Good Life Grocery Grapples with Bottle Bill Fines

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The Good Life Grocery. Photo: Jacob Bourne

As reported, in a series of View articles in 2015 and 2016, The Good Life Grocery store on 20th Street has been fined for violating the State’s “Bottle Bill,” the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, or CalRecycle, passed in 1986. Kayren Hudiburgh, co-owner of both the retailer’s 20th Street and Bernal Heights locations, has been pushing for an exemption from the law’s requirements for the past two years, meanwhile receiving state fines of $100 per day. 

“I’m all for recycling but can’t be a redemption center,” offered Hudiburgh. “We have a small store with two cashiers working. Large carts can’t even fit in the store. We recycle all our recyclable waste, we just don’t have the capacity to do redemption.”

The Bottle Bill mandates that grocery stores earning more than $2 million in gross sales annually serve as recycling redemption facilities. CalRecycle divides the City into 58 “convenience zones” in which grocers that meet the criteria must redeem used plastic and glass bottles brought in by the general public in exchange for cash, or pay fines of up to $36,000 per year until a redemption center is established within the zone. As previously reported by the View, only about 20 zones in San Francisco contain an establishment that accepts bottles; many corporate grocery chains, such as Safeway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, deem it more feasible to pay the fine than provide redemption services.

“Larger grocery stores would prefer to pay the fine than be a redemption center. Smaller grocery stores with no parking and limited space just can’t do it,” explained Hudiburgh. “Our $2 million in gross sales is mostly in produce and fresh goods. We sell a very small amount of canned and bottled items. We would have to accept cans and bottles not even purchased at our store that have been taken out of blue recycling bins.”

Hudiburgh described the numerous barriers to being able to function as a redemption facility within the confines of The Good Life Grocery’s 1,200 square feet, including lack of space to store containers and sanitation issues that could result in public health code violations. She also believes that redemption activities have led to loitering at stores that do accept containers. When small grocers try to comply with the law to avoid being fined, it can create logistical hardships. Hudiburgh told of another local store owner who would make frequent trips to recycling centers to drop off redeemed containers due to lack of storage. On one occasion, he loaded a truck with containers and transported them to the recycling center, only to find it unexpectedly closed and left with nowhere to store the containers in the interim.

Frustrated, Hudiburgh had phoned CalRecycle and explained her predicament to a State employee. Astonishingly, she was advised to sign an affidavit agreeing to carry out the duties of a redemption center but not actually follow through. The rationale given was that the State only has seven investigators, and the risk of being caught is low. She then explained that she didn’t feel comfortable committing perjury and questioned how the revenue from the fines is being used.

After months of advocating for her store’s inability to comply with the Bottle Bill by writing to State Senator Scott Weiner, District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen and CalRecycle representatives, Hudiburgh received a letter from CalRecycle in June explaining that One Planet Recycling LLC, at 250 13th Street, is now functioning as a recycling center for the locale and The Good Life Grocery has been exempted from the Bottle Bill’s requirements. A few days later she received a $3,100 bill from the same sender, and another for $2,800 the following month. The invoices are labeled as fines for non-compliance during the months of January and February. Hudiburgh maintains that it isn’t possible to pay the penalties and plans to continue to protest.

In March, Hudiburgh wrote to Senator Weiner expressing support for Senate Bill 458. Weiner had introduced the bill in February to allow mobile recycling centers to operate as full-fledged recycling centers under state law, relieving small businesses of Bottle Bill burdens. The bill emerged in the wake of an attempt by the San Francisco Department of the Environment to initiate a mobile recycling program that was foiled due to state restrictions.

According to a press release from Senate District 11, “San Francisco has the lowest recycling zone coverage (seven percent) of any city in the State. This leaves 579 beverage dealers in San Francisco outside of any ‘convenience zone’ established under the Bottle Bill, and therefore subject to the requirement to either redeem containers or pay a daily fine.” To ameliorate the issue, the mobile recycling program would operate at least once per week in a variety of City locations for at least eight hours per day.

“With our ambitious zero waste goals, San Francisco has long been a national leader in recycling and waste reduction efforts,” said Senator Wiener. “Yet, our dense urban environment has evolved over the decades since the Bottle Bill was passed, and we need to be more flexible in finding solutions to maximize our recycling efforts. Mobile recycling will allow us to continue to promote smart and effective recycling policies, while relieving a burden on our business owners, particularly our small mom-and-pop corner stores that don’t have the capacity or resources to meet the one-size-fits-all obligations of state law.”

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously in favor of SB 458. It was read for a second time at a July floor session and must be read for a third time in either August or September before passing.