Recycling centers across California are closing, and scores of troubled 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 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% 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 parolees.
Scott Dosick, spokesman for the California Assn. of Local Conservation Corps, said that 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% of the state subsidies, and this month it eliminated them entirely.
White said the governor had cast "a veto against green jobs."
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state's Finance Department, said he "would defy anyone to find a governor in this country more committed to the green jobs agenda than Arnold Schwarzenegger."
The governor will propose a plan to refillthe fund in January, when he unveils his next budget proposal, Palmer said.
A hint of the fight to come was in Schwarzenegger's veto message, which chastised lawmakers for trying to expand the deposit program without including liquor and wine bottles. Requiring deposits on those items would pit lawmakers against the powerful alcohol lobby, a major source of political contributions that has scuttled similar efforts in the past.
Schwarzenegger also demanded in his veto message that legislators pass a law forbidding future raids of the deposit fund. It was Schwarzenegger himself who first proposed taking $100 million from the fund in early 2009.
That struck recycling advocates, such as Californians Against Waste Executive Director Mark Murray, as more than a bit hypocritical.
Murray, in an analysis of the veto, said the governor's demand was akin to yelling, "Save me from myself!"