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Recycling issues pile up as options dwindle

If the recycling center in the Safeway parking lot near the intersection of Market and Church streets closes at the end of this month, as scheduled, 118 smaller “mom n’ pop” markets in the area might have to start offering recycling services.

The supermarket chain has the option of hosting “reverse vending” machines to offer recycling services, or pay the state $100 per store, per day to avoid this duty.

Safeway management is contemplating using a reverse vending machine at its Market Street store, like the one now used at its store on 7th Avenue and Cabrillo Street.

If they do, the smaller stores will likely remain exempt from a 1986 law — commonly called the California “bottle bill” — requiring markets or stores which sell drinks in recyclable bottles and cans to offer recycling services.

On the other hand, if Safeway decides it’s easier to pay $36,500 per year than bother with the machine, the responsibility under the law will fall to smaller markets in the store’s immediate vicinity.

While reverse vending machines meet the law’s requirements, they have limited capacity and cannot handle nearly the same volume in the same amount of time as a dedicated recycling center. Each individual can or bottle must be placed in the machine separately, as opposed to large bags full of recyclables being weighed at once.

Plus, when the bins get full, a store employee must empty them — except for the glass bin. When the glass bottle bin fills up, it must be emptied by a NexCycle company representative, often the following morning, effectively shutting down the service for glass bottles that day.

With the recent removal of recycling services at the Safeway on La Playa near Ocean Beach, and no indication at this point which option Safeway will take for its Market Street store, it’s unclear how many more small markets will ultimately be joining the 191 throughout The City that must either offer recycling or pay $36,500 annually to get off the hook.

In 1990 San Francisco had about 35 recycling centers spread across town. By 2012, that number had dropped to 21.

Then, a group of citizens in Cole Valley and the Inner Sunset successfully pressured the Recreation and Parks department to evict the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center in Golden Gate Park, which they viewed as a magnet for homeless people in their area.

It might just be coincidental, but since then, several other locations have opted to stop offering the service and pay the fee instead.

District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar said at a hearing in City Hall last week:

“My office has heard from numerous residents that this is having a severe impact on their lives. … It’s an economic impact for many of the people that rely on these community recycling centers for a small but consistent income stream that they really need to survive in this City as the rents go up and prices go up.”

Mar added:

“Also small businesses fear that this will have a horrible impact on them. Small convenience store owners may be impacted if the state enforces existing laws that require them to accept recycling or face a one-hundred-dollar-per-day fine. … For a City that brags about being such an environmental leader, we may be … the most underserved city in the state.”

Statistics gathered by CalRecycle, the state agency which oversees recycling, support this statement.

According to their statewide figures, more than 50 percent of “convenience zones” — areas which determine the legal justification for a recycling center — are considered adequately served by recycling centers.

Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose all come in above 40 percent. While in San Francisco, only 22 percent of these zones are considered “adequately served.”

And George Donkor, a branch chief with CalRecycle, said San Francisco has more unserved convenience zones:

“Unserved zones, which is a lack of convenience in some respect, San Francisco has the highest, 41 percent.”

None of the other aforementioned cities rise above 20 percent in that category, Donkor elaborated, and Los Angeles has the lowest, at less than 10 percent.

More than 30 percent of The City’s convenience zones have been given exemptions, making San Francisco the second-highest in the state after Los Angeles.

If the Church and Market Street Safeway recycling center closes, Donkor said CalRecycle will not be exempting the convenience zones affected, so they estimate that the percent of unserved convenience zones in San Francisco will then rise to 57 percent:

“I don’t believe there is any community in the state that has that number of unserved zones.”

Jose Ortiz, a deputy director at CalRecycle, suggested that contrary to what some believe, “blue bin” curbside recycling does not make recycling centers obsolete or undesirable, at least not under the law:

“There’s an easy place where consumers can get their nickels and dimes back (with recycling centers). … It’s a matter of justice in many ways; making sure that people who paid money at the front end get it back. And recycling centers are very good at storing and making sure that the materials are properly maintained.”

Debbie O Raphael, the director of the SF Department of the Environment, noted that most of the recycling centers left are now concentrated in District 6 (SoMa and the Tenderloin) and District 10 (Bayview-Hunters Point, Potrero Hill and Visitacion Valley):

“We all recognize that because we’ve concentrated these recycling centers, this market place, into a very small subset of The City, we’re seeing unintended consequences of deep impacts on neighborhoods. … I don’t blame the neighborhood that feels like they’re carrying the burden for the whole City, and therefore they have all the shopping carts; they have all the noise. We’re only going to be able to address that if we disperse and spread out the responsibility.”

Raphael added:

“So what you’re seeing, and this is what I’m hearing from people is that, for those people who don’t live in those districts, they’re going to have to take everything on Muni, so they’re coming with their bags on Muni. They’re riding their bicycles or they’re taking their shopping carts, so there’s lots of human impacts that are way beyond recycling rates here.”

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