Bay Area Lawmaker Introduces Recycling Bill With Relief For Grocers

A worker watches as aluminum cans are emptied into a bailer at the Norcal Waste recycling facility July 11, 2003 in San Francisco.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Revisions, negotiations and amendments...lawmaking in Sacramento is a long process that can take years.

During the last week of the legislative session, though, it’s more like a short, furious dash.

That’s the case with a new recycling bill San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting introduced Monday that has marched through legislative committees this week.

Ting wants to bring temporary relief to cities, grocers and small convenience stores that have been pinched by the abrupt closing of recycling centers across the state. He says the state is reeling from the shutdowns.

“People are lining up at different recycling facilities,” he said. “They are waiting for hours at a time and are unable to redeem their aluminum cans, their bottles. If we don't do something very soon people will be encouraged to stop recycling, which is not what we want.”

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The bill provides $5 million to launch recycling trucks ("mobile recycling centers," in legislative parlance) and $5 million to shore up existing recycling programs.

Ting introduced the proposal during the hurried last week of the legislative session in Sacramento, while lawmakers wrangled votes for sweeping new plastic regulations, including those proposed in another of his measures, AB 792. That bill would establish a minimum level of recycled content in plastic bottles.

The Legislature is also considering a first-in-the-nation plan to require manufacturers of single-use plastic to take responsibility for the fate of their products. Industry groups have  lobbied hard against the bill.

Ting’s proposal passed the Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee Wednesday and the Appropriations Committee Thursday.

Friday is the deadline for bills to pass the Legislature or they are dead for the year.

Recycling Center Closings

In August, rePlanet, California’s largest operator of recycling centers closed 284 facilities and laid off 750 employees. The shutdowns resulted in the state losing nearly a fifth of its redemption centers in a single day.

The company cited economic pressures, including the plummeting value price of aluminum and recycled plastics, as a reason for going out of business. In the past, recycling centers bundled materials and resold them, often overseas to China, but that country is now refusing much of the plastic from the U.S.

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, introduced a more comprehensive bill, SB 634, that includes $10.5 million a year to pay for recycling and cleanup activities. But his office said lawmakers are focused on Ting’s plan and are unlikely to consider the measure unless AB 54 fails.

A powerful environmental advocacy organization on the issue of recycling, Californians Against Waste, is opposing Ting’s plan in its current form. A memo from the group said the bill doesn’t address the root causes of recycling center closings. The group does support Glazer’s proposal.

Grocers and Recycling

California collects a 5 or 10 cent deposit that consumers pay on cans and bottles. Consumers who bring their used cans and bottles to recycling centers can get that money back, and the state uses these funds to pay for recycling programs.

California's Bottle Bill from 1986 created half-mile areas around grocery stores where consumers can redeem their deposits (3 miles for rural areas). If a recycling center doesn't exist inside of one of these convenience zones, then any business that sells soda, beer and other beverages in bottles and cans is mandated to take empties from consumers or pay a $100-a-day waiver. 

The closure of recycling centers created an issue for stores that were not prepared to absorb people's bottles but were suddenly required to do so.

With Ting’s plan, grocers won’t have to pay the fee until March 1, 2020.

The California Grocers Association is supporting Ting's proposal. Ron Fong, the group's president and CEO, said the state's recycling system is outdated and needs to be fixed. He hopes the mobile recycling centers will give people more opportunity to redeem their deposits.

"A hundred dollars a day is onerous and small grocery stores cannot afford to pay it," he said. "It’s not the grocers fault that rePlanet decided to close the centers, but we are left holding the bag. This gives us a reprieve."

But, consumer advocates have long criticized big grocers for not accepting recycling, even before rePlanet shuttered all its recycling centers in August.

In May, Consumer Watchdog surveyed 50 Los Angeles-area businesses, including Rite Aid, Ralphs, Vons, Pavilions, Albertsons, and others, and found that two-thirds of the companies refused to redeem the deposits they are legally required to.

The legislative deadline for lawmakers to introduce new bills passed months ago, but Ting and Glazer removed the text of different, unrelated bills and rewrote them with their current proposals, a procedure called gut-and-amend.

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, says the bills amount to a corporate giveaway because they would release retail stores from their legal recycling requirements.

In an editorial published in the Sacramento Bee, Court argues that Ting and Glazer’s bills are filled with “rotten scraps of failed legislation the grocers lobby packed into two last-minute bills.”

She argues that Californians pay $1.5 billion each year for bottle and can deposits, but they only get about half of that money back. When no recycling centers are close, grocers should be the ones that redeem. “Too often," she said, "they don’t.”

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