Recycle-pocalypse

As recycling centers close en masse throughout the city, small businesses may owe millions in fees

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Neighbors complain recycling centers draw "unsavory elements" to neighborhoods, but as centers close customers burden remaining sites. Map of San Francisco courtesy of Tableau software.
Source: CalRecycle and Department of Environment

Joe@sfbg.com

Red explosions and yellow starbursts lit the sky, accompanied by the requisite oohs and aahs.

San Franciscans sat by the beach at Aquatic Park celebrating our nation's independence, eyes fixed upwards. But all around them, a team of independent scavengers, mostly ignored, methodically combed the wharf, plucking cans and bottles from the ground and overflowing trash bins.

Often derided as thieves or parasites, these workers are cogs in a grand machine instituted by California's Bottle Bill in 1986, forming a recycling redemption economy meant to spur environmentalism with market principles.

The concept is simple. Taxpayers pay an extra five cents when they buy a can or bottle, and may redeem that nickel by trading the used can or bottle in at a recycling center. Thus, more recycling is spurred.

But now a wave of recycling center evictions is causing San Francisco's grassroots recycling economy to crumble, and newly released numbers reveal just how much stands to be lost by the trend.

San Franciscan recyclers may miss out on millions of dollars in redemption, local mom-and-pop stores could wind up on the hook for millions of dollars in state fees, and neighborhoods stand to be besieged by recyclers flocking to the few remaining recycling centers.

Recycling activists and local businesses are pushing for change, but NIMBY interests are pushing for more of the same.

 

SOLUTION IS THE PROBLEM

San Francisco Community Recyclers is on the parking lot of Safeway's Church and Market location, and after months of legal entanglement, the recycling center's eviction draws near. Still, SFCR is making a show of resistance.

The San Francisco Sheriff's Department is set to evict the recycling center within a week or so, as the rebel recyclers have so far refused to vacate voluntarily.

Sup. Scott Wiener says he'll be glad to see them gone.

"This recycling center caused enormous problems in our neighborhood," he told the Guardian. This particular Safeway lies within the boundaries of his district, and Wiener says his constituents complain the recycling centers draw too many unruly patrons, who are often homeless.

"There is problem behavior around the center in terms of camping and harassing behavior, defecation, urination in a much more concentrated way," he said.

This animation shows the areas around San Francisco where recycling centers remain, which are often overburdened with customers as other centers close. The red zones indicate areas where supermarkets are mandated by state law to host recycling centers, but have chosen to pay fees instead.

But others say the not-in-my-backyard evictions only serve to create a ripple effect. The catalyst is a story we've reported on before: As well-heeled Golden Gate Park neighbors complained of homeless recycling patrons and waged a successful campaign to shutter the Haight Ashbury Recycling Center two years ago, the clientele adjusted by flocking to the Church and Market recycling center. New numbers illustrate this outcome.

Susan Collins is the president of the Container Recycling Institute, a nonprofit that conducts analysis on recycling data. On average nationwide, Collins said, one recycling center serves about 2,000 people.