By Marisa Endicott, SANTA ROSA PRESS-DEMOCRAT
August 13, 2022
It soon will get even harder to score a bit of extra cash in Sonoma County for turning inbottles and cans.
One of the few remaining recycling redemption sites in the area, Brogard, in Windsor,will end its operation Aug. 26 after 19 years. The scrap metal site at the same location, West Coast Metals, will continue to run.
“We’re not really happy about it because we have been a service to the community forso long,” owner Linda Gardner told me, “but just dollar-wise, we cannot keep open losing money every month.”
This is more bad news for consumers already struggling to recoup the 5- or 10-cent fee on containers as California Refund Value redemption centers and retailers have dwindled in recent years. California has lost almost half its container recycling operations in the past decade.
In Sonoma County, 85% of sites have shuttered in the past decade, and in some other Northern California counties, there are none.
The Press Democrat has reported on the state’s beleaguered recycling setup before.
California is one of 10 states with a “Bottle Bill” that applies a refund value to most glass, cans and plastic bottles in an effort to encourage recycling. While an effective tool in general, California’s system, managed by CalRecycle, has struggled, and the closure of site after site has made it difficult for people to cash in. That has led to more than $635 million in unclaimed deposits and a 61% redemption rate in 2021, lower thanmost other states with similar programs.
All recycling programs have had to contend with plummeting prices for reclaimed materials, such as plastics, because markets for them, especially in China, have shrunk.But California’s recycling system has also been plagued by fraud, loopholes and inefficiencies that recycling businesses say have made it hard to stay afloat.
“Over the years, things have gotten rocky. We haven’t made a lot of money, but we’ve been able to stay open,” Gardner said.
Lately, though, Brogard has struggled to absorb increasing traffic as other sites in the region have shuttered. Operational and labor expenses have shot up, and, at the sametime, subsidies provided by the state have gone down.
“We just can’t continue to operate at a loss,” Gardner told me.
“A lot of sites, especially in the higher-cost areas to operate like Sonoma County, have gone out of business,” said Jeff Donlevy, general manager of Ming’s Resource Corporation, a processing facility based in the East Bay.
“Those that need the money go find those very few recycling centers that are open,” he added. “They’re faced with long lines andthe sites, in a lot of cases, are overwhelmed.”
Operations like Ming’s purchase the empties from other recycling operations, including Brogard, and prepare them for resale to be converted into new products. Ming’s handles about one-third of all the California Refund Value containers in the state, andDonlevy estimated business is down 20% to 30% compared to seven years ago.
A major issue, according to recycling operators and advocates, is that the subsidies provided by the state, designed to offset businesses’ costs to recycle, are outdated, inflexible and inadequate.
“The commodity market for recyclables is very volatile these days, and the subsidies paid by CalRecycle are just not enough to help keep sites like Brogard in business,” Donlevy told me.
“It’s a flawed accounting formula that winds up shorting a huge number of redemption centers every few years, and then they just go out of business,” said Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog, who has spent years studying this issue. “It’s not profitable.”
Operations up north are put at a particular disadvantage, Donlevy said, because these subsidies are based on statewide averages, and with 70% of recycling centers based in Southern California, calculations are skewed toward the generally lower costs of doing business there since there are more facilities serving a larger population.
“Recycling centers are small businesses that face obstacles that many small businesses face, which can include rising rents, siting challenges, and wages,” said CalRecycle spokesperson Lance Klug. “Recycling centers also face a fluctuating market for plastic, aluminum, and glass … Payments to recyclers from the program are not able to shift as rapidly as the market.”
Klug noted that changes to the accounting process requires legislative direction.
As sites close, major grocery and retail stores, who sell the bottles and cans in the first place and pass along the California Refund Value fee to consumers, are supposed to be a fallback in the program. Legally, they’re required to redeem the containers if there aren’t any recycling sites nearby.
However, there are workarounds where stores can pay a $100 daily fine or apply for exemptions to opt out of the program, and many do to avoid the hassle, especially because, unlike redemption centers, they don’t get a subsidy from the state.
CalRecycle has a database of participating retailers where customers can get their money back, but frequently, investigations have shown, these stores simply don’t comply.
To see for myself, I visited eight stores around Santa Rosa from CalRecycle’s list, including Safeway, Target, CVS, Grocery Outlet,Lucky, Trader Joe’s and Big Lots. Only three places said they redeemed containers. Three said they wouldn’t, and employees attwo other locations said they weren’t sure.
“Retail stores are given too much leeway to get out of recycling altogether,” according to Tucker, who said that fines are too low,exemptions are too frequent, and enforcement is lacking. “Basically you have a system where the retailers have six ways fromSunday to get out of having to take back bottles and cans.”
“CalRecycle conducts unannounced inspections, in addition to inspections based on consumer complaints submitted to thedepartment. If an obligated retailer is not redeeming, after the first warning, CalRecycle can issue a Notice of Violation andassess up to a $1,000 violation per infraction,” Klug said, pointing to the department’s 1,285 inspections resulting in 265 warningsand 510 violations in the first six months of 2022.
In general, Klug acknowledged that the state’s recycling program “has been challengedin key areas, including maintaining recycling centers in current market conditions.”
Still, he said, it has recycled 454 billion bottles and cans since the “Bottle Bill” wasenacted in 1986, and the state is currently investing significant resources and energyinto getting the system back on track.
Indeed, the state’s proposed budget directed $330 million toward boosting redemptionvia a variety of efforts using surplus deposit funds. Significant money is going towardpilot recycling sites and new innovation, like reverse vending machines and bag droptechnologies that automate the process.
Sonoma County received grant funding to open 10 pilot redemption sites. The firstopened in Sebastopol in March. Another in Healdsburg just opened in July. Applicationsare now open to jurisdictions for five new California Refund Value pilot projects and $10million in funding.
Still, Donlevy pointed out that much of the focus is on establishing new operations, acritical task but one that leaves existing businesses unsupported. He’s worried that without legislative reforms to the recyclingprogram’s fundamental structure, sites will continue to close, and the resulting increase in traffic will overwhelm new efforts andpeople will be discouraged from recycling.
“Businesses will close and they won’t come back,” Donlevy told me. “People will stop recycling through redemption programs,and material will end up in the landfills.”
A number of bills — to study the daily fine for retailers or make wine and spirit bottles redeemable among other efforts — aremoving through the state legislature. But Donlevy and other advocates say they don’t go far enough and must focus on updatingsubsidies and compelling and incentivizing retailer participation to achieve long-term sustainability of the system.
“We desperately need to modernize,” Tucker said. “The way to go is, you need a real reform of the whole system.”
Dennis Blong, project manager with United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay, which runs a recycling center in Petaluma as well asthe pilots in Sebastopol and Healdsburg, said their operation is hugely popular but would likely fail if not for the fact that they’rerun as a nonprofit with the primary mission of providing jobs.
“If we didn’t have that mission behind our efforts, I’m sure we would have had to close given the amount of money that therecycling center is losing every month,” he told me.
Blong is expecting a “dramatic increase” in business once Brogard closes.
He noted that the pilots, which are designed to serve the surrounding local community and operate out of 20-foot shippingcontainers, have limited capacities. The Sebastopol site already maxes out every day for the most part. Brogard gets over 200customers on Saturdays from all over the North Coast and North Bay.
“Where in the hell is all that material going to go?” Blong said. “It should negatively impact a lot of things for the foreseeablefuture.”
“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or ahunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or [email protected] OnTwitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.