San Francisco will soon, finally, see a recycling resurgence — and, no, I’m not talking about the big blue bins: Recycling centers are coming way back.
Nearly six years ago, a perfect recipe of rising rents, newcomer NIMBY neighbors and political sentiment saw recycling centers ousted across The City. But contrary to critics who linked the centers with homeless folks, people from all walks of life sold cans and bottles back to redeem their nickles.
Between 2012 and 2014, 14 of San Francisco’s 21 recycling centers had closed.
The remaining seven now dot The City’s southern fringes, causing long sojourns for those who depend on cans and bottles for income. Worse, state law dictates that once recycling centers vanish, local grocers must process recycling on-site or face fines of $100 per day.
It has been a “recycle-pocalypse” for both small businesses and the poor; few others seem to care.
Now, we’re seeing movement. The San Francisco Department of the Environment announced on Monday its intention to develop a new pilot program for mobile recycling centers — a win-win for the community.
It’s still just a plan to develop a plan, and there are no firm details yet.
Debra Gore-Mann, executive director of the San Francisco Conservation Corps, told me there may be pop-up recycling centers in different neighborhoods. Others described possible “mobile recycling centers.”
The solution is a long way off — 2019 is the launch date for any potential plan, the department said — but we’ve got state Sen. Scott Wiener to thank for it.
In 2014, then-Supervisor Wiener jumped on the bandwagon against recycling centers. The Safeway at Church and Market streets played host to San Francisco Community Recyclers, but the Castro’s hoity-toity neighbors considered the recycling center and its homeless patrons a noisy nuisance.
I was just a cub reporter at the progressive San Francisco Bay Guardian at the time (may she rest in peace), but I clearly remember feeling flabbergasted at Wiener’s argument against it.
“There is problem behavior around the center in terms of camping and harassing behavior, defecation, urination in a much more concentrated way,” Wiener said in 2014.
Frankly, that “behavior” had gone on for years in many neighborhoods in The City. And Wiener’s argument pre-supposed that only homeless people use recycling centers, which is blatantly false.
When the recycling centers were first threatened, I spent a few days at the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center, to test out similar claims. But instead of a few lost souls, I found a community.
I met two young brothers, Steven and Brian Guan, 12 and 14, who recycled their bottles and cans for allowance. I met Dennis Horsluy, who wasn’t homeless but was facing hard times after losing his job; recycling helped put some change in his pocket. And it wasn’t just people in need — bars and restaurants up and down Haight Street cashed in their bottles, too.
Driven to shutter by falsehoods, the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center was closed. So when Wiener pushed for Safeway to close its recycling center, it was like deja vu.
Wiener’s only redeeming argument against the recycling center was that mobile recycling centers, which would serve all neighborhoods, would soon be the norm. But he hadn’t done his homework — the mobile recycling centers he promised were illegal.
“We got pretty far down the path, and found out — guess what? — it’s a violation of state law,” Wiener admitted to reporters at a Monday news conference.
Small Business Commissioner Miriam Zouzounis told me her father’s South of Market store, Ted’s Market (named for her grandfather), was the subject of a state-run “sting.” An inspector, disguised as a homeless person, asked the store to process his recycling and pay him during a busy lunch rush and then busted the shop when the employees asked him to wait for the lunch line to clear.
“This is an invisible burden” on the business community, Zouzounis said.
Zouzounis was not alone. Since the local recycling industry vanished, many businesses feared state reprisal. So when Wiener’s mobile recycling effort collapsed in 2014, I felt it was an example not only of his failure, but his intellectual dishonesty.
For years, I hounded him on it. Though not alone, Wiener helped drive the closure of recycling centers with his political weight on a promise he didn’t keep to the community.
At every endorsement meeting with the Bay Guardian — and later at the San Francisco Examiner, or whenever homeless rights came up in news coverage, or when Wiener defended his record — I reminded him how the closure of recycling centers further impoverished the homeless and harmed hundreds of small businesses.
Today, my mind is changed.
As a freshman state senator, Wiener introduced Senate Bill 458, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, which authorizes CalRecycle to create pilot programs to innovate how the state recycles.
Now, a program will launch from that bill. It’s a victory for the poor and small grocers, but one that likely won’t draw accolades from thousands of voters, nor will it gin up Facebook likes and shares in viral popularity.
But on Monday, Mayor Ed Lee and a small cadre of politicos, including Wiener, stood outside Ted’s Market under the warm winter sun to announce the program. Zouzounis stood smiling with her father, David Zouzounis, happy for San Francisco businesses to be in the clear — because if a mobile recycling center roams his neighborhood, the burden of recycling won’t fall on his store.
Gore-Mann smiled at Wiener and spoke of her excitement to offer recycling jobs to low-income youth from the Bayview, Visitacion Valley, the Fillmore and the Tenderloin.
Even though I’m a columnist — a reporting role where an opinion is not only granted, but expected — I don’t often directly discuss my stances with politicians. I usually save that for the printed page. But Monday, I made an exception: I held out my hand and thanked Scott, too.
Because nearly four years later, he kept his promise.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.