The state has launched a major crackdown against supermarkets and recyclers that are failing to comply with California's fledgling, refundable beverage container law, it was disclosed Wednesday.
The state action is intended to demonstrate that officials who administer the new anti-litter law will tolerate no violations, said Leon G. Vann Jr., who runs the recycling program.
"Everyone knew when the statute was signed that there were lots of opportunities for cheating," he said. "The real impetus of this (crackdown) is to try to lay the ground rules that we will be aggressively enforcing the statute."
The Department of Conservation, which operates the program, has identified 417 areas around supermarkets and major grocery stores throughout the state where there has been a failure to establish legally required recycling centers within a half-mile circle of their businesses.
Failure to do so as of Jan. 1 will result in a retroactive, $100-per-day fine unless the retailer itself redeems the plastic, glass and aluminum soft-drink and beer containers and pays the consumer 1 cent for each. Few do so, officials said.
In addition, any neighboring retailer within a so-called "convenience zone" circle of the supermarket that sells beer or soft drinks is subject to the fine. The new law makes it the joint responsibility of every beverage dealer within the zone to make sure a recycling center was in operation by Jan. 1.
Consequently, for example, a convenience store or bottle shop within the half-mile radius of the supermarket is subject to the same fine as the supermarket. Department officials conservatively estimate that there are 2,500 beverage dealers statewide subject to the fines for non-compliance.
While failure to establish a recycling center is a violation of the law, so is the failure of a soft-drink or beer retailer to post a sign indicating the location of the nearest center.
Department officials said it is difficult to estimate how much the fines will total. However, they noted that if all the supermarkets and other beverage dealers in the 417 non-complying "convenience zones" were fined $100 a day for one day, the total would be $250,000.
Scarcely had the new law become fully effective on New Year's Day when the department quietly sent investigators into action.
"This is formal notification that we will, in fact, enforce all aspects of the bill," Vann said Wednesday.
The new law, which culminated 20 years of effort in the Legislature to enact a refundable deposit "bottle bill," created 2,500 zones statewide where consumers can turn in redeemable containers and receive a refund of 1 cent for each. Currently, there are 2,049 state-approved recycling centers in operation.
But department investigators identified 417 zones where no recycling centers have been established, including 119 in Los Angeles County, 35 in Orange County and 33 in San Diego County.
In addition, Vann, chief of the department's Recycling Division, said that of the recycling centers visited by state agents so far, 60% were not obeying the law. Violations ranged from failure to operate at least 30 hours a week to failure to staff the operation during the posted hours.
Each violation at the centers, which are operated by both commercial enterprises and nonprofit organizations, is subject to a $100 fine. So far, they have been fined $3,500.
The crackdown also calls for agents to visit each beverage retailer in the non-complying "convenience zones" and every recycling center statewide during the next month to ensure compliance with the law.
As of Wednesday, officials said, 400 notices had been sent to supermarkets and major grocery stores in non-complying zones alerting them that they are subject to the $100-a-day fine.
The state notices also advised the retailers that they could avoid the fine by accepting containers that carry the increasingly familiar "CA redemption value" label and paying consumers a penny per container until a recycling center was approved by the state for operation in the area, or they could return a "declaration" of intent to redeem the containers.
A department spokeswoman, Merci Azar, said officials expect some retailers, in order to avoid the fine, to return the declarations with an explanation that they have been redeeming the containers on their own since Jan. 1. She conceded that it would be difficult for the department to prove otherwise without additional investigation.
Vann also disclosed that the department has fined an Oxnard beverage distributor $7,402 for failure to pay the state last autumn the 1 cent due on more than 500,000 beverage containers that did not carry a state redemption value label.
Vann said that officials are considering seeking criminal charges against the distributor, Steve Borel, operator of Steve's Candy Center.
The new law provides that beer and soft-drink distributors must pay 1 cent per container to a special $130-million redemption fund. However, if the 1 cent is not paid and the container is redeemed for recycling, the fund is short-changed.
In disclosing last month that such an investigation was under way, department officials noted that in the superheated competition between wholesale soft-drink distributors, failure to pay a 24-cent fee on a case of beverages could be highly lucrative to the distributor.
Presumably, the distributor then would offer the case of beverages to the retailer at a price 24 cents less than the price offered by competitors who did pay the fee. On a major order, the savings to the retailer would be substantial, they said.
Azar said 18 other distributors have been investigated and violations were discovered. She said fines will be levied when the cases are complete.
Additionally, Azar said that 78 investigations of beverage dealers have been completed so far and their fines totaled $10,000.