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January 1, 2010

Contra Costa Times

Recycling centers fall victim to California's budget woes

Folks who redeem cans and bottles for a little extra jingle in their pockets or simply to help save the planet are finding fewer recycling centers open for business.

Contra Costa County has lost nine beverage redemption sites in the past six months, and Alameda County has seen a net loss of six. Others have reduced their days and hours.

Lafayette and Moraga's sole centers shut down in November. Walnut Creek has lost two of its three sites, and Oakley and San Ramon residents have one instead of two.

Two of Berkeley's three recycling centers have closed since October. Livermore lost two of its three facilities last month.

The state's major recycling center operators blame the closures and service cuts on the state's continued budget-balancing raids on its bottle fund.

The state has in the past several years borrowed more than $400 million from the California Beverage Container Recycling Fund, the proceeds of the nickel and dime deposits consumers pay on aluminum cans, plastic and glass bottles.

The fund ran out of money and on Nov. 1 stopped paying a recycling material handling fee, about half of the redemption center operators' income.

Hayward resident Jennifer Bittikofer, who dropped off $33.92 worth of recyclables at Union City's lone redemption center last week, was unhappy to hear of closures. She uses her recyclable redemption cash for food.

"I'm a starving college student," said Bittikofer, a former Cal State East Bay student who is preparing to transfer to a school in Southern California.

Elsewhere in the East Bay, Tom Dewey unloaded bags and bags of recyclables at Livermore's lone remaining redemption center.

"I'm using this money for Christmas presents," Dewey said amid the sound of bottles crashing behind him. Last month, he sent the money to his wife's family in the Philippines.

For others, the recycling cutbacks were better than some alternatives.

Public services are taking hits in the recession and recycling may not be the most painful place to make cuts, said Fremont resident Laurie Fiatal.

"I'd rather they take it from recycling than school (funds)," said the mother of three elementary school children.

East Bay residents still have a choice of 75 redemption sites, but advocates say the spate of closures is bad news for consumers and casts a pall over California's successful recycling program.

Californians bought 21 million beverage containers last fiscal year and dumped $1.15 billion into the state bottle fund, according to the California Department of Conservation.

Consumers pay a nickel deposit on each container less than 24 ounces and 10 cents for the larger ones. They may return those containers to authorized California recyclers and get their money back.

"The beverage deposit is a social contract," said Susan Collins, executive director of the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute in Culver City. "When the state charges a deposit on a container and says you can get it back, but they make it difficult for you to get it back, then that's not OK."

Major recyclers Tomra Systems, NexCycle and Bigfoot Recycling sued California, calling the state's payment suspension illegal. They predict widespread closures of recycling centers and worker layoffs.

"We just reduced the operating days at 97 sites (statewide) from five days a week to two and three days a week," said Sunnyvale-based NexCycle President John Ferrari. "Everyone tells us there will be a fix, but I don't know. If this continues, I will have to look at more cuts."

Ferrari, among others, thought the fix was Senate Bill 402 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Linden, and Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nixed the legislation in October.

In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said he opposed a provision in the bill that would expand the type of beverage containers that would come under the deposit requirement.

A spokesman for Skinner said the lawmaker will try again for bottle reform legislation next year.

In the meantime, several of those interviewed at East Bay recycling centers were unaware the bottle fund was broke or that the state was using the money elsewhere.

"I had no idea," said Javier Juarez as he unloaded a half-dozen bags of cans and bottles at a Concord recycling center. He said his wife intended to use the money to buy Christmas presents.

Hilary Friedman of Walnut Creek was surprised to find her usual recycling stop had disappeared from the Tice Valley Boulevard Safeway parking lot in Rossmoor.

"I probably (recycle) once a month and it's because they're charging me the (deposit)," Friedman said as she unloaded bottles from her trunk at the Walnut Creek recycling center on Lawrence Way.

Jerry Johnson of Richmond drops by the American Iron and Metal Company about twice a month with cans and plastic.

When asked about area recycling centers possibly closing, he said, "There'd be some unhappy people. It's going to be bad."

The cutbacks signal human distress, said the owner of the East Bay Resource recycling center in West Oakland.

People who redeem their drink containers and sell paper for pennies per pound to owner Vongkham Simmaly are mostly unemployed and rely on recycling for cash.

"They fight to survive," Simmaly said. "They don't even have enough money for food every day."


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