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Jason Walsh: The ‘no-recycle’ diaries


“There is no such thing as ‘away,’” points out conservationist Annie Leonard, of the 2007 hit animated short, “The Story of Stuff. “When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.”

That concept has been something of an existential dilemma recently for Sonoma recyclers, as they’ve been all dressed with “stuff” and no place to go.

That’s because in early 2016, RePlanet – California’s largest operator of beverage- container recycling centers – closed more than 200 of its redemption centers across the state, including its Sonoma Valley hub behind Safeway. Private recycling has never really paid its way, so businesses like RePlanet have depended upon state subsidies to earn a profit, and in recent years those subsidies, which are tied to the price of certain commodities like oil, have been way down.

In other words, collecting Sonoma’s discarded Evian liters is no longer a solid business model.

Still, state law requires that retailers of California Redemption Value (CRV) beverage containers make accommodations for the recycling of such, or face a stiff $100 per day fine – that’s $36,500 a year -- if they don’t.

Turns out, a lot of retailers think the smart money’s on paying the fine – or not even doing that. According to records from the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, every Sonoma Valley retailer required to recycle under the state Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act – those which generate at least $2 million in gross sales – has been choosing to pay the fine, including such outlets as Whole Foods and Lucky. On a Waste Management list of who’s paying the fine from June, CVS Pharmacy and Broadway Shell were simply listed as “non-responsive.”

It all came as a shock to Sonoma City Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti, who has close friends that have long depended upon income from their recycling ventures to help make ends meet. Agrimonti expressed her firm disappointment about the lack of nearby recycling options in an Index-Tribune story in early June, but she’s not throwing her recycling crusade to the curb, as it were. Last week, she and a small contingent of Sonoma recyclers toted several bags of cans, bottles and other flotsam and jetsam to the West Napa Street Safeway, which is one of the few large retailers locally that puts out a sign for recycling.

While Agrimonti is pleased Safeway is “in compliance” – at least in the eyes of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency – she describes the market staff and management as being “caught off guard” by the band of recyclers and somewhat reticent about how to handle a sizeable load of refuse. In the end, Safeway processed one of the bags before the city councilmember and her crew left with the rest – Agrimonti says she “felt sorry for the clerk” who “would have been there all day” sorting through their rubbish. Still, they were clearly left holding the bag.

Agrimonti then took it up with the California Grocers Association who, she says, asked her to “stand down” over her recycling crusade, describing the grocers as being put in a “bad position” ever since RePlanet packed up and left. They predicted Gov. Brown would bring the manufacturers to the table soon.

Sigh. All Agrimonti and her friends want to do is keep some rubbish out of a landfill and get a little pocket change for their efforts. We applaud Agrimonti for her efforts to hold those responsible for collection accountable and urge her not to “stand down.”

She says legislation in Sacramento is currently in the works that would add $3 million in the state budget to incentivize the creation of recycling centers; perhaps additional funds could come from the $100-a-day fines so many retailers are ponying up for non-compliance. Agrimonti has reached out to such nonprofits as the Conservation Corps North Bay to gauge their interest in partnering in local recycling efforts. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Agrimonti and her regiment of recyclers took the rest of their stash to the Napa Recycling Center for collection.

Talk about kicking the can down the road.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.