Law Passed to Bring Recycling Centers Back

By Thomas K. Pendergast


After community groups, certain city supervisors and the mayor’s office almost drove

San Francisco’s recycling centers to extinction, California state Sen. Scott Wiener took

action to restore residents’ ability to get their deposit money back.


recycle12112017a copy

 Deborah Raphael, director of the SF Department of the
Environment (right to left), talks about expanded recycling
opportunities at a press conference with state Sen. Scott
Wiener and the late-SF Mayor Ed Lee. Photo: Thomas K. Pendergast.


Although the details have yet to evolve and remain foggy, now that Senate Bill 458 has

been signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the City, and several other towns across the state, can

legally set up alternative methods for providing recycling services that offer monetary

redemption directly back to the consumer, as the current law requires.


There are at least two viable options: mobile recycling centers -– the equivalent of “pop-

up” recycling centers, which would temporarily occupy spaces throughout the City on a

rotating basis; and reverse vending machines, which are, as the name implies, like a

canned soda dispenser, only cans and bottles go into them and receipts for redemption

money come out.


The new law, SB-458, will allow five mobile pilot programs throughout the state,

including in San Francisco, to be created. The programs will qualify as full recycling

centers under California law.


“This is a state-wide issue, the closure of recycling centers,” Wiener said at a press

conference Dec. 11. “Land has become more valuable. It’s gotten harder and harder for

these recycling centers to really make ends meet. The economics have changed and

we’ve seen a mass closing of recycling centers; 80 percent of San Francisco’s recycling

centers have shut down in the last several decades.”


The scouring of recycling centers from the city’s west side has been going on for decades,

although two in particular stand out: the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC)

Recycling Center in Golden Gate Park was closed after local neighborhood groups

pressured the SF Recreation and Park Department to evict it; and then-Supervisor Scott

Wiener himself was instrumental in the removal of a major recycling center in the

parking lot of the Safeway market at Church and Market streets.


“There were a lot of people who were happy that it closed down because that recycling

center had created some real challenges for the surrounding neighborhood,” Wiener

said. “But there were also a lot of people who were very unhappy because it was going to

make it harder for people to find a place to bring in their recycling. Whether you are a

low-income senior on a fixed income who relies on that income or a homeless person

who is just trying to get a little bit of cash together to survive, people rely on

these services.”


In trying to figure out what to do about the problem, he discovered that a 1986 state law

called the “California Bottle Bill” is in the way, as it greatly restricts what can and cannot

be done regarding recycling centers. So, a change in the state law was necessary

to fix the problem.


“I want to thank Gov. Brown for signing the bill into law because it is not easy to get

changes to the Bottle Bill signed into law. There’s so many different interests at stake, and

most of these bills die. So, we are really thrilled to get it signed into law,” Weiner said.


Standing in front of Ted’s Deli & Market on Howard Street, the late-SF Mayor Ed Lee

said that although San Francisco is improving its recycling methods, the City can do

even better.


“Why can’t we have a goal that sets the standard for everyone? We need to do better

than to punish people or to have their time doing recycling here when

they could be making great sandwiches,” he said, in reference to the concerns of small

business owners.


Recycling cans and bottles generally requires less effort and resources than making them

from scratch, and also creates less overall pollution. Lee drew a connection between

recycling policies and climate change, and mentioned the Global Climate Action Summit

coming to San Francisco in September. He said government leaders have an obligation to

leave the planet better off than the day they came into office.


“Let us get this planet in better shape and let us continue to make the commitment that

we’ve always made to the next generation, that we will leave this city and this planet in

even better condition than when we first became obligated to serve it,” Lee said.


For years it was claimed by the mayor ’s office and others that the city’s “blue bin”

curbside recycling system made recycling centers “obsolete,” but CalRecycle, the state

agency which enforces the law, never agreed to that premise because consumers cannot

get their nickel or dime deposits back that they paid when they bought their beverages.


According to CalRecycle statistics, between April, 201 and the end of last summer, 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

CalRecycle 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

the 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.


Many stores are not set up to handle large volumes of recyclables, so the bigger markets

often take the option of paying a fee to evade the service. Under

the Bottle Bill, any beverage dealer – whether a supermarket or a corner store – more

than a half mile from a recycling center must redeem empty bottles and cans in-store or

pay a $100-perday in-lieu fee.  In San Francisco, the half-mile “convenience zones”

surrounding recycling centers have dropped from 35 in 1990 to seven today.


“I would predict that that $36,000 would put a huge dent in the profit margin of any

small business in San Francisco, and, frankly, it’s a pretty silly way for them to spend

their money, resources and time,” said the city’s Department of the Environment’s

director, Dr. Deborah Raphael. “We must find a comprehensive solution that addresses

the quality-of-life issues, that addresses the needs of small businesses, and addresses the

needs of the people who depend on this revenue that they get from collecting litter, from

collecting and redeeming these materials.”


Although the new law allows for the creation of a pilot program by which certain

communities throughout the state can seek solutions outside those normally

allowed by the Bottle Bill, the details have yet to be worked out. For example, how much

of the system should be mobile recycling centers and how much should rely on reverse

vending machines, which have maintenance and service issues of their own?


Before the Safeway at Seventh Avenue and Cabrillo Street did away with its reverse

vending machine, a certain individual would wait until the once-a-day service emptied

the machine, and then he would fill most or all of it up at once, effectively making it

useless to others for the rest of the day, day after day.


“The Department of the Environment is just starting the process of crafting exactly what

mix of mobile recycling it will be … versus reverse vending machines,” said Wiener. “The

department will work with the community and with small and large grocery stores to

come up with what the right mix is. I don’t want to prejudge that, but reverse vending

machines won’t be enough by themselves.”

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