California levels new charges in recycling fraud crackdown

By Steve Gorman

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles-area truck driver has been charged with smuggling 7,000 pounds of used beverage containers into California from out of state, marking the third such arrest this year in a crackdown by California's recycling enforcement agents.

Cesar Vargas, 42, is accused of trying to defraud the California Redemption Value (CRV) program, which allows empty soft-drink bottles and cans to be redeemed at state-certified recycling centers for the 5- or 10-cent deposits consumers pay on those containers when they are purchased.

California's so-called bottle bill program, which collects and redeems roughly $1.2 billion in deposits a year, was launched in 1987 to encourage recycling of beverage containers made of glass, plastic and aluminum.

California is one of 10 U.S. states with similar programs. Because most states, including neighboring Arizona and Nevada, lack their own container-deposit laws, California restricts its CRV payments to returned in-state containers only.

Working with the California Department of Resources and Recovery, or CalRecycle, a special enforcement team of the state Justice Department has been stepping up efforts this year to prevent recycling fraud by organized operators, said Lance Klug, a CalRecycle spokesman.

The latest defendant in that crackdown, Vargas was arrested last month by recycling fraud agents at an agricultural inspection checkpoint in Blythe, California, just over the border from Arizona.

Inspectors there seized nearly 7,000 pounds of empty plastic and aluminum beverage containers that agents conducting surveillance on Phoenix-area recycling centers had seen being loaded into the suspect's tractor trailer for clandestine delivery to California, Klug said.

CalRecycle estimates that the smuggled containers, if eligible for CRV redemption claims, would be worth more than $7,100.

Vargas, of Compton, has been charged with recycling fraud and attempted grand theft, according to CalRecycle. A spokeswoman for the state attorney general said he faces charges that carry a prison sentence ranging from six months to three years.

His was the third such arrest this year and comes two months after five other people were indicted on similar charges in connection with an alleged out-of-state container scheme involving 24 Southern California recycling centers and $14 million worth of fraudulent CRV claims over two years.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)