by Thomas K. Pendergast
A bill now sitting on California Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, waiting for his signature, might
bring recycling centers back to San Francisco’s west side, after they were thrown out
by the combined weight of city policy and neighborhood groups.
California state Sen. Scott Wiener is sponsoring SB-458, which would set up three-year
“pilot” programs in up to five locations across the state, including San Francisco, which
would essentially restructure the way recycling centers on the west side of town are run.
It authorizes CalRecycle, the state agency that enforces recycling laws, to create the
recycling pilot programs, which will allow San Francisco to use “mobile” recycling
If the governor signs SB-458, mobile recycling programs will qualify as full recycling
centers under California law, thus relieving small grocery stores of having to accept
recycling for redemption.
The mobile recycling programs can include unmanned reverse-vending machines or
temporary locations that are open one or two days per week, for at least six hours per
day, at each location.
“California has long been a leader in pushing aggressive recycling goals,” Wiener said in
a press release. “However, our state recycling law is over 30 years old, and what worked
in the 1980s doesn’t necessarily work today. Various cities, including San Francisco, have
seen mass closures of recycling centers – creating major problems for small grocery
stores – and we need more flexibility to meet our ambitious recycling and
waste reduction goals. SB-458 will allow cities to implement innovative mobile recycling
programs that both improve collection efforts and protect our local businesses from
being unfairly penalized.”
For several years now, SF Mayor Ed Lee’s office has claimed that San Francisco’s
“blue bin” curbside recycling system makes recycling centers “obsolete.” CalRecycle,
however, does not, and never has, recognized that system as a substitute for the law,
mainly because consumers cannot get their nickel or dime deposits back that
they paid when they bought their beverages.
According to CalRecycle figures, since April, 2016, a total of 156 “notices of
noncompliance” were issued to stores in San Francisco that had filled out affidavits
promising to redeem deposits on recyclables. 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.
The first time CalRecycle investigators confirm a retailer is not redeeming recyclables 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 business
is 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.
City’s recycling centers in downward spiral
The recent downward spiral for local recycling centers began with the closing of the
Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC) recycling center in Golden Gate Park
in 2012, after the Cole Valley Improvement Association and Buena Vista Neighborhood
Association pressured the SF Recreation and Park Department (RPD) to get rid of it
because the neighbors did not like dealing with the noise and homeless people
Since then, neighborhood complaints and city officials, like former SF Supervisor
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 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
Because of these closures, the 1986 California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter
Reduction Act (a.k.a., the Bottle Bill) shifts responsibility for taking back recycling and
redeeming deposits to markets with annual sales of more than $2 million that sell CRV
beverage containers. But those stores are often not set up to handle large volumes of
recyclables, so many take the option of paying $36,500 in annual fees to evade
Under the Bottle Bill, any beverage dealer, whether a supermarket or a corner store, that
sits more than half-mile from a recycling center must redeem empty bottles and cans in-
store or pay a $100-per-day in-lieu fee. In San Francisco, the halfmile
“convenience zones” surrounding recycling centers have dropped from 35 in 1990 to
While larger markets can simply pay the fee, smaller grocery stores that cannot pay are
forced to accept recycling redemption, which can be disruptive to running
a small store. Merchants also have to deal with city health department regulations while
storing the recycled materials.
According to CalRecycle, about 17 percent of San Francisco lies in a “served convenience
zone” (mostly in the Bayview area), about 20 percent of the City is “exempt” from the
law because of merchants proximity to a recycling center, 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.
“I’ve been director for three years, and when I first came to the City to be director this
was one of the first issues that came to my attention, with people saying, ‘San Francisco’s
closing recycling centers. That seems incredibly crazy given our zero waste goal and our
commitment to recycling,’” said Deborah Raphael of the SF Department of
“The people who are hurt by these closures are the people who depend on this money
back for their own income or for the work they do on public service, those are the people
using these centers,” Raphael said.
“For three years we’ve been working on a bill to give San Francisco more flexibility to
create recycling centers that aren’t like big HANCs, that aren’t giant centers but that are
more neighborhood appropriate,” Raphael said. “We expect the governor to sign it
because we’ve been working very closely with the governor’s office and
CalRecycle, the agency that regulates this, to allow San Francisco to pilot some new
technology and new systems, so that we can bring recycling redemption centers
back to the City.”
Raphael addressed the fact that many of the larger chain markets, like Safeway, Trader
Joe’s and Whole Foods, simply pay the fee to get out of recycling obligations.
“They are all paying $36,000 per year to the state so they don’t have to recycle in their
parking lots,” she said. “So, that means that we have $1.5 million leaving
this City, going to the state so that people don’t have to have recycling centers. That’s just
insanity. If I could use that money to create recycling centers that were well staffed,
clean and quiet. That’s the answer, not having this crazy in-lieu fee.”