Recyclers close, drying up ‘green jobs’

SACRAMENTO — Recycling centers across California are closing, and scores of at-risk youths are being tossed from “green” jobs onto unemployment rolls in the wake of Sacramento’s raid on bottle deposit funds.

California’s recycling treasury, filled by consumers’ nickel and dime deposits on drink containers, had hummed along successfully for two decades until state officials left it nearly bankrupt after taking $451 million out to help balance the state budget.

The unredeemed deposits that subsidized recycling facilities and such projects as a local Conservation Corps are virtually gone, leaving the programs in the lurch.

Now operators of recycling depots in many supermarket parking lots are suing the state. Without the subsidies, Tomra Pacific Inc., a leading depot company, has closed at least 33 recycling sites — more than 8 percent of its total, said company president Adrian White.

“Finding a location to recycle is going to get harder,” White said.

Lacking a nearby redemption center, consumers can return containers to the grocery store. But the obscure state law permitting that is as unfamiliar to consumers as it is to most store employees.

“If ... you have to be in the know just to get your deposit back,” then the promise at the core of the bottle program — pay a deposit, get it back when you recycle — is voided, said Susan Collins, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Container Recycling Institute.

Beyond the recycling program are the regional conservation groups that employ at-risk youths — high-school dropouts, former gang members and prison parolees.

Scott Dosick, spokesman for the California Association of Local Conservation Corps, said the state’s 12 programs typically employ 4,000 but that cutbacks this year have eliminated roughly 500 of those jobs.

“We are their last resort,” Dosick said of Corps members. “If we lay them off, they’re pretty much back on the street.

“Once they’re gone,” he said, “the odds of getting them back are extraordinarily slim.”

Lawmakers tried last summer to increase deposits or impose new ones on roughly 5 billion drink containers to replenish the recycling fund.

Opponents called the effort a back-door tax increase; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. On July 1, the Schwarzenegger administration cut 85 percent of the state subsidies, and in November it eliminated them entirely.