buena Park. Last year, income from paper deliveries to a local recycling center averaged about $200, Burkholder said. The one delivery the school made this year earned $90, she said.
In Ventura County, groups that once were paid as much as $100 a ton for newspapers cannot give away the papers they have collected in curb-side bins. All over the region, more and more recycling centers are halting the practice of collecting the papers because it is not worth the trouble. Some centers have stopped accepting newspapers altogether.
Recycling center officials said the price drop is the result of what may be a long-lasting, nationwide glut of used newsprint. The reason: a proliferation of mandatory municipal recycling programs designed to save dwindling landfill space. Although cities are also affected by the price drop, their main goals are not to make money but to dispose of waste.
Most mandatory programs are concentrated on the East Coast, where the need for landfills is critical.
"The program in New York alone will stimulate 36,000 tons of paper every month," said Gary Petersen, vice president of Ecolo-Haul, a recycling firm with centers in the Los Angeles area. "That's enough to flood the world market."
In some Eastern states, Petersen said, people who have collected tons of newspaper are having to pay someone to take it off their hands.
Under the mandatory programs, municipal sanitation agencies will not pick up trash unless it is separated into recyclable and non-recyclable items. Newspapers are the major recyclable product Americans toss away, environmental experts say. The value of old newspapers, even in the best of times, is much lower than either bottles or cans, which command as much as $160 a ton. With the current glut, the pay-out for old papers is the lowest it has been in years, and it is dropping.
Some California cities already have voluntary programs, but state legislators last year began discussing mandatory, statewide recycling of newspapers as well as bottles and cans, said Chris Velez of San Jose's Office of Environmental Management. She said San Jose's voluntary program generates 1,400 tons of newspaper each month out of a total of 1,950 tons of recyclable materials.
Los Angeles has experimented on a small scale since the 1950s with voluntary recycling programs in some neighborhoods, but the city is now financing a study that could lead to a mandatory, citywide plan by this summer, said John Stodder, Mayor Tom Bradley's aide on environmental issues. Such a program, Stodder said, would involve 720,000 residences.
Stodder said the study will consider the impact of a mandatory program on newspaper collection drives by charitable groups and schools.
"Our nightmare is New York, where they just began dumping newspapers on the market and driving the price for them down to zero," Stodder said. "We are lucky in that we are in a position to learn from their mistakes."
Petersen of Ecolo-Haul said city officials and recycling industry representatives need to "sit down together and think about" what might be done to protect individuals and groups that rely on newspaper collection drives, as well as recycling firms.
One of the problems, he said, is that recycled newsprint is of a low quality and has limited uses. It mainly is reused by newspapers and in making insulation.
Jon Melkerson, manager of newsprint operations for the Los Angeles Times, said that of the 455,000 tons of newsprint The Times used last year, about 380,000 tons contained at least 50% recycled fiber. Many newspapers do not use any recycled newsprint, Melkerson said, adding that the price of newsprint made from recycled papers and regular newsprint is virtually the same.
Tom Hathaway, an inventory control supervisor for newsprint operations at The Times, said that is because of the relatively high costs of removing "garbage," such as staples, strings and wires, from old newspapers that have been returned to a pulpy state and of bleaching the ink out of them.
Times staff writers Tyler Chin in Orange County and Jesse Katz in Ventura contributed to this article.