SF BottleBank reports low collection numbers as advocates say it favors grocers, not consumers

Michael Finney Image
Monday, March 14, 2022
Advocates say new recycling program favors grocers, not consumers
The new mobile recycling service is off to a rocky start with low collection numbers -- and some say it serves the interest of grocers, not consumers.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- There are only two recycling centers set up by the San Francisco BottleBank mobile recycling program. So how are they doing?

"We've received about 1,500 bags to date that's resulted in a total of $4,500 turned over to San Francisco beverage consumers," says San Francisco's Department of the Environment's Charles Sheehan.

Consumer Watchdog's Jamie Court filed public records requests with the state of California.

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"We've got the numbers and they are less than underwhelming, they're pitiful," he tells 7 On Your Side. "I mean they're worse than pitiful, there are days when there are no bottles and cans being collected."

Court says the program is failing and believes he knows why: some of those setting up the program were more concerned with what grocers wanted than actual recycling. He points to this group: the San Francisco CRV Alliance. There is not much on its website; a couple of PDF posters and the logos of some of San Francisco's larger grocers.

However over at the SF BottleBank's website, the Alliance is listed as a partner. No consumer group gets that billing.

Consumer Watchdog says the San Francisco CRV Alliance has been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to consult on setting up the BottleBank. Charles Sheehan says that's not true.

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"We have not paid the CRV Alliance entity, they are representing grocers and this program needs grocers," he says.

7 On Your Side asked Sheehan if his department has paid officials of the alliance to be consultants. He says yes: "We have paid consultants that have been working on this program since before the Alliance and they are associated with the Alliance today, and they have helped us set up this project."

In a letter asking for an investigation into potential fraud, Consumer Watchdog says grocers did not want to take back bottles and cans, and now, because of this pilot mobile program, they haven't had to accept empties since last summer, while consumers are still waiting for their mobile recycling.

"The deviousness of this plot is unforgivable," Court writes in the letter. "The failure to spend public funds for their desired public purpose should be investigated and prosecuted."

California State Senator Bob Wieckowski (D - Fremont) was sent the letter and has concerns. "It has that flavor of self-dealing, Michael, which we frown on in government. You don't like people to benefit themselves, we have disclosure laws because of that, right?" he said to 7 On Your Side's Michael Finney.

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"So this was $700,000 not for a single counting machine, not for a single truck. All for consultants to figure out how to make this plan work when it was up and running and it's not working, and this $700,000 as far as we can tell has gone into thin air," says Court.

"If I'm one of the 450 grocers, I know what I got for my money," says Senator Wieckowski. "I got a 'Get Out of Jail' card."

7 On Your Side requested interviews with San Francisco CRV Alliance and the grocers listed on its website, none agreed to speak with us.

At 7 On Your Side's request, the director of CalRecycles, Rachel Wagoner, issued a statement reading in part: "The department is reviewing the information."

Charles Sheehan says there is no wrongdoing and, with the closing of most recycling centers, a fix was needed in the city of San Francisco. 7 On Your Side will keep track of this and will report back.

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