Mobile recycling program could fill the gap left by facility closures

San Francisco is hoping to launch a three-year mobile recycling program to offset the impacts of the widespread closure of facilities where people can redeem bottles and cans for cash.

The City has submitted a plan to state officials that calls for launching a mobile service initially using two trucks that would visit 16 sites in eight supervisorial districts — Districts 1 through 8 — with the fewest available places to redeem cans.

The application includes a list of 39 potential sites, including the parking lots of grocery stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, churches, schools and others. Department of the Environment spokesman Charles Sheehan said the proposed locations are not final and could change.

Most residents in these neighborhoods have to travel at least three miles to reach any of the handful of recycling centers that remain in operation to cash in on the 5- or 10-cent California Redemption Value that consumers pay when buying bottled or canned beverages.

The mobile recycling sites will “function like the bookmobile or food trucks, in that they are at specific locations according to a schedule for designated hours on designated days,” according to The City application obtained by the San Francisco Examiner and pending review by CalRecycle. “They show up on schedule, perform service for the public, close up shop and move on to another site — usually later that same day.”

“The trucks will each serve up to 2-3 sites each day, or up to 24-30 sites per week,” said the application submitted by the Department of Environment, which would oversee the program. “Initial capacity is 8+ million incremental CRV containers annually into material separated streams.”

The City is proposing to launch the program as early as January, and operate for three years until Dec. 31, 2022. But an exact launch date and other details hinge on the outcome of the application, which remains under review and could entail revisions, Department of the Environment officials said Thursday.

As part of the mobile recycling proposal, The City would also allow people to drop off bags of recyclable bottles and cans at these sites under a program it would call “BottleBank.”

The program incorporates a “‘Bag Drop’ system for consumers to deposit their CRV containers into a locked, secure drop-off bin with accompanying identification means so that the consumer is properly credited.”

“The recycler will then be paid electronically within 72 hours of drop-off of CRV materials. This is an entirely new system for SF and California, and it will be developed and vetted with CalRecycle and City of SF assistance and oversight,” the application said.

The mobile recycling program is intended to fill the gap left by the closure of many recycling facilities. In San Francisco, the number of such facilities has dwindled to just four from as many as 35 in the 1990s. Some facilities, such as the one that used to operate in Golden Gate Park, closed in part because residents living near them complained they attracted homeless people.

California’s recycling law requires adequate service locations for people to redeem cans and bottles and looks at service through “convenience zones,” which are defined as “typically a half-mile radius circle with the center point originating at a supermarket.” A supermarket is defined as a market with gross annual sales of $2 million or more. When a recycler is operating within a convenience zone, it is considered a served zone. If no recycler is operating in the zone, then stores are required to redeem recyclables and face fines if they don’t.

But large supermarkets are able to simply pay the fine of $100 a day to get out of having a recycling facility onsite, pushing the obligation on to smaller businesses in the area that can’t afford to absorb that cost.

With the closure of San Francisco recycling centers, just 5 percent of its zones are served, compared to the state average of 45 percent, according to the application. “There are currently about 50 convenience zones (CZs) in [San Francisco] that are unserved,” the application said.

As a result, more than 300 smaller businesses selling beverages in bottles and cans have elected to redeem them over their counters.

“This is very disruptive, taking up both labor and precious space in already strained conditions common to SF, putting recycled containers in spaces often shared with fresh food,” the application said.

The mobile recycling proposal would bring “the entire city of San Francisco into [California Redemption Value] convenience over the course of two-four years,” according to the application.

That means San Francisco could use the mobile recycling program to adequately serve areas and remove the burden from small businesses. This was made possible under state Sen. Scott Weiner’s Senate Bill 458, which was signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2017. CalRecycle began to accept applications for such programs in April.

The department did not provide an estimate of the program’s budget, but plans to draw on several resources to fund it. The City already has received a $500,000 grant toward the proposal from CalRecycle.

The City could also stand to benefit from Assembly Bill 54, which was introduced by Assemblymember Phil Ting and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week. It provides up to $5 million in state funding for such pilot programs from the California Beverage Container Recycling Fund.

Ting introduced the bill after rePlanet shuttered 284 California recycling centers in August. The closures also impacted San Francisco, further reducing its recycling centers from six in operation this year to four, according to the Department of Environment’s application.

The City would also partner with the nonprofit SF CRV Convenience Alliance, which includes large grocers like Safeway, Whole Foods Markets and Trader Joe’s, who would pay dues to help support the effort.

The proposal also includes partnering with San Francisco Conservation Corps, a nonprofit for youth with a focus on recycling and environmental stewardship, and Our Planet, a recycling center with the highest redemption volume in San Francisco for more than five years.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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