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Call Kurtis Investigates: Recycle Center 'Tricks of the Trade' Exposed

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) -- As the number of Californians who recycle has reached a record high, recycle centers have become big business -- and they're not all playing by the rules, a Call Kurtis undercover investigation has learned.

In fact, the most common tricks can be pretty easy to spot.

What is California Redemption Value?

The State of California imposes a redeemable 5- to 10-cent fee on most beverage containers sold -- commonly referred to as California Redemption Value or CRV.

It's meant to encourage recycling: If consumers recycle the cans and bottles they buy, they'll get that CRV fee back from the state.

It's led to the higest recycle rates ever in California -- with more than 80 percent of containers sold being redeemed, according to CalRecycle.

"It's more popular than ever," the agency's Mark Oldfield told Call Kurtis.

And that means more consumers are turning to neighborhood recycle centers -- which often pop up in parking lots of grocery stores or gas stations -- to redeem their aluminum, plastic and glass recyclables by the pound.

These recycle centers are required by law to weigh what consumers bring in accurately and pay them fairly. But how many of recycle centers really do?

Recycle centers across three counties had no idea Call Kurtis hidden cameras were watching them.

Jerry Morishige and Adam

Counting soda cans in his garage wasn't exactly a hobby for Jerry Morishige of Sacramento -- but he wanted to get back what he already paid in CRV.

The money collected went to a good cause -- his 7-year-old grandson Adam's college fund.

"I don't want to touch it," Morishige said of the coffee-can-turned-piggy-bank he used for savings. "It's all for him."

But Morishige said his recycling center has shorted him. He claims he weighed his cans himself at home when he had a hunch the company's scale was off.

"Some people you just can't trust," he said.

The Honesty Test

Collecting more than 100 pounds of aluminum cans and plastic and glass bottles, Call Kurtis went undercover.

For his expertise, we enlisted the help of David Lazier, a now-retired official who spent four decades enforcing state weights and measures laws, testing and certifying scales in the marketplace.

Lazier helps our undercover producer and photographer weigh cans and bottles on calibrated, county-certified scales.

We weigh each of our samples and label each bag with letters of the alphabet, so we know exactly how much we should get from each recycle center.

But what will the recyclers tell our hidden cameras?

Recycle Trick #1

One recycler we visit shorts us from the start.

We know we have 1.270 pounds in our plastic bag, but the company tells us differently.

"You got one pound," an employee said to our producer.

He told us the scale is exact, but we notice their scale only shows whole pounds, not fractions thereof.

Our producer challenges the owner, saying he thought he'd brought in more than that one pound.

"Does it matter?" the owner said.

"If you have a lot of stuff it would matter," the producer said.

"If you have a lot of stuff then you should be concerned," the owner responded. "Not for what you brought."

"They're completely operating in violation of the law," Lazier said of the scale the company is using to weigh recyclables.

That's Recycle Trick #1: using the wrong type of scale.

California law requires recycle centers to use scales appropriate for the weights being measured.

Scales must be accurate within 20 "divisions" -- that is, the smallest amount between any two weights the scale can detect. So if the scale rounds to the nearest pound, it is not allowed to weigh anything less than 20 pounds.

We weighed all our samples on scales with a five-thousandth of a pound division (0.005 lbs.) before visiting recycle centers -- but many recycle centers used scales with larger divisions of five-hundredths of a pound (0.05 lbs.), a tenth of a pound (0.1 lbs.) or more.

Generally, Lazier said if consumers have less than two pounds, they shouldn't allow a recycler to use anything less accurate than a five-hundredths scale.

Recycle Trick #2

At another recycler, our undercover producer found the right type of scale, but the worker rounds down the weight.

"You round down?" the producer asked.

"Yeah we round down," the worker said.

The company claimed it's because there could be leftover liquid inside our cans, so the worker lowers our weight, even though our cans are empty.

Lazier said that's illegal -- Recycle Trick #2: claiming they have to round down over liquid inside.

State law allows a company to charge a lower per-pound rate on "dirty" recyclables, Lazier said, but it doesn't allow them to simply round down the weight on the scale arbitrarily.

Recycle Trick #3

The most common problem Call Kurtis encountered was underweighing cans and bottles, which happened at 10 of the 15 locations Call Kurtis visited.

"You could make a lot of money this way," consumer investigator Kurtis Ming said to Lazier.

"You could," Lazier said, nodding his head.

That's Recycle Trick #3: using a scale calibrated in their favor -- even if the company doesn't know it's getting the benefit of an unfair scale.

State law requires recycle centers to give customers the full weight they bring in for redemption, Lazier said, though most customers don't weigh their recyclables beforehand using a county-certified scale and can't compare.

Morishige's Hunch

After interviewing Morishige about his recycler, Call Kurtis went undercover to test it out.

Taking in seven samples pre-weighed by county-certified scales over the course of three weeks, we found Morishige may be right.

Brambila Recycling in south Sacramento shorted us all seven times, as Call Kurtis reported in a June investigation.

Ming visited the location a few days after we went undercover to speak with the worker who shorted us.

"Are you cheating customers here?" he asked.

The worker shook her head but didn't respond verbally.

"Are you?" Ming asked again.

Despite speaking with our producer on his visits, the worker didn't respond to Ming's question.

Sacramento County has since fined Brambila $400 for cheating county investigators 19.4 percent of the weight they brought in to recycle.

Brambila has since assured Call Kurtis it has addressed any issues.

How to get your money

"How do I make sure I'm not going to be cheated?" Ming asked Lazier.

"It's difficult, Kurtis," he said.

But one trick that works in the consumers' favor: If you bring in 50 or fewer cans or bottles, state law requires the recycle center count it instead of weighing it. Then you'll get exactly what you paid in CRV.

But the sad truth is that unless consumers weigh their larger bags of cans and bottles on a calibrated scale, they may never know if they're getting cheated.

Feeling cheated by his recycle center, Morishige said he'll go somewhere else, and hope he has better luck as he tries to grow his grandson's college fund.

"They may have thought they were shorting me, but actually they were shorting my grandson," he said.

Counties are supposed to check the accuracy of these recycle centers from time to time, but often they admit they don't have time to look into it unless they get a specific complaint first. They encourage the public to contact their county department of weights and measures if they encounter problems with scales.

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