California beverage retailers face hard choices after recycling center closures
If you are in the grocery business, guess what? You might also soon be in the recycling business.
That is after rePlanet, California's largest recycling chain, ceased operations, closing all of its 284 recycling centers and processing facilities and terminating its entire workforce throughout California. The closures included five locations in Solano County, one in Napa County and two in Sonoma County.
Beyond limiting the spots where consumers can get a payment for each bottle and can received, there are significant impacts from the closures for business.
Many California and North Bay grocery and beverage retailers could soon be required to pay a $100 per day fee or become recycling redemption centers themselves to compensate for the closed facilities.
California's Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, or 'Bottle Bill,' established so-called 'convenience zones' throughout California. A convenience zone is typically a half-mile radius around a beverage retailer in an urban or suburban area with annual sales of $2 million or more, according to California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle, the state agency charged with regulating and enforcing recycling statewide.
If a certified recycling center like those closed by rePlanet — many of which were essentially trailers in shopping center parking lots — is operational within a convenience zone, beverage dealers within that radius are not required to redeem bottles and cans for 5 and 10 cents apiece.
If there is no center, however, all beverage retailers in a convenience zone, regardless of annual sales, have two options, according to CalRecycle:
Option A is to redeem beverage containers in-store, paying customers nickels and dimes for their recycling items and storing and bringing them to a disposal facility themselves.
Option B is to pay a $100 per day fee.
Some of that came as news to Giovanni Ferrari, the front end manager at Lira's Supermarket in Rio Vista in Solano County, where a rePlanet resale site recently closed. Ferrari said he was aware of the potential fee — and called it an impossible burden — but said his store planned to document that they could not find a new recycling partner and seek an exemption from the state.
He was not aware, however, of the possibility that his store could choose to begin redeeming bottles and cans on site.
'That would definitely not (work)' he said. 'We're already shorthanded as it is, we already have enough trouble getting people to stay…. If it came down to it, to save us $100 per day, it would come about, but that's last resort.'
The situation retailers like Ferrari and others find themselves in is because the original Bottle Bill never accounted for large recycling companies suddenly shutting down, said Aaron Moreno, the senior director of government relations for the California Grocers Association, which represents about 600 large and small grocery stores statewide.
'When the law was written back then there was no mechanism in place for instances where it's the recycler that goes away,' Moreno said. He said the stores he represents are hoping for a legislative fix statewide before the end of the current legislative session in Sacramento in September.
'The main thing that grocers are planning is hoping the legislature can come up with a fix before the end of session, whether it be temporary or permanent.' He floated the idea of giving the director of CalRecycle more discretion to act in situations like these.
'Any fix has to anticipate instances in which the retailers didn't cause the recycling center to close and give more discretion to the director to act more quickly when emergencies happen.' Moreno added.
Not everyone agrees that is the right fix however.
In a letter sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month, the head of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog lambasted CalRecycle and said it had failed to enforce retailers' obligations to redeem bottles and cans when they chose that option, prevent the closures, and live up to its obligation to issue financial reports required by the legislature for the last thirteen months, creating a crisis.
Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog also said large companies like Walmart routinely underreport the actual deposits they pay out and keep the difference and are not fined by CalRecycle.
'CalRecycle has failed to save the redemption centers, to force the retailers to live up to their legal obligations, to hold beverage companies accountable for bilking the state and to honestly present the financial ledger of the recycling program' the group's President Jamie Court wrote in a letter to Newsom. 'Instead, the entirety of CalRecycle's response has been to quibble with our numbers in the media and ignore the crisis.'