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Sonomans talkin’ trash over recyclables

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At the entrance to the West Napa Street Safeway, in a window obscured by a standing sign advertising the day’s specials, a blue poster delivers an unambiguous message: “Recycle Beverage Containers for Cash: We Are Required to Redeem All CRV Beverage Containers Within This Store.”

The poster is stamped with CalRecycle’s logo, the state agency tasked with enforcing the “Bottle Bill,” the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act adopted in 1986.

On a hot August morning earlier this month, after calling Safeway’s customer service desk and confirming that the store was CalRecycle compliant, Sonoma City Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti arrived with a few friends. They had a truckload of CRV (California Refund Value) containers stuffed into black garbage bags, and together they carried one bag inside.

“We looked like the Beverly Hillbillies!” said Nicky Maloney, who along with her husband, Dave Opatz, accompanied Agrimonti.

According to Maloney, in a previous telephone conversation, Safeway manager Lance Snodgrass had told her that the store wasn’t set up to accept cans or bottles without violating city codes protecting food safety. “They told us ‘we don’t have space, and it would be a health violation,’” Maloney said.

But because the sign in the window said something different, Maloney, Opatz, and Agrimonti decided to press the issue.

In the absence of any kind of dedicated recycling zone at the market, they simply hoisted their bag on the customer service counter, where a willing employee began to count and classify its contents. “Without gloves,” noted Maloney.

The recyclable containers portrayed on the poster at Safeway look squeaky-clean, absent any labels or residue. But the bottles and cans that emerged from the bag proffered by Agrimonti’s brigade looked like real garbage, and smelled like it, too.

“Obviously, the service counter is not a place to bring in these materials,” Agrimonti said, acknowledging that the stunt was intended more as political theater than practical errand. But with constituents lacking local access to bulk CRV recycling since the 2016 departure of RePlanet’s recycling kiosk, Agrimonti feels a responsibility to push the issue into the spotlight. (Safeway manager Snodgrass directed the Index-Tribune’s inquiries to Safeway’s corporate headquarters.)

By law, the public is allowed to bring empty CRV beverage containers to any designated recycling facility and receive a refund. With no such facility within a half mile of the store, Safeway qualifies.

Ashley, the clerk working Safeway’s customer service desk that day, diligently counted out 50 cans from the black bag and paid the recyclers their due.

“She was very sweet,” Maloney said.

The remainder they took to the Napa RePlanet facility where they quickly and easily turned a truckload of garbage into $300. “They dump it in a big bin, weigh it, then give you money. Real easy,” Maloney said. “Being an old diehard hippie, I do it for environmental reasons. But there are plenty of people who recycle for money.”

RePlanet is one of the state’s largest recyclers, but the organization pulled operations out of Sonoma in 2016 as part of a region-wide move to downsize.

“With commodity prices taking a dip over the past few years, lower oil prices made virgin plastic cheaper that recycled plastic,” said Lance Klug, a public information officer at CalRecycle in Sacramento. “The commodities market really put a pinch on these recycling centers, and they make private business decisions whether it is profitable for them to stay in business.”

Recyclable CRV’s are worth five or 10 cents per container, depending on the size of the vessel. As anyone who’s ever bought a soft drink certainly knows, CRV fees are added to the purchase price of qualifying containers and paid by consumers at checkout. Retailers remit CRV surcharges to CalRecycle.

For Maloney, failure to provide a convenient place to reclaim CRV penalties amounts to an arbitrary and illegal tax.

“It’s just stealing!” Mahoney said. “If you’re going to charge me, you should at least be able to tell me where that money goes. Is it going to my local schools? Because I live here.”

But Klug refutes any lack of transparency.

“CalRecycle cannot use the funds for whatever it feels like,” said Klug, acknowledging that some CRV fees are used to cover administrative costs. “California recycles at 79.8 percent. We’d like to keep improving and get to 100 percent, but with the closure of recycling centers over the past two years, frustration is growing. Consumers rightfully expect their refund for empty beverage containers. Were working right now to fix all the program gaps because that was the intention of the law.”

Klug concedes that retailers are “not in the business of being recycling centers.”

“We understand that, everybody understands that, but when the law was enacted 30 years ago that was the grand bargain that was struck: retailers would be the recycling centers of last resort,” Klug said. “I don’t think anybody envisioned this mass closing of recycling centers that would force retailers into this situation. It’s not a good deal for anyone.”

Klug said all qualifying retailers have received notices that they’ve got two options: redeem recyclables in store; option; or pay a daily $100 opt-out fee.

“Once we’re aware that retailers aren’t doing what they said they would do, CalRecycle pursues corrective action,” said Klug. “We do have enforcement teams that go out and inspect.”

Following a complaint received several months ago, CalRecycle inspected the Sonoma Safeway and deemed it compliant.

“We did have a complaint from a consumer who indicated the store was not redeeming,” Klug said. “We had one of our inspectors pose as a consumer and attempt to redeem CRV containers on July 19, 2017. The containers were redeemed and the store did have their in-store redemption sign posted.”

But a posted sign is sometimes just that, and Agrimonti was determined to expose what she saw as a whitewash.

“We approached Safeway because the sign in the window clearly states that they will accept cans and bottles for recycling,” Agrimonti said. “As a group, we made the point that they can’t accept recycling. Some residents use the refunds to supplement their income. Others recycle as a way to conserve their environment. To have to travel to Napa or Petaluma defeats the purpose.”

On the heels of this demonstration of environmental activism, Agrimonti says that a representative of the California Grocers Association called her recently to discuss the issue of CRV recycling in Sonoma. “He shared that his group hopes that assistance of $3 million will be part of the budget as a rider bill,” Agrimonti said. “He asked for my patience, and to ‘stand down.’”

Asked if she intends to honor that request, Agrimonti laughed and said, “Absolutely not.”

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.