State cracks down on local recycling business while city gives outfit green light
Joey Zeleny thought he was helping the environment and the local economy when he founded a recycling business in Sacramento. The city gave his company the green thumbs up. The state of California, however, says he’s breaking the law.
His venture, called Set It Aside, makes house calls to pick up recyclable materials and then sells them for the best price at recycling centers. Zeleny afterward splits the proceeds with his customers.
It seemed like a forward-thinking, sustainable business plan—except, according to the state, the operation is illegal.
On June 29, Zeleny received a cease-and-desist order from CalRecycle, or the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, demanding that Set It Aside stop handling California Redemption Value payments in Sacramento and Elk Grove. In the letter, CalRecycle told Zeleny that only certified recycling centers are allowed to collect CRV materials from customers and pay the redemption value.
Zeleny admits his business, which has 2,000 customers and earned less than $100,000 last year, isn’t a certified recycler. Set It Aside doesn’t buy the CRV materials from its customers and instead charges a flat 50 percent commission; Zeleny argues that the state’s recycling law doesn’t apply to his service.
Instead, he says he’s found a loophole in the state’s Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act by acting as a broker that runs errands for customers—something Zeleny argues isn’t against the law.
CalRecycle claims there is no loophole and that Zeleny’s interpretation is flawed. Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for CalRecycle, explained that the department’s legal team reviewed Set It Aside’s operations after receiving inquiries from community members in May about how the company handles CRV materials.
That’s when CalRecycle decided Zeleny was violating several provisions in the state’s recycling law.
“In order to participate in the CRV program, which they de facto are, you need to be a certified entity to be able to pay consumers,” said Oldfield.
He defended the cease-and-desist order, explaining that CalRecycle’s intention is to protect consumers and promote transparency.
He also argued that Zeleny’s operation may actually hurt recycling efforts and force other curbside programs to raise collection fees if more customers recycle with Set It Aside.
“When people get their garbage bill, part of the cost of that is the recycling service,” said Oldfield. “Those recycling service costs could go up if there is a decline in revenue.”
The city of Sacramento, meanwhile, sees things differently than CalRecycle. Jessica Hess, a spokeswoman with the city Department of Utilities, said her department supports any attempt to increase recycling in the city and doesn’t have a problem with Zeleny’s curbside program.
“Our stance is if it’s being disposed of properly or it’s being recycled, more power to you,” Hess said. “The more stuff that we keep out of landfills, the better.”
CalRecycle’s actions have angered Zeleny’s customers. Jennifer Cooper, who lives in the Rosemont neighborhood, was thrilled when she found Set It Aside because the company was efficient and sorted recyclable materials for her. When she heard that CalRecycle was forcing the company to stop handling CRV payments, Cooper felt the department was overreacting.
“The fact that [California] is using money to write cease-and-desist letters and have hearings for a company that’s functionally running an errand, it just blows my mind,” Cooper said.
Zeleny has petitioned for a hearing with CalRecycle to appeal the order but says he hasn’t yet received a response. Oldfield said that while the appeal is still pending, the department will probably approve the company’s petition and an administrative law judge might review the case before next year.
If the judge rejects Zeleny’s argument, Set It Aside could continue its curbside service if the company applies to become a state-certified collection program, according to Oldfield. In that case, Zeleny’s operation would have to accept different payment rates from recycling centers that would be slightly less than CRV.
Zeleny said that’s not what CalRecycle previously told him.
“When we called them about the same thing, they told us [only] that we could become certified but we couldn’t pay customers,” he said.
Zeleny hopes the matter is resolved quickly so he can continue expanding operations. The business also has outreach agreements with community organizations that raise funds for schools and churches, he said.
“The only way we’re going to help the local economy is to put money back into local hands,” Zeleny said.