Urgent need to fix California’s ‘bottle bill’

Crushed containers await recycling at a California facility. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

It is impossible not to notice that in California the ethic to recycle is strong. We take pride in being the best in the nation and we have trained our public well to do the right thing when it comes to recyclable materials

You see signs of it in coffee shops, movie theaters, parks and street corners – separate refuse containers for beverage containers, organic materials to be composted, and for rubbish. As a rule, you also see people making earnest efforts to discard the right materials into the right containers. We also see a culture of reducing, reusing and straight up rejecting things that don’t fit our culture. The recent movement by consumers to reject single-use plastic straws and plastic bags has shown us the power of the people and how strong their desire is support our environment.

Enacted 30 years ago, the ‘bottle bill’ placed California in the vanguard of the modern recycling movement

Unfortunately, these hopeful signs are somewhat deceiving.

The fact of the matter is that recycling rates are falling in California. For the first time in a decade, the percentage of beverage containers being recycled has dropped below 80 percent. The decline means that about 1.7 million containers that five years ago were being recycled are today being buried in landfills or, worse, tossed aside as litter.

Part of the problem is that California’s landmark Bottle Bill is broken. There is an urgent need to fix it, starting with steps that our elected representatives here in Sacramento can be take right away.

Enacted 30 years ago, the Bottle Bill placed California in the vanguard of the modern recycling movement. The idea was elegantly simple: levy a small charge (a “redemption value”) on each beverage container sold, and then refund it when the container is turned over to be recycled. It created a financial incentive, small but effective, to encourage consumers to do the right thing.

The Bottle Bill has been spectacularly successful. Over the years, nearly 400 billion containers have been recycled.

The program is faltering today because the process for consumers to reclaim the redemption value has become less convenient. Almost 1,000 neighborhood recycling and redemption centers have been shuttered over the last five years and two economic factors are to blame.

First, the underlying value of recyclable materials has plunged, making it harder than ever for recycling centers to turn a profit.

Secondly, while wages, benefits, fuel, rent and most other costs have steadily risen, the processing fee meant to support the industry which is paid by the state, has dropped sharply, from about $1.05 to process 100 containers in 2015 to about 83 cents today.

These two factors have created a tsunami of uncertainty in the industry and caused many redemption centers to simply shut their doors.

For many suburban Californians, this trend may be hardly noticed. Their cities provide curbside recycling, and they can place their recyclable beverage containers in a barrel next to the driveway once a week. But curbside collection and customer redemption are two very different things. In only one of those scenarios does the consumer get their money handed back to them.

SB 452 would restore processing fees for CRV recyclers to the 2015 level and provide some time for California to explore different markets and innovate changes to make the law stronger

In addition, urban and rural Californians have fewer options. They rely on these neighborhood recycling centers to responsibly redeem their containers and recapture the $1.20 redemption value the spend whenever they buy a case of soda. In fact, a recent survey showed that almost 13% of those surveyed “relied” on the money they made by recycling their bottles and cans to “make ends meet” while almost 35% indicated redemption was “an important part of their monthly budget.”

State officials and businesses in the recycling industry have been discussing for years modifications to the Bottle Bill to adapt it to a variety of factors that have changed over the last 30 years. Those discussions should go forward; all good things need to be kept up to date.

But immediate action is needed before the state’s recycling infrastructure collapses entirely. An urgency bill, SB 452 by Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, is now before the Assembly and must be sent to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown by Aug. 31.

SB 452 would restore processing fees for CRV recyclers to the 2015 level and provide some time for California to explore different markets and innovate changes to make the law stronger. It would also require the state to focus its resources on providing more recycling opportunities in areas that are now critically underserved. These actions would stabilize and help repair the marketplace to allow the remaining neighborhood recycling centers to survive and encourage others to reopen. AND the funding for this short term fix exists within the fund itself which currently has a surplus. There is no reason for SB 452 not to pass easily through the process.

The people of California have proven their ethic to recycle is strong and that they want to do the right thing. SB 452 allows their elected representative to step forward and restore opportunities for them to do so.

Ed’s Note: Jenna Abbott is Director of Protect CRV, a coalition of local recycling center owners and customers that works to protect our state’s neighborhood recycling infrastructure.


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