Pilot Program Aims to Bring Recycling Back

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Although a combination of NIMBYs, high property values and compliant politicians crushed recycling centers on the west side of San Francisco years ago, an experimental California state test program may bring them back in a different form.

The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) approved the new pilot project for San Francisco in February, called a “bag-drop collection” program, as the state explores new models to boost consumer access to recycling California Redemption Value (CRV) bottles and cans. 

“California takes consumer redemption convenience very seriously, and these local pilot programs are tailored to address community needs like high rent costs and profit declines due to volatile scrap markets,” CalRecycle Acting Director Ken DaRosa said. “The state responded to the sudden closure of 281 recycling centers last August by increasing enforcement and legislating funds for this program to support innovative new redemption options for underserved communities.”

CalRecycle said San Francisco’s bag-drop collection program will utilize collection bins at various locations throughout the City. Consumers will be able to locate collection bins using their mobile phone, drop their tagged bag of empty beverage containers in the bin, and receive electronic payment for their materials within 72 hours after the material is processed. San Francisco currently has 59 unserved “convenience zones” with 622 CRV beverage retailers operating within those zones.

Legislation creating the Beverage Container Recycling Pilot Program was pushed through by State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and authorizes CalRecycle to approve up to five pilot projects proposed by local jurisdictions throughout the state to explore new models for CRV redemption in underserved areas. When he was a San Francisco supervisor, however, Wiener pushed for the removal of a large recycling center at the Safeway on the corner of Church and Market streets.

One of the largest 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 to get rid of the HANC recycling center because its members did not like dealing with the homeless people it attracted. Rec. and Park eventually granted the request and had the department evict the recycling center at 780 Frederick St., where it had been since 1981.

The removal of recycling centers from the west side of San Francisco not only made getting deposit money directly back from recycling containers more difficult, it also made life harder for “mom n pop” merchants who started getting fined.

City officials long claimed that San Francisco’s “blue bin” system made recycling centers obsolete, but 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. Most of the larger beverage retailers, like Safeway and Trader Joe’s, choose to pay the fee rather than deal with recycling. But many of the smaller independent merchants cannot afford the fee and often are not set up to handle large volumes of recyclables. 

Lance Klug, a spokesperson for CalRecycle, said in San Francisco’s case, none of the “exempted” zones had 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. 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.”

But it takes money to set the new pilot program systems up and keep them operating. So, last year Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) pushed through Assembly Bill-54, which provides up to $5 million for funding five pilot programs throughout the state.

“I’m glad that funding for mobile recycling centers will soon begin to help communities struggling to gain access to recycling sites,” Ting said. “I’m working on an overhaul of California’s recycling system this legislative session, building upon AB-54. We can no longer put off resolving this crisis.”

Now it is up to the City to apply for some of that money and get its pilot recycling program up and running. Handling that is the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

“We are starting the process to apply for those funds,” said Charles Sheehan, the chief policy officer at SF Environment. “We won’t secure all of them but we are starting that process. Once we understand how much funding is available, when we’re going to get that funding, we’ll be able to lay out a timeline and we’ll be able to lay out more details about the type of penetration that we can bring to San Francisco through the recycling program. So this next step is very important to understand all of that.

“We are actively engaged with CalRecycle to move this process along and the end goal is to bring recycling convenience to all parts of San Francisco, particularly the places that don’t have it right now. And there are a few recycling centers still in the City, but they’re mostly in the southeast portion,” Sheehan said. “So in places like the Richmond, the Sunset, essentially if you’re not in that southeastern portion of the City, there’s no recycling center in your neighborhood and so the pilot recycling program will allow us to expand our recycling reach to all parts of San Francisco.

“This is definitely having a large impact on small businesses and we are hoping to alleviate that impact with our pilot recycling program,” Sheehan said.

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