In his 14 years in the disposal business, Ronald Ektarian has seen just about every kind of person pass through his chain-link gates and unload aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastic, newspapers and anything else they figure might be worth recycling.
"We get people in everything from Rolls-Royces to Cadillacs to people who walk off the street," said Ektarian, a third-generation disposal man who operates Hi Waste Disposal Co. in Artesia.
But sometime during the last eight months, Ektarian began seeing something new: greater numbers of people carting more and more recyclables--especially glass and plastic beverage containers--to his disposal company.
That trend was evident Tuesday. Though Ektarian called the day a slow one, cars filed in and out of Hi Waste's yard nonstop. Fifteen minutes before closing, a line of about eight cars stretched out onto Arkansas Street, drivers waiting impatiently for the driver ahead of them to get recyclables weighed, get paid and get moving.
Throughout southeast Los Angeles County, most of Ektarian's colleagues and competitors in the rapidly expanding recycling industry said they have seen a similar boom in business--a phenomenon underscored by newly released state Department of Conservation statistics. Statewide, the agency reports a 50% increase in the volume of glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers recycled the first six months of this year, in contrast with the same period last year.
"We have definitely seen a major upswing in volume," said Ron Schweitzer, the president of Mobile Recycling Co., which operates centers throughout Southern California, including 11 in southeast Los Angeles County.
At his company's southeast centers, Schweitzer said, the volume of glass and plastic beverage containers has tripled since January, and the volume of aluminum cans being recycled has climbed steadily.
Schweitzer's company also accepts newspapers, tin cans, milk jugs and paper and plastic grocery bags. He reported that the volume of each of these items has also increased significantly.
"Every month, we are doing more (business) than we've ever done before," added Richard Graff, assistant general manager of ENVIPCO California Inc., a corporation that owns about 40 vending machines that allow customers to deposit aluminum, plastic and glass beverage containers in the Southeast area.
He said that from January to July, the volume of aluminum being recycled at the reverse vending machines in the Southeast increased by 3 1/2 times, and the volume of plastic beverage containers soared fivefold.
Lee Johnson, vice president for government affairs for the 20/20 Recycle Center, which owns seven Southeast centers, said his company has also noted a surge since the beginning of the year.
Schweitzer, Graff, Johnson and other industry experts attribute the recycling spurt to a confluence of factors:
* A change in state law that in January raised the payoff on recycled beverage containers from 1 cent per container to two containers for a nickel.
* Greater environmental awareness, stemming in large part from the extensive media attention given to Earth Day earlier this year.
* Witty TV ad campaigns paid for by the state.
Industry experts said the increase in state payments for beverage containers has brought out more people who recycle primarily for economic reasons. And it has made the practice more profitable for such people as Robert Tiscareno, who has been recycling for years.
"There is money out there if you look for it," said Tiscareno, 69, a retired meat cutter who keeps a tattered record of his recycling transactions and estimates that he has made $5,000 in the last six years through recycling.
"One day I went out and found some water faucets, brought them back here and took home $28. I wasn't even out 10 minutes, and I came back and made money." the Norwalk resident said.
Craig Simpson, 21, a Cerritos resident, said every day after he gets off work at a nearby Carl's Jr., he drives through neighborhoods and around parks, hunting for recyclable materials.
Simpson said he takes his finds to Ektarian just about every day, and on a good day he can take home $30.
"It's a little extra money," Simpson said. "It helps pay the bills."
Along with the growing number of people who recycle for economic reasons, the focus on Earth Day this year--together with all the negative publicity surrounding oil spills, air pollution, rapidly filling landfills and contaminated water--has spurred more people to recycle for ecological reasons, experts said.
For 20 years, Cal State Long Beach has operated a recycling center that does not pay its patrons. Those who want to recycle simply drive up a ramp and unload newspaper, glass, plastic, tin and cardboard into huge garbage bins. Staff members said every year business gets better, but during the last year things really picked up.