Los Angeles, CA—The San Francisco BottleBank bottle deposit return pilot featuring trucks rotating between supermarket parking lots has burned through over $3.6 million in state grants and services for trucks, labor, consultants, technology, and SF Conservation Corps staff time from 2020 through 2022 without delivering the convenience promised to consumers, Consumer Watchdog said today. The program has returned only about $143,000 to consumers in redeemed bottles and can CRV deposits.
It has cost the pilot 79 cents to return a nickel deposit during the 15 months of the pilot’s operation from January 2022 through March 2023, according to data uncovered through Public Record Act requests. KGO-TV recently ran a report on the project’s failing metrics.
Consumer Watchdog called on the legislature not to approve more funding for the mobile pilot project and to restore the obligations of grocery and retailer stores in San Francisco to redeem bottles and cans. The take-back obligation was removed by the mobile pilot project.
“The Bottle Bank is broke and a project that costs 79 cents to return a nickel deposit after 15 months of operation is a failed project that does not deserve more funding,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “San Francisco’s experiment reaffirms the national experience, that mobile pilot projects don’t work. CalRecycle should take heed as it builds it new bottle deposit system to begin in 2025 under SB 1013.”
Last week a coalition of public interest groups sent a letter to CalRecycle director Rachel Wagoner with recommendations about how to proceed with SB 1013 implementation. The letter — signed by Beyond Plastics, CalPIRG, California Nurses For Environmental Health an Justice, Consumer Watchdog, Environment California, Food and Water Watch, and Story of Stuff — called on Wagoner not to delay implementation of SB 1013, as requested by grocers, and to expand the number of points of redemption from 1 for every 31,000 Californians to 1 for every 10,000.
The SF BottleBank program offers consumers bottle deposit refunds via electronic accounts in exchange for bags of CRV empties taken by consumers to supermarket parking lots. A review of internal memos and the pilot’s budget provided to Consumer Watchdog by state recycling regulator CalRecycle and of slide presentations and other documents provided by the City of San Francisco’s Environment Department under Public Records Act requests shows just what a colossal failure the pilot is.
The documents show:
•The SF BottleBank program received state grants totaling $2.15 million in the last four years with nothing but red ink in sight. The latest accounting shows that between January and March, the pilot program had consumed $265,000 of the last tranche of a $500,000 grant to pay for supermarket parking, equipment, personnel, and other operating expenses. As of April 5, 2023, documents released by CalRecycle under a Public Records Act request reveal pilot operator Our Planet Recycling said the remaining funds would cover only two months’ worth of operations before exhaustion.
•The San Francisco BottleBank program is financially unsustainable. PRA results show that far from supporting the pilot program, supermarkets cannot even be persuaded to give out barcoded bags for CRV empties to customers instead of them going to Our Planet Recycling for them. “Although Whole Foods and Safeways are the most interested and engaged in the project, OPR [Our Planet Recycling] believes this discussion is still months away from reaching a deal,” an April 5, 2023 memo of a monthly meeting between San Francisco Department of the Environment, CalRecycle and other pilot participants says.
•The number of containers recycled through the pilot program a month puts SF BottleBank in the bottom 1% of all recycling centers in the state. According to PRA results, 2.7 million containers were returned through the pilot over 15 months between January 2022 and March 2023. The amount of CRV returned was $143,000. Thus, 18 supermarket sites, each counting as a “recycling center,” take in 10,000 containers a month. A permanent recycling center located on or near a supermarket parking lot can take in anywhere from an average 500,000 containers a month to more than 2.7 million containers a month, depending on the location and hours of operation. That comes to anywhere from $300,000 worth of CRV deposits to $1.6 million worth of CRV a year per location.
•Only 4,500 BottleBank customer accounts were opened between January 2022 through March 2023 in a city of 715,000 people, PRA results reveal. The redemption service is highly inconvenient for consumers. Each supermarket location only offers weekday service once a week during limited hours when most consumers work. Only one location offers Saturday hours. Because trucks rotate, there is not a permanent physical presence reminding consumers of convenient access to redemption, which means that far too few containers are turned in for recycling than can make the program financially sustainable.
•Though a financial flop, documents show that San Francisco’s Department of the Environment is seeking another $500,000 of funding through December 2023 to over operating expenses and add staff and another $1.6 million to cover operational expenses and conduct public outreach from July 2023 through January 1, 2025.
•A letter drafted from Charles Sheehan, Chief Policy Officer at the SF Environment Department, and Tyrone Jue, Acting Director, to Senator Wiener and Assemblymember Ting on April 28, 2023 warns that the pilot is “endangered.” They request help to avoid its closing because of a “lack of funds from CalRecycle and the Beverage Container Recycling Fund for this innovative pilot…The City needs your collaboration in strategizing with CalRecycle on a plan for the next two years. This includes funding the creation of true citywide convenience supported by large CRV retailers and reaching out to all retailers…”
“It would be fiscally irresponsible to give more money to this failed project,” said Court.
A Consumer Watchdog 2022 investigative report showed that between 2018 and 2021, more than $700,000 in CalRecycle grant money via CalRecycle county/city grants dispensed every year to improve recycling was paid to consultants to the SF CRV Convenience Alliance. They met San Francisco retailers’ primary objective—exempting supermarkets from redemption responsibilities.
Once CalRecycle deems pilot projects operational, areas lacking recycling centers are considered “served” with redemption. In San Francisco, that automatically got more than 450 stores off the redemption hook and saved 70 stores $4.5 million in fines over two years to opt out of recycling.
Monthly notes from meetings held on March 1 and April 5 between the City of San Francisco, CalRecycle, the SF Conservation Corps and Our Planet Recycling, as well as other emails, show Kevin Drew, Zero Waste Coordinator, and Charlie Sheehan, Chief Policy Officer at the San Francisco Department of the Environment, seeking fresh funds from a $10 million allocated last year to support 10 more pilot deposit return programs. CalRecycle staff informed them that “there were no more pilot funds to request.”
“The answer to this situation is not wasting more money on so-called ‘mobile’ pilot programs,” said Elizabeth Tucker, Energy project director at Consumer Watchdog. “It’s the proper implementation of SB 1013, the reform law passed last year putting the responsibility of redemption onto supermarkets as of January 1, 2025. It’s also CalRecycle’s dispensing of $73.3 million in grants to automate the system. Ultimately, supermarkets should fund the program or decide on a much more efficient, convenient model that makes reverse vending machines and bag drops available to consumers at permanent locations in or near stores.”
The letter from the public interest coalition called for the CalRecyle to dispense the $73 million in automation grants authorized by SB 1013 by the end of summer.