Recycling centers may be tossed into trash bin

San Franciscans could have fewer recycling center options because of California’s financial woes, improved recycling rates and the recession.

The City is already underserved by recycling centers compared with other parts of California because of its land values, which could help protect the 19 centers that remain locally from attrition that’s afflicting the industry statewide.

California collects up to 10 cents for every beverage bottle and can sold in the state. The money is handed back to a consumer or bottle collector when it’s returned to a recycling center, which sells the waste containers to recyclers.

Funds remaining from unreturned containers are used to subsidize the operations of nonprofit and grocery store-based recycling centers. Those centers may be forced to slash staff and operating hours, or shut down completely.

Prices paid for recyclable material tumbled during the recession, slashing recycling centers’ profits and leaving them more heavily dependent on the subsidies.

But California borrowed $415 million of its surplus recycling funds in recent years to pay for unrelated programs, according to figures contained in a lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court by recycling centers.

At the same time, the proportion of containers being recycled increased, reducing the amount of money available to subsidize container collection activities.

As a result, in November the California Division of Recycling froze subsidies paid to recycling centers, citing a lack of money in the beverage container recycling fund.

Recycling center giant Tomra Pacific Inc. — one of the companies that filed the lawsuit against California for allegedly improperly using container funds for other uses — already has laid off 50 employees and closed more than 40 of its hundreds of California collection centers because of the funding shortfall, spokesman
Chuck Riegle said.

“Everybody’s trying to identify how they can cut costs and manage their business to stay in operation,” he said.

Recycling centers have yet to close in San Francisco due to the subsidy freeze, but significant job cuts and closures are possible, according to Ed Dunn, general manager of nonprofit San Francisco Community Recyclers, which operates a center at Market and Duboce streets.

“We’re going to be in fairly serious trouble,” Dunn said.

The low number of recycling centers in San Francisco, which fell in recent years, could help save those that remain, according to Dunn.

“Here in The City, they’re pretty busy compared to the statewide average, so they’d be among the last to close,” he said.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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