By Michael McGough, THE SACRAMENTO BEE
A family-owned south Sacramento recycling facility permanently closed its buyback center Friday after more than three decades in business, with management pointing to “aggressive” enforcement actions by the state’s recycling department, CalRecycle, that they say resulted in long lines, angry customers and ultimately unsafe conditions for workers.
The closure of the California Refund Value redemption center for Ming’s Recycling at 3316 47th Ave. came one day after a customer allegedly assaulted a pair of employees — one who was inspecting beverage containers for CRV compliance, as well as that employee’s supervisor, who came to assist, according to Jeff Donlevy, general manager for the company.
“Next thing we know, we have four sheriff’s cars trying to separate everybody, and it just turned into a bad scene,” Donlevy said in an interview.
Donlevy told CalRecycle personnel about the incident in an email Thursday morning. He said the 47th Avenue redemption center, one of Ming’s Recycling’s three facilities, would be closed for the day as managers spoke with employees to assess the best course of action.
That afternoon, Ming’s Recycling president Kenny Luong notified CalRecycle that the redemption center at its 47th Avenue facility would not reopen, closing for good effective immediately.
Company president blames state regulators
Luong in his email to CalRecycle said the closure was the result of strict enforcement by the state.
“Due to aggressive enforcement action by CalRecycle, we told our staff to step up our inspection process,” Luong wrote in the email. “As a result, lines became longer and customers became more irate. When our employees reject a beverage container because of a missing label, they always get yelled at by the customer, and in this case, got assaulted.”
Workers must closely inspect for missing labels on beverage containers, Donlevy said, because state-issued fines for doing so can range from $100 to $5,000.
Donlevy said CalRecycle would conduct “secret shopper”-style inspections to check that recycle center workers were inspecting each bottle for a valid label, hitting centers with fines if any were missed.
“Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard from other recycling centers that CalRecycle has stepped up aggressive enforcement in Northern California,” Donlevy said. “They come in and they expect 100% compliance on inspecting loads that come in. So when a consumer comes in, we have to check every bottle.”
In an emailed response, spokeswoman Maria West said CalRecycle is exploring Ming’s specific concerns, but that the agency “has had no findings of violations against Ming’s Recycling center in the last five years.”
“CalRecycle takes enforcement action to ensure compliance with the law and prevent fraud by ensuring bottle and can deposits are not paid out for other materials where no deposit was paid,” West said. “The department takes seriously its obligation to protect deposit funds that belong to people of California. We need to make sure they are used for recycling the bottles and cans in this program.”
Donlevy argued that the state’s enforcement actions are not an efficient means of preventing fraud, instead punishing recycling centers and consumers for small mistakes that are unintentional in most cases.
“Every day, we find ourselves in situations where we’re doing what’s required under the regulations, but consumers get upset,” he said. “These little nuances, the consumers just don’t understand.”
The Ming’s Recycling location on 47th Avenue had been open since 1988 and, according to Donlevy, would often serve between about 150 and 300 customers on weekdays and as many as 400 some Saturdays.
The closure means those accustomed to taking their bottles and cans to Ming’s will have to go elsewhere, making lines at other recycling centers longer.
“The frustration’s only gonna grow,” Donlevy said.
The processing side has become the bulk of Ming’s Recycling’s operations in recent years, according to Donlevy. The business has two other processing facilities: one on Florin Road near French Road in south Sacramento and the other in Hayward.
Should California’s recycling buyback system be reformed?
Longstanding frustrations by CRV buyback operators with the enforcement are being exacerbated by Senate Bill 1013, nicknamed the “Bottle Bill,” which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law last year, Donlevy said.
SB 1013 will add wine and spirits containers to the CRV buyback program starting in 2024. But it also increases the maximum penalty for violations by recycling centers to $5,000 from $1,000.
Hundreds of bottle and can redemption centers have shuttered in recent years — before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of buyback centers in California dropped from more than 2,600 in 2013 to fewer than 1,300 in 2019. There are now about 1,260, according to the CalRecycle website, including 64 in Sacramento County.
Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, sent a letter to Newsom in 2019 alleging that “gross mismanagement” at CalRecycle was responsible for the mass closures, saying the agency required change in leadership and modernization of its systems.
After this week’s assault incidents, Ming’s Recycling “did receive some emails back (from CalRecycle) that they were very sorry to hear about what happened,” Donlevy said, adding that officials said there was nothing “they could do to change it or prevent it.”
“It’s really in the hands of the legislators to make changes.”
Luong referred to Senate Bill 353, introduced last month by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, as the only reform effort currently being considered to the state’s recycling buyback program.
Under current state law, CalRecycle sets its scrap material valuations for recyclers based on materials’ average value over the past year. But recently, valuations for aluminum and plastic have fluctuated significantly within the year, often rendering the cost to run buyback centers unsustainable.
SB 353 would reduce the valuation window from an annual average to a three-month average, which Dodd and bill proponents say would stabilize the recycling market by more accurately reflecting the recent price of scrap materials. It would also expand the buyback program to include larger juice bottles.
Donlevy said SB 353 doesn’t go far enough, and that lawmakers should consider more provisions to address the enforcement issue his recycling center and many others continue to face.
“At this point, it doesn’t seem like they’re interested in taking up any of the issues … that would help open new recycling centers” or keep existing ones open, he said.
“We’re calling it quits because we can’t get legislators to talk to or listen to us.”