You're supposed to get five cents for every aluminum can you turn in, but a 7 On Your Side investigation reveals that it doesn't always work out that way. We took the same set of cans to three different recycling centers and what we found out left us asking a lot of questions.
The state says the percentage of cans redeemed seems to increase as the economy worsens.
"Over the last three years, the percentage has risen from 67 percent in 2007 to 74 percent in 2008, and it was 85 percent for the first six months of 2009," Mark Oldfield with Cal Recycle says.
Chris Brown of San Jose is an avid recycler. He figures he goes to the recycling center three times a month.
"My hours have been reduced at work. So, I'm kind of looking at ways to make money," he says.
Brown keeps track of how many cans he takes in and he expects to get a certain amount back each time. We recently watched him go through his usual routine at a recycling center in Sunnyvale. He put his cans into 10 piles of 10, then stashes 100 cans each in five different bags.
He contacted 7 On Your Side when he noticed the math just wasn't adding up.
"I've got 500 cans, and if you go five cents times 500 cans, that should be $25," he said.
However, he says he often gets $2 to $3 less than that. He invited 7 On Your Side to go along on his recycling trip. At the first stop in Sunnyvale, a worker said he would get $22.06 for his cans.
He took the exact same set of cans to his next stop just a few miles down the road and a worker said he would get $24.10.
Then, in Santa Clara, a worker said he would get $23.94 back.
State law sets the recycling redemption rate at five cents for any aluminum can less than 24 ounces. Recycling centers can also pay you at the rate of 1.57 a pound. The state says the payout should be the same under either method.
"The aluminum weight per pound should exactly reflect, or almost exactly reflect, that five cents per can," Oldfield says.
However, it didn't work out that way for Brown. What troubles him the most is that three different scales came up with three different weights for the same set of cans.
"That tells me perhaps the scales are not calibrated exactly the same," Oldfield says.
Santa Clara County Weights and Measures says it last inspected the two scales in Sunnyvale in December 2008. The scale in Santa Clara was last inspected in May 2009. NexCycle owns all three of the recycling centers we visited.
"One of the things we also do when we get complaints of underweight or underpaid, we also do undercover buys to make sure we are getting proper weights," says NexCycle Vice President Mike Rezonnico.
He says the scales are calibrated to give measurements in increments of 5/100ths a pound, and says those increments can account for the differences in weight.
"There are scale graduations. The scales are .05, so when that crosses over, it depends on when that scale crosses over from one point to 1.05," he says.
He wanted to make good on whatever Brown felt he was shorted, so Brown got his $3 and a little bit more.
"We felt bad that Chris had to go through this and we wanted to give him another $20 bill to go along with the $3," Rezonnico said.
If you're unhappy with the price per pound you're offered, you have the right to ask to be paid "by the can" up to 50 cans each time. If you have more than that, you can come back later with the next 50 cans or go to the end of the line.
Brown has filed a complaint about the scales with the Santa Clara County Weights and Measures Department.