By Steve Scauzillo, THE DAILY NEWS OF LOS ANGELES
April 24, 2019
Recycling just keeps getting harder to do.
As neighborhood recycling centers close, consumers may turn to supermarkets, drug and convenience stores to redeem their plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans for their cash value.
However, a consumer group found that even though the state recycling agency lists some 3,800 stores as buyback locations, many may not be aware they are supposed to accept empties and return deposits. Some are flat out refusing.
In a targeted audit of about 50 stores in West Los Angeles and the west San Fernando Valley, two-thirds refused to take consumers’ empty cans and bottles as required, failing to recycle. Large chain stores sampled that denied access included Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions, Albertsons and others, the group reported.
A representative from Vons and Albertsons corporate offices declined to comment and referred all calls to Southern California spokesperson Melissa Hill, who was not available for comment.
Of the remaining one-third stores audited, less than half provided easy access to consumers seeking their deposits back, according to results released Tuesday by Consumer Watchdog, a group advocating for consumer rights and transparency in government.
State law ignored
State law requires stores without a recycling center within a half-mile radius to accept empties and pay consumers the redemption value. Consumer Watchdog said managers at the 66% of stores which refused recyclables were unaware of the law.
The group had opposed a bill by state Sen. Henry Stern, D-Calabasas, SB 724, which would have boosted funding to help struggling recycling centers but also would have enlarged the radius forcing stores to accept cans and bottles to 1 mile. During a hearing Wednesday, the committee removed the 1-mile radius provision but kept the funding portion, a victory for the watchdog group.
“The grocery stores are the last resort for recycling,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “We went to stores to show that grocery stores are not living up to their duties.”
Among those were businesses in the district of state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Redondo Beach, a coastal district that stretches from Santa Monica to the South Bay. Allen is chairman of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.
Court said he wants to see more funding for recycling centers and hopes the amended bill, which moves to Senate Appropriations Committee, will do just that.
Recycling centers struggling
About 40% of parking lot and neighborhood recycling centers have closed in the state within the past five years, Court said. Some say the lowered value of scrap recyclables and minimum wage increases have depressed profits to the point where many centers were shuttered.
The group took videos of their encounters at listed stores, often showing clerks unfamiliar with the program. These took place not only at large grocery stores but also at chain drug stores, smaller convenience stores, liquor stores and gas station minimarts.
In one video, at a Rite Aid store in Calabasas, the person is told the store does not take back empties. Even after she points to a sign in the window clearly stating the store does, two clerks still refuse to accept them. They told the customer to go to a recycling center that did not exist, the group reported.
Later, a day after the video was released by the group and a television news team broadcast a similar video of a second refusal, the store on Wednesday began taking back the empties, said Liza Tucker, advocate with Consumer Watchdog.
A mea culpa
Rite Aid on Wednesday released a statement saying the stores should have obeyed the rules.
“In a recent audit conducted in the Southern California area, two Rite Aid stores that were included in the report should have accepted recyclable items and Rite Aid has taken appropriate steps to ensure future compliance,” Christopher Savarese, director of public relations, wrote in an emailed response to this news group.
“Rite Aid is committed to ensuring our associates in California understand which stores are required to take recyclables and are following the correct procedures regarding recycling redemption,” Savarese added.
Certain Ralphs stores also were shown in videos not accepting empties. Later, the group learned Ralphs added 46 California stores to the “opt out” list in which each store pays $36,500 a year to the state to not recycle.
John Votava, a Ralphs spokesman, said in an email that because of legal issues, he could not confirm the numbers of stores opting out, “but we are pursuing other recycling options for our customers.”
Tucker said the action is an example of how the grocery stores are acting as rogue operatives, making unilateral decisions without informing California’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle.
It is likely that most consumers are not aware that they can redeem used bottles and cans at stores because the list is not well publicized, Tucker said. California charges 5 cents for regular bottles and cans and 10 cents for larger ones.
Eventually, Consumer Watchdog will try to work with legislators to overhaul the 1986 “Bottle Bill,” which set deposits per containers to promote recycling. Court said the state’s famous law needs to be revamped. Overall, the rate of recycling for all beverage containers is 75% in 2017, the latest figures kept by CalRecycle. That is down from 80 percent in 2016.
“That is not good for the state that invented the bottle law,” Court said.
About 10% gets recycled curbside, in which cans and bottles are taken by a trash hauler to a material recovery facility, is sorted from other waste, then shipped to recyclers, often overseas.
Steve Scauzillo covers environment and transportation for the Southern California News Group. He has won two journalist of the year awards from the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club and is a recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing on environmental issues. Steve studied biology/chemistry when attending East Meadow High School and Nassau College in New York (he actually loved botany!) and then majored in social ecology at UCI until switching to journalism. He also earned a master's degree in media from Cal State Fullerton. He has been an adjunct professor since 2005. Steve likes to take the train, subway and bicycle – sometimes all three – to assignments and the newsroom. He is married to Karen E. Klein, a former journalist with Los Angeles Daily News, L.A. Times, Bloomberg and the San Fernando Valley Business Journal and now vice president of content management for a bank. They have two grown sons, Andy and Matthew. They live in Pasadena. Steve recently watched all of “Star Trek” the remastered original season one on Amazon, so he has an inner nerd.