California says it busted $14M can, bottle recycling scheme

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Five people were part of a scheme that involved trucking more than 200 million cans and bottles from Arizona and illegally redeeming them at recycling centers in California for about $14 million in refunds, authorities said Thursday.

A grand jury in Kern County indicted five Californians on charges including grand theft and recycling fraud. While that indictment came in March, details of the case were announced Thursday by California's Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle.

More than a dozen private recycling centers in Southern California also were implicated in the scheme because they accepted the Arizona cans and bottles, according to CalRecycle. While centers are responsible for determining containers' origins, in this case they either were operated by or formed alliances with the fraud ring, CalRecycle said.

Recyclable containers sold in California include a 5- or 10-cent charge, depending on their size. The money is refunded when the can or bottle is redeemed. But out-of-state containers can't be redeemed in California because the cans or bottles were not subject to the initial charge.

Though the exact number of cans and bottles was not known, $14 million in refunds would be the equivalent of roughly 250 million cans or bottles, CalRecycle spokesman Lance Klug calculated.

The investigation involved both CalRecycle and investigators with the state Department of Justice.

In April 2014, DOJ agents "witnessed a semi-truck being loaded with used beverage containers" in Phoenix and tracked it to Bakersfield, according to a CalRecycle news release. In a dirt lot, the containers were moved to a trailer and a U-Haul truck, and eventually taken to a recycling center in the city.

Following leads from that operation, investigators uncovered what they said was a scam in which the recycling centers redeemed containers from Arizona from 2012 to 2014, CalRecycle said.

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