Thomas K. Pendergast
The removal of recycling centers from the west side of San Francisco has not only made
getting deposit money directly back from recycling containers more difficult, it is also
making life harder for merchants who are now getting fined.
There are, however, two local markets that still accept recycling: the Grocery Outlet, at
6333 Geary Blvd., and Cal-Mart, at 3585 California St. Both accept cans, bottles and plastic
containers, although neither accepts paper nor cardboard for recycling.
There are also two recycling centers and one vending recycling machine in Daly City.
According to CalRecycle, the California state agency that administers and enforces
recycling laws, about 17 percent of San Francisco lies in a “served convenience
zone” (mostly on the east side of the City and the Bayview area), about 20 percent
of the City is “exempt” from the law, and 61 percent are inside “unserved
convenience zones.” The remaining two percent are convenience zones in “hold”
status, meaning they are in a transition period between a zone going from served to
unserved or vice-versa.
City officials have long claimed that San Francisco’s “blue bin” system makes recycling
centers obsolete, but CalRecycle disagrees.
The 1986 California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, a.k.a., the
California “bottle bill,” was intended to make it convenient for people to directly get the
nickel or dime back that they paid as a deposit for all aluminum cans
and glass or plastic bottles with a California Redemption Value (CRV). The blue bins do
not provide cash back to consumers.
The removal of a recycling center creates what CalRecycle calls an “unserved zone,”
which means that all the markets in that zone have to take up the slack
and provide buy-back service for CRV materials, or as an option, pay a fee of $100 per
day, or about $36,500 per year. Jose Ortiz, a deputy director at CalRecycle, told the SF
Board of Supervisors in 2015 that the blue bin curbside recycling program does not make
recycling centers obsolete or undesirable, at least not under the law.
“There’s an easy place where consumers can get their nickels and dimes back
(with recycling centers),” Ortiz said. “It’s a matter of justice in many ways;
making sure that people who paid money at the front end get it back. And recycling
centers are very good at storing and making sure that the materials are properly
Lance Klug, a spokesperson for CalRecycle, said in San Francisco’s case, none of the
“exempted” zones have anything to do with the availability of blue bins.
“All the exemptions in San Francisco have been due to the proximity to recycling centers,
not due to accessibility to curbside programs,” Klug said. “The main factor is the
customers’ ability to return their CRV beverage containers to get deposit money back.
When you start getting into curbside being a factor, it’s usually when so many people
use curbside that a recycling center can’t stay in business.”
But that is definitely not the case in this city. None of the recycling centers that have
closed down in recent years did so for lack of business. In fact, it seems
their success is what has made them targets for neighborhood groups and the
Among the many different types of citizens who use recycling centers, perhaps the most
noticeable are homeless people. Often local neighborhood groups see recycling centers
as magnets for bringing more homeless into their neighborhoods.
The first to get caught in the cross-hairs of some local neighbors was the Haight Ashbury
Neighborhood Council (HANC) recycling center, which closed at the end of 2012.
Two neighborhood groups, the Cole Valley Improvement Association and the Buena Vista
Neighborhood Association, pressured the SF Recreation and Park Department (RPD) to
get rid of the HANC recycling center because its members did not like dealing with the
homeless people it attracted. The RPD eventually granted the request and had the
department evict the recycling center at 780 Frederick St., where it had been
Since then, neighborhood complaints and city officials, like former SF Supervisor Scott
Wiener who pressured Safeway to shut down its recycling center at Church and Market
streets, have succeeded in closing recycling centers at the Safeways on La Playa in the
Outer Richmond District and on Noriega and Taraval streets in the Sunset
District. A reverse vending machine at the Safeway on Seventh Avenue and Cabrillo
Street has also been removed.
Because of these closures, the California bottle bill shifts responsibility for taking back
recycling and paying deposits to markets with annual sales of more than $2 million that
sell CRV beverage containers. This then establishes a “convenience zone” of half a mile
around each of the markets. But they often are not set up to handle large volumes of
recyclables, so many take the option of paying the $36,500 annual fee.
The establishment of a “convenience zone” also kicks the burden of recycling down to
small “mom and pop” stores, many of which cannot afford to pay the fee. And this is
where the fines start to come in.
“Once the convenience zone goes unserved, all retailers that sell CRV material, regardless
of annual sales, are responsible to either redeem in the store or pay the opt-out fee,
which is one of the main problems,” Klug said.
According to CalRecycle figures, since April, 2016, a total of 156 “Notices of Noncom-
pliance” were issued to stores in San Francisco that had filled out affidavits promising to
redeem recyclable deposits. Of those, return visits by CalRecyle investigators led to 68
Notices of Violation being issued, resulting in fines totaling $14,950 as of Aug. 24.
Klug noted that the first time CalRecycle investigators confirm a retailer is not redeeming
in store or does not have the proper signage, they receive a Notice of Noncompliance –
essentially a warning. If by the second visit it still does not comply, the businesses are
penalized $100. A third visit raises the fine to $250, a fourth to $500, a fifth to $750
and after that the fine goes up to a maximum of $1,000 for each visit that the
investigators discover the store is not in compliance with the law.
Adding to the problem even further, the value of recyclables has decreased in recent
years, according to an Aug. 4, 2017 report in the SF Chronicle newspaper.
State subsidies meant to offset the cost of recycling have not kept pace with the cost of
doing business, resulting in hundreds of recycling centers across the state closing, with
millions of plastic, aluminum and glass containers going to landfills.
In the past two years, more than 500 recycling centers have closed their doors, according
to CalRecycle. The state has seen a corresponding drop in the percentage of CRV
containers being recycled, down to 79.8 percent last year, for the first time in
nearly a decade.
Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions through the energy saved from
manufacturing new products, while reducing what ends up in landfills.
While the Grocery Outlet does buy back recyclables, it does have some rules about it.
The lids of all bottles must be removed and all materials must be in clear plastic bags.
The store will only accept up to 100 cans or bottles per person, per day,
and all people must call ahead to schedule at (415) 876-5576.
Cal-Mart has no set rules, but it does ask people to separate the five-cent deposit cans
from the 10-cent ones and to count them ahead of time to make the process