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.
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
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
“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
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.”