by Andrea Nakano and Abigail Sterling

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — California views itself as the greenest state, but when it comes to recycling bottles and cans, it’s actually far from it, KPIX discovered in an undercover investigation.

Most employees don’t know about one reason why, and neither do many consumers: if you paid a deposit for bottles and cans, you are supposed to be able to get your money back. It’s part of California’s 33-year-old bottle bill. But don’t expect smooth sailing, because many retailers are flouting the law.

Greg Wright found out the hard way when the recycling kiosk in the parking lot of his neighborhood grocery store closed last August. He’s a long time bottle and can redeemer. “I don’t need the money, but I don’t want to give it to the sanitary department,” said Wright, who gives his CRV nickels and dimes to charity.

So he called Sacramento. “I said, ‘Hey, what is going on? How come I have to drive an hour to recycle a can or a bottle?’ And they got back to me and said, ‘Well you don’t,’” said Wright.

Cal Recycle, the agency that oversees recycling in the state, told him he could redeem his cans right there at his Lucky supermarket. But when he went in, he said “no one in the store knew anything.”

“‘We don’t do that’ was the answer I got,” said Wright.

Turns out retailers became the mandated recyclers of last resort last year, when 300 Replanet recycling kiosks shut down in supermarket parking lots across the state.

Here’s how the law works: If there is nowhere to recycle within a half mile radius of a retailer, known as a “convenience zone,” then that retailer has to take back your bottles and cans and give you your money back, unless it pays the state a $100 a day fee to opt out.

Not all bottles and cans are created equal. The ones that have a CA CRV label can be redeemed for 5 or 10 cents, depending on size. Most beverages are included. The main exceptions are 100% fruit and vegetable juices in containers of 46 ounces or more, milk bottles and wine bottles.

In the Bay Area, hundreds of stores are on the state mandated recycler list, from supermarkets to pharmacies and gas stations. But our undercover investigation found that many are not following the rules.

KPIX randomly picked 20 stores in five Bay Area counties. Our first stop was a Walmart in Pleasanton, where a manager said, “We don’t do recycling.”

We mentioned that a sign on the door tells customers to go to Replanet down the street, but the company is out of business. The manager wouldn’t budge. “No, we don’t do it,” she said.

The same response came at another Walmart across the bay in Mountain View.

At a 7-Eleven in Santa Clara, the clerk just ignored us, even though the sign on his front door clearly says his store is required to redeem all CRV. At another 7-Eleven in Pleasant Hill, the clerk was more apologetic. “I have no idea how to do that,” he said.

He pointed us across the street to a Safeway store, where we had no better luck. “We don’t have recycling for this stuff here,” a clerk said.

Two other Safeways we visited claimed they pay the $100 a day fine to opt out, but Cal Recycle says they don’t.

CVS Pharmacy in San Bruno did redeem, maybe because last December Cal Recycle slapped them with a $3.6 million dollar fine for “not” doing it.

And Trader Joe’s in Menlo Park went above and beyond by helping us sort through our stash.

But the biggest surprise of all came at a Walgreens in Sunnyvale, where the store manager took our bottles, then threw us a zinger. “What do you guys do with them?” we asked.

His response: “It goes in the dumpster. I don’t have any way of returning them, to anyone.”

In all, 9 out of 20 retailers we visited refused to redeem our bottles and cans, even though the state requires them to do so.

William Mar, a longtime employee at San Francisco neighborhood supermarket Cal Mart, is not surprised. “It’s a loss in terms of cash, money and it’s a loss in terms of storing the garbage outside,” Mar said.

He said Cal Mart has chosen to redeem bottles and cans because, as a small supermarket, it can’t afford to pay the $100 a day fine. But it’s work intensive, and he doesn’t believe it’s doing anyone any good anyhow.

“I think the system itself has failed the people of the state of California. It’s nothing more than a tax,” said Mar.

In a statement, the California Grocers Association said, “Grocers are trying to do our best in a situation that was not designed for retailers of food to also become can and bottle recyclers.”

As for Greg Wright, after complaining for months, he’s now able to redeem bottles and cans at “his” Lucky store. “The bottom line for me is, if you charge me a nickel for a can, and the regulation says I get my nickel back, then I want my nickel back,” Wright said.

One might be wondering what retailers do with the redeemed bottles and cans. As KPIX witnessed in person, at least one store–the Walgreens in Sunnyvale–throws them in the trash.

Trader Joe’s in Menlo Park told us they pay for extra curbside recycling. Technically, that’s a violation as well; the state says they’re supposed to take them to a certified recycling center, which can be a lot to ask.

Altogether there are 4,455 retailers in California that are required to redeem bottles and cans. Cal Recycle is tasked with enforcing the CRV laws. Last year it conducted 2,556 inspections and issued 161 notices of violation resulting in $55,400 in fines.

List of the 20 sites visited by KPIX:

  1. Safeway, 5290 Diamond Heights Blvd, San Francisco (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  2. Walmart, 4501 Rosewood Dr, Pleasanton (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  3. 7-Eleven, 601 Patterson Blvd, Pleasant Hill (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  4. Safeway, 600 Patterson Blvd, Pleasant Hill (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  5. Lucky Store, 1590 Sycamore ave, Hercules
  6. Lucky Store, 1530 Fitzgerald Dr, Pinole
  7. Lunardi’s, 1085 Alameda de las Pulgas, Belmont
  8. CVS Pharmacy, 10 Bayhill Shopping Center, San Bruno
  9. Mollie Stone Market, 27 Bayhill Shopping Center, San Bruno
  10. Cal Mart Supermarket, 3585 California St, San Francisco
  11. Target, 2675 Geary Blvd, San Francisco
  12. Rite Aid, 20572 Homestead Rd, Cupertino
  13. Safeway, 3970 Rivermark Plaza, Santa Clara (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  14. 7-Eleven, 3580 Monroe St, Santa Clara (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  15. Walgreens, 780 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
  16. Sprouts, 111 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
  17. Walmart, 600 Showers Dr, Mountain View (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  18. Trader Joe’s, 720 Menlo Ave, Menlo Park
  19. Pak N’ Save, 3889 San Pablo Ave, Emeryville (DID NOT RECYCLE)
  20. Encinal Market, 3211 Encinal Ave, Alameda (DID NOT RECYCLE)

Statement from Lucky:

“Our company policy is, and has always been, to take-back recyclable materials in stores that are mandated to under AB 2020—meaning that there is not a third party recycler serving the convenience zone. If our Hercules store was not taking back, that was an error on the store’s part and we are sorry for the inconvenience that caused our shoppers.” (Victoria Castro, Public Affairs Manager)

Statement from Safeway:

“There are complexities with the state’s CRV redemption requirement that have led to confusion within the industry and, unfortunately, some mistakes on the part of retailers. There was a misunderstanding at the three Safeway stores you visited. We’re in the process of retraining the employees at the locations required to accept CRV redemption.” — Wendy Gutshall, Safeway Director of Public and Government Affairs

Statement from Walgreens:

“In accordance with state law, Walgreens stores that fall into the California Redemption Value Program are choosing to accept returned bottles and cans or opt out in accordance with the state program requirements. We continue to educate and reinforce the program requirements to our team members. (Alexandra Brown, Walgreens Corporate Media Relations)

Note: Walmart and 7-Eleven did not respond.

Link to Cal Recycle website where consumers can check what retailers in their zip code are required to redeem bottles and cans: https://www2.calrecycle.ca.gov/BevContainer/RecyclingCenters/

*Click on “Recycle” then click on link: “Search for In-store Redemption retailers”

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