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Recycling centers shut down in Sonoma County

Craig Butcher used to be able to just drive down the street from his Rincon Valley home to a recycling center behind the Safeway on Calistoga Road.

It was so convenient, the retired Santa Rosa Junior College instructor would even throw his neighbors’ plastic and glass bottles and aluminum cans into the back of his truck to ensure they stayed out of the landfill and to earn a little extra money to boot.

But at the end of last month, the company that ran the center, Ontario-based RePlanet, suddenly closed 191 centers around the state, including 17 of its 19 centers in Sonoma County.

The company, the largest private recycling operation of its kind in the state, cited higher operating costs, lower state subsidies and lower prices for bulk recycling on the commodities market as the reasons it scrapped so many recycling centers.

Now Butcher, 73, has to drive across town to the sole remaining RePlanet location in Santa Rosa in the G&G Market parking lot on West College Avenue.

“You want to do the right thing, then all of a sudden the way to do the right thing disappears,” Butcher said.

The closure of the majority of RePlanet locations, some of which go by the name Nexcycle, leaves a gaping hole in the county’s recycling network.

“It’s having huge impact on people in our county who were counting on those centers to be able to return their bottles and cans,” said Patrick Carter, interim director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which educates the public about recycling resources.

There were long lines Thursday at the two remaining RePlanet locations in the county, one at G&G and the other at the Safeway on Commerce Drive in Rohnert Park. The G&G location is busier than ever, and people are sometimes annoyed at the limited options and longer wait times.

“I almost got run over by an irate customer last week,” said George Sears, who works at the center.

Andrew Vasquez, who brought bottles and cans to the G&G location on his bicycle, said he collects and redeems the containers to survive. The 31-year-old said he can no longer go to the location on Mendocino Avenue he once frequented.

“It’s kind of messing up my routine,” Vasquez said.

A 69-year-old woman who declined to give her name said she drove all the way from her home in Cloverdale to the G&G location because nowhere else in her city offers redemption.

Standing in line in the hot sun with at least 12 other people, the woman said it wasn’t worth her time and gas for the few dollars she’ll recover.

“If they’re taking these places away, they shouldn’t be able to charge us anymore!” she said.

Many people questioned the fairness of a system that charges consumers a California Redemption Value, or CRV, for certain beverage containers but leaves them few options to recover those fees.

Consumers pay 5 cents for most plastic, aluminum and glass containers under 24 ounces and 10 cents for larger ones. The money goes into a state fund that pays consumers when they return the containers to redemption centers that pay CRV. Some RePlanet locations paid consumers in cash, while others paid in credit at nearby grocery stores.

The $1.2 billion state fund was $78 million in the red last year, in part because more people were redeeming their bottles and cans, while subsidies to make the recycling centers profitable have increased, explained Mark Oldfield, a spokesman with CalRecycle.

RePlanet cited a reduction in processing fees to recyclers as a reason for its decision, along with rising health care costs and plunging commodity prices.

Payments to recyclers for one of the largest categories of recycling, PET plastic bottles, did drop slightly over the last quarter, from $177 per ton to $165 per ton, but they are up on an annual basis, Oldfield said. The real hit came when prices plunged because of a steep drop in the price of oil, he said. Lower oil prices reduce the cost of virgin plastic, which makes recycled products less competitive, he said.

The state is hoping that other operators will step in to fill the void left by RePlanet. In the interim, it is directing consumers to other locations. In addition to the two remaining RePlanet locations, five other locations in Sonoma County pay cash for CRV. Three are in Santa Rosa: the 76 gas station at 370 Sebastopol Road, Redwood Empire Recycling at 3400 Standish Ave. and Global Materials Recovery Services, 3899 Santa Rosa Ave. The fourth is the Petaluma Recycling Center, 315 Second St., and the fifth is in Windsor at West Coast Metals, 470 Caletti Ave.

Oldfield said it’s well known that the system is in trouble and needs changes to make it viable long term. “It will take a legislative fix to change things,” he said.

Sears said he thinks RePlanet, which did not return calls for comment, is hoping the closures will force the state to revamp the system and increase fees to recyclers.

“I think the state is going to have to give in,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that West Coast Metals in Windsor also pays for CRV.

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