Fixing Our Broken Recycling Laws

Today we announced San Francisco’s new effort — based on a law I authored — to create a flexible, citywide recycling program that works for residents, businesses, and our environment

California’s ground-breaking Bottle Bill, which created the structure for our recycling system over thirty years ago, is a proud achievement for our state. Over the past few decades, however, much has changed in the world of recycling, and elements of the Bottle Bill are now outdated and even counterproductive.

Much work remains to modernize the Bottle Bill, and various attempts at comprehensive reform have faltered over the years, given the many constituencies with strong interests in the law. Yet, we don’t have to wait for a comprehensive overhaul to start making fixes.

One such problem we are addressing now is a broken rule that is hitting small businesses in San Francisco and across our state with onerous obligations and fines that don’t make sense. Today, we announced San Francisco’s plans to solve this problem by creating an innovative, flexible recycling redemption program under Senate Bill 458, which I authored this year in the Legislature.

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Announcing plans for new pilot program with Small Business Commissioner Miriam Zouzounis, Department of the Environment Director Debbie Raphael, and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee at Ted’s Market and Deli in SOMA

Due to the closures of recycling centers all over San Francisco, hundreds of small businesses are currently being forced to either redeem recyclables in their stores or be subject to a $100 per day fine, adding up to $36,500 annually. That’s because the Bottle Bill requires any retail business that sells cans and bottles to redeem recyclables if the store is not located within a half mile of a recycling center. This requirement made sense decades ago when recycling centers were prevalent in our state, but in cities across California these centers have been shutting down. In San Francisco alone, we have gone from 35 recycling centers in 1990 to just seven today. That leaves businesses in 93% of the city subject to the penalties of the Bottle Bill. That’s over 500 businesses in San Francisco, most of them small, independently owned corner stores and groceries.

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Each circle a large grocery store in San Francisco — only those in the green circles are located within a half mile of a convenience zone, and therefore in compliance with the requirements of the Bottle Bill. Not represented on the map are the hundreds of small businesses out of compliance with the Bottle Bill.

To fix this problem, I authored Senate Bill 458, which authorizes five recycling pilot programs in California cities to expand recycling redemption locations in an era of fewer traditional recycling centers, while also protecting small businesses from being forced to accept recycling redemption.

Under SB 458, San Francisco will have greater flexibility to explore innovative, new options for redemption throughout the city, such as mobile recycling centers and reverse vending machines. Once San Francisco puts this program in place, SB 458 provides that small businesses will no longer be required to accept recycling redemption. And San Francisco residents will have even better access to redeeming recyclables. After all, so many recycling centers have closed down that we need new options for people.

Since SB 458 passed in October, all of the major supermarkets in San Francisco have been working together with the San Francisco Department of the Environment to apply for pilot program status and design a program that meets the expanded convenience requirements. The goal is for a plan to be fully formulated in 2018 and then brought to the state for approval. A new citywide program is expected to be formally launched as early as 2019.

I’m proud that San Francisco is coming together to create a more modern, flexible solution to meet our recycling goals that doesn’t burden small businesses. I’m thrilled that I was able to be part of this process by authoring the law that makes it all legal.

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