November 28, 2009
Recycling sites face shutdown amid budget raids
RECYCLING BY THE NUMBERS
5 cents: The minimum California Refund Value, or CRV, for cans and bottles
74 percent: Bottles and cans recycled in California
21.9 billion: CRV bottles and cans purchased statewide last year
$1.2 billion: Annual CRV money collected by the state
1,200: Recycling stations near shopping centers statewide
160: Estimated recycling stations closed statewide since July
SOURCES: Department of Conservation, Department of Finance, TOMRA Pacific
Californians who recycle cans and bottles for cash could soon face dramatically fewer redemption options because container take-back centers statewide are closing by the dozens.
Recycling companies and advocates blame repeated legislative raids on the state’s recycling account, which uses unclaimed can and bottle deposits to support recycling huts in shopping- center parking lots and related programs.
Sacramento has siphoned more than $450 million from the account since 2002, mostly to close ongoing gaps in the state’s general fund. There’s still enough money to pay customers who return cans and bottles, but state officials said they can no longer subsidize handlers and processors like they once did.
“It’s going to be a blow,” said Anne Bernstein at the Urban Corps of San Diego County, which relies on payments from the recycling account to fund its collection program. “There is a good chance that all of these recyclables are just going to be thrown in the trash.”
Widespread closures of recycling centers would hurt, for example, middle-class families who rely on recycling revenue for small luxuries and homeless people who count on bottles and cans for pocket money. At least six stations have closed in San Diego County so far, including kiosks at Albertson’s stores in Fallbrook and Kearny Mesa, and a Ralphs in Mission Valley.
Dan Regan, who owns four facilities in San Diego, said his clients include a kindergarten teacher who turns in bottles and cans to pay for gas, and firefighters who do it as a fundraiser.
“Residents rely on this, especially this year,” Regan said.
He faces his own struggles without the state payments he expected. “It’s really tough,” he said. “I have exhausted all my savings. Our business checkbook is down to almost nothing.”
The state Department of Conservation’s Web site says the fiscal troubles stem from more people recycling bottles and cans that qualify for the California Refund Value, better known as the CRV. But recycling industry leaders say the biggest problem is the legislative actions, portrayed as loans from the fund.
An alliance of recycling companies has sued the state, demanding that the loans be reimbursed and handling fees restored. Without those payments, the lawsuit said, about 1,200 recycling stations near major shopping centers statewide are in jeopardy because they are money-losing operations.
State recycling officials cited the lawsuit in declining to discuss the future of the program.
Adrian White, president of recycling giant TOMRA Pacific Inc., based in Riverside County, said the only way to prevent a collapse of California’s consumer-friendly recycling program is for lawmakers to adopt a new strategy when they return to the Capitol in January.
White said a good startwould be to increase the deposit on 20-ounce bottles to 10 cents from the current nickel and to expand the program to include a broader range of containers. He also wants a law that bars future raids on the account and requires that money raised by deposits go only to recycling programs. Such ideas were proposed in a bill vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said the package didn’t create a long-term solution.
Recycling centers run by TOMRA and its competitors collect about one-third of the 16 billion bottles and cans recycled in the state each year. Others are thrown in curbside bins or taken to recycling companies at landfills or industrial areas.
California’s container program dates to 1986, when the Legislature enacted a landmark “bottle bill” to promote recycling. Consumers today pay a deposit of 5 or 10 cents for most aluminum, glass or plastic beverage containers they buy. They can get their money back by turning in containers at recycling centers.
The concept was a hit, and recycling rates for beverage containers more than doubled over two decades to about 75 percent. Unclaimed money has supported a variety of recycling efforts, such as handling and processing fees for companies that collect recyclables.
Surpluses in the recycling account didn’t escape the notice of the Legislature and governors.
In 2002, they borrowed $188 million from the recycling fund. The next year, they withdrew $98.3 million. Repayment of both loans was due this year, but legislators extended the deadline to 2013.
In 2008, the Legislature diverted $35 million from recycling to an air- pollution fund and followed that with a similar move this year. It also authorized a transfer to the general fund of $99.4 million in 2009 — a move Schwarzenegger approved but said should be avoided in the future.
Several San Diego-area businesses, including Cricket Wireless and the Chargers, warned in recent months that the state must stop pillaging the recycling account. They were mainly concerned about the fate of California’s Urban Conservation Corps, which trains at-risk young adults to manage recycling programs for local businesses and organizations.
On July 1, state officials cut many grants and other payments from the recycling fund by up to 85 percent. That caught some people off guard, including leaders of San Diego County’s Urban Corps.
“All of a sudden, it all started unraveling,” said Bernstein, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.
In November, state officials eliminated some payments so that the San Diego Urban Corps received just a fraction of the $1.9 million it expected this year. The reductions forced the organization to lay off about 30 employees and tell about 150 customers that they would have to start paying to have their recycling picked up. Roughly half of its clients quit in response.
Regan, the owner of four recycling facilities, says he hopes legislators will devise a solution in January so he won’t have to close.
His Ocean Beach compound buzzes with activity five days a week as people haul in loads of containers by truck and bicycle. Many of them leave with $10 or $15, and many are worried about the possibility that the center will close. Some predict an increase in robberies if poor residents can’t earn money by recycling.
“It’s breaking my heart because I have been coming here (almost) every day for 15 years,” Duane Smith, who lives on the streets of Ocean Beach, said about Regan’s center. “It’s the only thing I have got.”