Most people who visit Long Beach inevitably notice the large purple recycling carts sitting curbside, near homes or maybe just during a scene from the Academy Award-winning film “La La Land.” The Long Beach Environmental Services Bureau (ESB) estimates there are about 120,000 purple trash carts in the city, with an equal number of the gray trash carts. The city also has more than 1,000 public litter cans (PLCs) throughout the city. The company behind the production of these trash receptacles, and the creation of what is now known in the industry as “Long Beach Purple,” is Vernon-based Rehrig Pacific Company.
Rehrig Pacific Company produces the rolling trash and purple recycle carts for the Long Beach Environmental Services Bureau (ESB) to be distributed to Long Beach residents. The company also produces the more than 1,000 public litter cans dispersed throughout the city. Pictured from left: Erin Rowland, waste diversion officer for the Long Beach Public Works Department; Diko Melkonian, ESB manager; Leigh Behrens and Elisa Calderon, ESB recycling specialists; and Brad Gust, environmental sales manager for Rehrig. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Brandon Richardson)
“We were founded in 1913. We started in the wooden battery box industry, if you can call it an industry at that time,” Brad Gust, environmental sales manager for Rehrig, said. “Today we service 11 different industries, the waste and recycling industry just being one of those. It’s a large portion of our business but we also do automotive, emerging markets, Pepsi, Coke, the bakery industry – a lot of those guys are common customers of ours.”
Gust said an injection molding process is used to make the standard trash and recycling carts utilized by residents throughout the country. He explained that the company will produce around 3.8 million carts this year alone in five of its domestic facilities nationwide. The main containers take between 70 and 85 seconds to make, according to Gust, with the lids taking half that time.
Rehrig, and the environmental industry as a whole, are focused on “closing the loop.” For the Los Angeles company, this is done by purchasing millions of pounds of recycled plastic (also known as post-consumer resin or PCR) in the form of pellets from Talco Plastics Inc.’s post-consumer division in Long Beach. Currently, carts contain about 30% PCR and 70% new high-density polyethylene (HDPE or No. 2 plastic), which equates to more than 60 million pounds of recycled products being used by Rehrig this year.
“That laundry detergent bottle that you threw away last month could be in another cart that’s delivered in another month or two back to the city. And the carts, as they expire, get used as well. At the end of their useful life, the products that we make are 100% recyclable,” Gust said. “So it’s completely sustainable. Once you get so many turns, if it doesn’t meet the quality standards to go in a cart, we can throw that in our other products that don’t necessarily have the rigors that the carts face – Pepsi and Coke pallets, we do beer kegs.”
The amount of recyclable material used in the containers is not higher due to the stress put on the carts by the automated trash trucks during collection. Gust said that the containers are guaranteed for 10 years, which requires the current ratio of new and recycled plastics. He explained that certain recycled plastics are more desirable because they give the carts more elasticity, which is crucial for longevity against the automated trucks clamps.
In addition to removing plastics from the waste stream through utilizing recycled materials, Gust noted that these environmental practices generate jobs and tax revenue for Long Beach and surrounding cities. Also, while using recycled materials does have some economic benefits for Rehrig, Gust said they are minimal due to the amount of money necessary to wash, grind, pelletize and transport such massive quantities of plastic.
Plastics other than HDPE, including polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, do not have as strong a domestic market when it comes to recycling, according to Diko Melkonian, ESB manager. These plastics have been shipped to China to be recycled for other uses, however, Melkonian explained, China is looking to stop this practice. He said this is partially the reason many municipalities are exploring methods to reduce plastic waste, such as the Long Beach City Council’s recent decision to move forward with a ban on Styrofoam.
The ESB is looking to revamp the PLCs citywide by replacing bins as part of the Long Beach Clean Team initiative.
“As part of the city’s clean team initiative, which is a program to clean up and beautify the city, we intend to switch them out and get prettier ones out there,” Melkonian said. “We have gone through and inventoried what’s out in the field and the next step will be to look at if there are other appropriate places to set out some more litter containers. We’re not looking at it from a number perspective but more of a need, so we’ll go out and assess certain neighborhoods and see what the need is there.”
The PLCs are also emptied by automated trash trucks with large clamps, which makes placing them difficult as the location cannot have any obstructions, such as parked vehicles. Melkonian explained that this is why bus stops are the most common placement for the public trash cans, as well as the high volume of foot traffic. PLCs do not have wheels, as the residential carts do, but instead have a heavily weighted bottom to ensure they are not moved by the public. A by-product of this safety measure is that the cans cannot be moved to clear them of an obstruction blocking the truck’s clamp.
According to the ESB, in 2016, 162,428 tons of trash were picked up on residential routes, 20,008 tons on commercial routes and 612 tons on PLC routes. All recycling route collections in 2016 combined came to 28,236 tons.
While many municipalities adopted blue as the color to represent recycling carts, Rehrig’s Jack Weber developed the nationally recognized Long Beach Purple. Gust said Weber recounts going through 20 different versions and many jokes about Barney the dinosaur before landing on the finished product that was used when the city first introduced the 18-gallon recycling bins.
“Then the industry realized that if we made it easier on people they would do more. So the rolling cart is much bigger,” Melkonian explained. “If I remember correctly, when we moved from the bins to the rolling carts, in that first year we saw something like a 70% increase in recyclables.”
Currently, Long Beach is the only city to use the color, but Gust said he still gets asked by industry folk in Florida, New York and Chicago, among others, if the company still makes the “crazy color purple.”