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Old state recycling law needs new life

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Our Planet Recycling on Bayshore Boulevard is one of the few remaining recycling centers in San Francisco. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

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Last September, Kayren Hudiburgh, who owns Good Life Grocery in Potrero Hill with her husband, received a notice of non-compliance from CalRecycle. The agency in charge of the state’s waste management program asked her to provide recycling redemption services or pay a $100 per day fee. Both options are impossible for her.

“My store is only 1,200 square feet,” she told me. “There is no room for taking in bottles and cans and no room for storage. Plus, it would be in violation of my lease.”

Although San Franciscans primarily use curbside recycling, a state law passed in 1986 requires supermarkets with annual sales of $2 million or more — the number has never been adjusted for inflation — to provide centers where people can redeem and recycle beverage containers. The Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, also known as the Bottle Bill, is a relic of our pre-blue bin era. It makes no sense in today’s San Francisco.

In 1990, 35 centers existed in San Francisco. Today, four remain. When the Safeway at Church and Market streets evicted its center in 2014, people cheered. Many believe the centers are irrelevant and attract unsafe conditions.

“In my personal opinion, this is not a law that fits for San Francisco,” Hudiburgh said. “The stories that we have heard about the problems associated with this program are immense with no support from The City or the state to mitigate all the unsavory aspects that seem to come along with it.”

But The City and the state are working to mitigate the unsavory and irrelevant aspects of the Bottle Bill. For years, the Department of Environment and CalRecycle have discussed revamping the law. Mark Oldfield, CalRecycle’s spokesman, admitted that The City’s situation is “not an ideal scenario.”

Assemblymember David Chiu also recognizes the problem, which is vital because the Legislature must ultimately fix the law. “We know there’s a problem here, and I hope that the ongoing conversations about how to address it will create some consensus on a solution,” Chiu told me.

Perhaps we can try a solution this year. Oldfield said the agency has contracted with UC Berkeley to conduct a one-year study. The study will help CalRecycle understand what convenience means to people who recycle beverage containers. If Chiu introduces a bill allowing San Francisco to pilot a new Bottle Bill program, our experience can inform the study.

Chiu could propose scrapping the Bottle Bill in cities with high waste diversion rates like San Francisco. But I worry a Bottle Bill-less city may hurt our homeless and low-income neighbors. We all know living expenses in San Francisco are astronomical, and many San Franciscans need the money from redeeming bottles and cans. When the Market Street Safeway center closed, Hoodline, a San Francisco neighborhood news network, spoke to people who said they recycle to put food in their bellies and clothes on their backs. A man named Lee told Hoodline, it’s better than sticking a gun in someone’s face.

I think mobile redemption services are the best option to limit impacts to San Francisco small businesses and low-income residents. Pacific Beach, a neighborhood in the San Diego area, piloted mobile recycling in the 1990s after all of its centers closed following complaints from neighbors about crime. A private company provided the service, and, according to a Department of Conservation report, safely and successfully met the community’s recycling needs.

Oldfield told me the program stopped around 2010 because the private company couldn’t visit all the state-required locations in Pacific Beach. But perhaps a modern program would only require recycling in areas where people actually redeem bottles and cans. If the Legislature allows San Francisco to try this idea out, CalRecycle and UC Berkeley could test the results.

Sacramento should let San Francisco redeem the Bottle Bill. Perhaps on its 30th birthday, we can help the law get a new life.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist,who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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