‘Bottle Bill’ Author Says Recycling Law Hurts Small Businesses

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As reported by the View last July in “Recycling Requirements Continue to Threaten Good life Grocery,” the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act of 1986, known as the “Bottle Bill,” requires grocery stores within designated “convenience zones” to accept recyclable containers.  Stores that don’t comply are subject to daily fines.  To the chagrin of small storeowners within these zones, big retailers—those that generate more than $2 million annually—typically prefer to pay the fine than to create recycling centers, an option that small shops can’t afford.  

The July article quoted Kayren Hudiburgh, co-owner of The Good Life Grocery, as saying that the bill’s requirements cause “a problem that should not be foisted on ANY grocery store.” Hudiburgh complained that small shops, like her 20th and Connecticut streets location, can neither afford noncompliance fines nor spare precious space for recycling facilities. She also asserted that onsite recycling can cause sanitation and health issues, as well as loitering.

 Bill Shireman, president and chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Future500, who helped develop and pass the Bottle Bill, agreed with Hudiburgh.  “She is correct,” Shireman said. “The law now puts too much burden on small stores. The bigger crime is that stores with plenty of parking space to provide facilities – like Safeway – no longer have to have them. They pay a trivial fine. I can understand if they don’t want a lot of homeless around their stores bringing recycling, but if they don’t have it, then all the little stores have to do it. Small stores get stuck. For them, it’s significant. Good Life is right that it is too much. It is unfair. Big stores can do their share.”

According to Shireman, the City has been “bending to the biggest stores,” encouraging them to apply for exemptions in response to complaints from residents and business owners regarding perceived problems created by recycling centers, particularly the presence of homeless people. Calrecycle.org defines an exemption as “an exception from the requirement that a certified recycling center which accepts all California Refund Value (CRV) containers be established within a convenience zone.”

“Under the state Bottle Bill, stores can apply for exemptions, and the City has made it a policy to get as many as it can,” Shireman said.  “It’s an ongoing process. If the City were not so responsive to the bigger stores, then the City would not be imposing this burden on smaller stores.”

Recent data, however, contradicts Shireman’s assertion of a rising exemption rate in San Francisco. According to Californians Against Waste, six percent of the City’s zoned areas are exempt as of June 30, 2016, with almost three times as many exemptions the previous year; 17 percent.

The City has successfully pushed to shutdown recycling centers.  In 2010, then Mayor Gavin Newsom announced the eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council (HANC) Recycling Center and Native Plant Nursery from Golden Gate Park.  The HANC center, which was located at 780 Frederick Street, fought its removal, and didn’t leave until 2013. By fall of that same year, the Nexcycle recycling operation at Lucky’s on Fulton and Masonic streets had been evicted, as had Replanet’s Webster and Geary Safeway recycling center, and Nexcycle’s reverse vending machine at the Marina Safeway.  In 2014, District 8 Supervisor Scott Weiner proudly announced the court-order enforced shut down of the 2020 Market Street Safeway recycling center on his Twitter page.

“We were told [by the City] that the homeless problem in Golden Gate Park would be solved, but it’s been three years and they’re still there,” said Ed Dunn, executive director of San Francisco Community Recyclers. “The notion that this shutdown [of recycling centers] would somehow help is bogus. There’s no correlation. And you’ll see plenty of people still hanging out if you go to Safeway on 2020 Market. There might even be more people there today than five or six years ago.”

Dunn explained that, shortly after HANC’s 2011 eviction notice, “it came to light that the Mayor’s office had been contacting Safeway about getting them to shut down their recycling centers as well.  The Mayor had a policy towards the homeless called Care Not Cash. He felt that the practice of centers paying out cash for bottles and cans was in conflict with this policy. So that is how Care not Cash eventually got on the ballot, coupled with shut downs, to make sure homeless people weren’t getting any money.” Dunn referred to the policy as “no cash for cans.”

“Gavin got the ball rolling on closing down recycling centers,” said Dunn, an effort then championed by District 5 Supervisor London Breed and Weiner.  “Scott Weiner called up Safeway to shut down 2020 Market’s recycling center the first hour of his first day on the job in 2011,” said Dunn.  “London Breed said she was in favor of closing down [the recycling center on] Webster Street even though she said she had fond memories of using it as a young girl.” Breed supported closing the HANC and 2020 Market Street centers.

In Newsom’s 2011 HANC eviction notice, the former mayor claimed, “It is reasonable to expect that those dedicated recyclers that use the facility will take their material to another existing site for proper handling, whether that means bringing bottles and cans…to another redemption center, or using the City’s robust curbside collection program.”  Newsom also stated that recycling efforts “can include urging supermarkets…to install reverse vending machines, or redeem bottles and cans in-store.”

“It would be wrong just to eliminate all the recycling [center] opportunities,” Shireman asserted. “We support our garbage service, but we need a vital, robust recycling industry with high quality materials. As much as the middle class thinks everyone recycles, they are just plain wrong. They think everyone is recycling curbside, but they are not. The vast majority of it is done at the recycling centers because someone is getting money.”

According to Teresa Bui, senior analyst for Californians Against Waste, “most containers, 88 percent, are redeemed at traditional recycling centers and supermarket-sited recycling centers.  Only nine percent of containers get redeemed at curbside.”

As of June 30, 2016, 87 percent of the City’s zoned recycling areas were unserved, an increase from 67 percent unserved in 2015.  “Unserved zones are convenience zones where no recycling center is located, and where the Department has determined that conditions for exemption are unfounded,” Bui explained.  In comparison, the unserved percentage is 43 percent in San Jose, 19 percent in San Diego, 10 percent in Los Angeles, and 23 percent in California as a whole.  “In San Francisco,” said Bui, “recyclers have to travel further and wait longer.”

“Since the City has a ‘zero waste’ policy, it would seem they are working against themselves being sympathetic to recycling centers closing,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

While Hudiburgh believes Recology should be responsible for providing recycling centers, Shireman suggested that this wouldn’t be in the company’s interest. “What is really going on here is the City garbage collector wants to capture and control all recycling by paying the garbage handlers directly. They’re always looking to capture public dollars. It’s a first step to try to take money away from people and give it to the garbage company. That’s what they would like long term.”

“Before we had the Bottle Bill, beverage containers were the biggest part of the litter problem, and recycle rates were pathetically low, well under 10 percent for glass and plastic, maybe 25 percent for aluminum,” Shireman said.  “Now they’re about 85 percent. San Francisco’s recycle rates are among the best in the country. A great part of the success of the Bill is that retailers don’t have to take them [recyclable items] back inside the stores, unlike the rest of country. They do have to make sure there is some opportunity within a mile of the stores [to recycle items and get some money back].” Both Shireman and Bui stressed that stores receive a 15 percent state subsidy to maintain recycling centers.

  Shireman is sympathetic to small storeowners who suffer from fines or the threat of being fined for noncompliance. Nonetheless, he said: “It’s not the Bill. It’s the City. Still, I think that small stores should [provide a recycling center] just as part of being good neighbors. They should be willing to take back from customers [who buy containers from them]. I am a minority in that belief,” he laughed, “and I had a little store when I was very young. But it would be much fairer for bigger retailers to do it, especially since the state subsidizes it.”

“I live three doors down from Good Life in Bernal Heights on Cortland.” Shireman said. “I know and love their store!”