Delayed SF mobile pilot program could cost state big bucks once launched

New mobile recycling solution for San Francisco was announced in Feb. 2020. Almost two years later, no trucks have hit the streets

Monday, December 20, 2021
Delayed mobile recycling service could cost state big bucks
California's CRV recycling effort has issues and consumers are frustrated.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- California's CRV recycling effort has issues and consumers feel ripped off.

"It says right on there," one consumer told 7 On Your Side's Michael Finney. "'California cash refund,' but I won't get money back."

Here is another frustrated consumer: "If they are not going to take my cans and bottles back, why am I paying CRV?"

Yet another: "People are going to wake up and say, 'Where is my money going?'"

So, the state is allowing local areas to try out new recycling schemes. In San Francisco when a mobile recycling program was announced, 7 On Your Side was there.

Charles Sheehan from the San Francisco Department of the Environment told us, "We are going to have a truck, we are going to have a trailer and we are going to pull up to locations in every supervisor district."

It was compared to food trucks. Rather than go to a recycling center, the recycling center will come to you. Our report aired in February 2020. Here's how Michael Finney wrapped that story up: "Now, there are many details to work out, so it could be a year before the whole thing really gets going."

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Well it has been nearly twice that long now, so how is the program working?

If you go to CalRecycles website you find a page devoted to The Beverage Container Recycling Pilot Program. San Francisco's mobile recycling is part of that.

Scroll down the page. "Existing Pilot Projects Increase Convenience in 12 California Cities," it reads.

Keep scrolling... and you'll find a beauty shot of San Francisco's Pier 7 with the iconic Transamerica Pyramid in the background.

The picture is captioned, "San Francisco's Pilot Program: Multiple methods, including bag drop sites with later payment, mobile centers and permanent recycling centers."

Does that sound like it is all up and running? Well, look around. Do you see any mobile trucks?

7 On Your Side asked CalRecycle for an interview. The agency never agreed to an interview, writing in part, "The mobile part of the San Francisco pilot project expects to launch in January 2022. CalRecycle can discuss the mobile part of that program once it has launched..."

So, there you go. There is no mobile program... at least not operating.

"How hard is it to put a truck on the road. A truck that gets texts or gives a text message about its location. How hard is that?," Jamie Court from Consumer Watchdog asked. "Does it take, like, two years to do that? This shows the incompetence and it shows why pilot projects are never going to work. If they can't get a truck on the road in two years, how are they going to make it work when it is on the road?"

Consumer Watchdog has been, well dodging, the state about its recycling efforts. Court says it's actually worse than it first appears because once the pilot program is considered completely operational, the state is out some big bucks. How?

By law, many retailers that are required to take back bottles and cans can opt out if they pay the state $100 a day. This new mobile pilot program, once completely up and running, will free San Francisco stores from taking back the CRV containers or from paying the opt-out fee.

"The state approved the pilot program this past July," Court says, "and then the retailers that were taking back bottles and cans, no longer had an obligation to do that. And yet we're six months from July and there's no truck."

CalRecycle says only the retailers located in areas of the city served by the program are currently freed from the "take back or pay" requirement. 7 On Your Side asked for a map of the served areas and will post it online when it is received.

San Francisco Department of the Environment says it has a partnership with the state that the city is helping to implement.

7 On Your Side spoke with Charles Sheehan from San Francisco Department of the Environment and asked him, "Does San Francisco have a mobile recycling program in operation today?"

Sheehan: "It will be an operation starting January 5 of the new year."

Why is it taking so long? Sheehan told Michael Finney, "CalRecycle opened up the application for this in April of 2019, we submitted our application in August of 2019. We worked with them for a while, they approved our applications in 2021."

He says there was funding to secure, workers to hire and train, trucks, equipment and software to be bought.

"The way we're doing it has never been done before in California," he says, "so we've done our due diligence, it's taking a little time, but we are launching January 5."

7 On Your Side will check back in and see how the rollout goes.

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For now Consumer Watchdog is not convinced that dropping by neighborhoods with a truck is better than having stores take back the containers they sell.

"We are moving away from convenience," Court says, "and the way to get a high redemption rate, like 90%, which they have in Oregon and other states, is to have points of return everywhere."

The new system is different from how you may have been doing things in the past when recycling. For instance, you no longer crush the cans. Read on for a Q & A about the process with Charles Sheehan.

Michael Finney: How will it work for me as a consumer? I'm at home, I have all these containers -- now what?

Charles Sheehan: You need to go on your phone and download the SF Bottle Bank app. You can do that today; you sign up, you configure the app. Then you go to a grocery store and get a bag, where you put your bottles and cans. All the grocery stores -- at least 37 of the 57 -- will have them. And once you put all your bottles and cans into the bag, you go to the mobile drop off site, you pick the one that's most convenient for you, it's on the app, the schedule. It's also on our website

No lines, you drop your bag. They process it that night or the next day. Within 72 hours, the money gets deposited into your bank account into your Vemo account -- simple as that.

Michael Finney: And the bottles and cans are to be kept whole, not crushed, not beat up.

Charles Sheehan: Right, keep the bottles and cans whole, not crushing.

Michael Finney: And those bags are those free at the stores, or do I have to buy them at the stores that have sold me these cans and bottles?

Charles Sheehan: The stores are selling an eight pack of bags for about $2.39, I believe. Once you sign up though, you are eligible for a two pack of free bags and so everyone can get their starter kit free.

WATCH: 7 On Your Side spoke with Charles Sheehan from San Francisco Department of the Environment

7 On Your Side spoke with Charles Sheehan from San Francisco Department of the Environment and asked him, "Does San Francisco have a mobile recycling program in operation today?"

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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