State’s recycling program regulator, CalRecycle, failing to ensure stores take back containers
Op-Ed Commentary by Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog, THE MERCURY NEWS
April 10, 2019
Consumers are forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars a year — nearly half of every nickel bottle or can deposit they make — as supermarkets that agreed decades ago to take back empty beverage containers, or make recycling available, renege on that promise of convenience.
Supermarkets never wanted to take back empties and refund deposits. In a 1986 compromise, the California Legislature enacted a beverage container recycling law that gave supermarkets a pass in return for their help creating nearby recycling centers where customers could take empties and redeem deposits. Stores would still have to refund deposits in places lacking centers.
Instead, today, consumers are losing access to both options and supermarkets are making it worse. As recycling centers facing economic hardship close right and left, many stores that are supposed to be consumers’ backstop are simply refusing to take back containers. In fact, over the decades, 1,200 stores won exemptions from recycling responsibilities altogether. The recycling program’s regulator, CalRecycle, isn’t making grocers take their responsibilities seriously.
A new Consumer Watchdog report finds that of the $1.5 billion in deposits consumers pay, they lose $732 million. That includes more than $300 million in unclaimed deposits as access to container redemption shrinks. Beverage distributors such as Walmart hold back another $200 million in deposits by undercounting what they collect. Another $200 million in deposits go to trash companies, curbside and other collectors, that cash in bottles and cans, taking the redemption money consumers should instead be able to easily collect.
Waste haulers tout the convenience of throwing recyclables into trash cans or curbside bins for later sorting, but one quarter of all the recyclables they collect wind up so soiled they can only be landfilled. No wonder China is rejecting much of our recyclable waste as worthless. In contrast, recycling centers have lower contamination rates for materials such as glass that can be turned into new bottles on the domestic market, and they return consumer deposits.
California’s effective redemption rate, setting aside curbside pickup and drop off where consumers don’t redeem, is now a mere 66 percent. CalRecycle’s failure to respond to the lack of consumer access, and its lax oversight of stores shirking their responsibilities, are at the heart of the problem.
In the last several years, 40 percent of recyclers have shuttered while supermarkets sit on their hands. Hundreds more will close this year. Today, the 10 worst-served counties have an average of one center serving 60,000 people. Hours-long lines are pushing more consumers to give up on redeeming deposits.
Grocers have given more than $1 million to state lawmakers between 2015 and 2019, and are behind legislation, SB 724, by state Sen. Henry Stern, D-Canoga Park, that grants bigger store exemptions from redemption requirements in exchange for allocating more money to the recycling centers. It’s a political hijacking that the Gov. Gavin Newsom and Stern should not accept.
Newsom needs to step in and save the recycling centers. They are highly dependent on volatile scrap values, yet they are underpaid by the state. Most importantly, CalRecycle’s $300 million worth of unclaimed consumer deposits can be used to save these centers. There is a way; there just needs to be the will.
Instead of giving in to grocers’ demands for more exemptions, Newsom and the Legislature should eliminate all exemptions for grocers and make them prominently advertise and live up to their redemption responsibilities. CalRecycle should enforce the law like a cop on a beat, publicizing and fining the grocers and distributors that don’t accept empties or accurately count deposits.
Longer term, we need to overhaul our recycling laws. If we set a 90 percent redemption target, we could achieve it if we raised deposits as did Michigan and Oregon, where the rate has hit that goal.
California needs to guarantee that convenience and accessibility are the cornerstones of recycling, not helping the grocers, garbage collectors and beverage distributors with a better bottom line.
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest group.