By Dustin Gardiner, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
April 6, 2022
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration unveiled a $330 million proposal Friday that aims to breathe new life into California’s ailing bottle deposit program by opening up thousands more locations where consumers can redeem empty bottles and cans for their nickel and dime deposits.
Under the plan, the state would use more than half of an unprecedented $635 million surplus that the state expects to have in the bottle deposit program come July 1. The funds would be used to expand the number of redemption sites, in part by adding mobile recycling trucks and thousands of reverse vending machines that redeem bottles. The state would also offer grants for retailers and grocers to take back empties in store.
The proposal also calls for a $100 million consumer credit, which would double the 5- and 10-cent refunds people can get for returning empty containers for one to two months — a move designed to give people a financial incentive to return bottles and cans.
Recycling advocates cheered the proposal, calling it a chance to try to save the bottle deposit program that has been in a downward spiral for more than five years. The program has also been heavily criticized for its financial issues, including an accounting backlog that previously led the department to underreport the size of its surplus by at least $100 million.
“This is absolutely a sea change moment,” said Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, an advocacy group. “I really appreciate the administration’s willingness to put real dollars on the table. We just need to stimulate the recycling infrastructure.”
CalRecycle outlined the $330 million plan in a budget proposal it released Friday, an early preview of the funding ask that is expected to be included in Newsom’s revised spending plan that he presents to the Legislature in May. Newsom’s administration will now negotiate the details with legislators, who must ultimately approve a state budget.
Director Rachel Machi Wagoner said after the bottle program has come under fire over its falling recycling rate and ballooning surplus, she’s eager for the state to put that money to work to make recycling more convenient for consumers again.
“We want to get all of those bottles and cans back,” she told The Chronicle. “It’s really important that consumers have faith in their program. We want to restore that confidence.”
But the bottle deposit program has imploded as recycling centers across the state closed en masse because of factors such as global tumult in the recycling market and soaring real estate prices. Only about 68% of bottles and cans bought in California are recycled today, down from about 85% at the program’s peak in 2013.
Meanwhile, CalRecycle has seen its surplus for the program steadily grow because many Californians now live in “recycling deserts” without convenient access to redemption centers to return their empties. Beverage sales have also surged since the outset of the pandemic.
Earlier this year, The Chronicle reported that the bottle program had a $529 million surplus, a dramatically larger windfall than it had previously suggested. The budget outline CalRecycle released now projects that surplus will swell to more than $635 million by the end of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Among the other funding asks included in the $330 million plan:
$70 million to create mobile recycling programs in rural areas and other parts of the state with few recycling centers.
$50 million for high schools and colleges to install reverse vending machines on campus.
$50 million in grants to help grocery stores install reverse vending machines.
$50 million in subsidies to help recycling centers cover the cost of processing plastic and glass.
$4 million to provide start-up loans to help new recycling processing centers open in areas without enough service; the loans could be forgiven after three years of operations.
$1 million to develop a smartphone app to help consumers find places to redeem their bottles and cans.
Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has pushed to overhaul the bottle program, said the proposal would help right a “sinking ship” by using automated technology to greatly expand the number of redemption sites.
“This is the people of California’s money and it’s been appalling to see hundreds of millions of dollars in unredeemed deposits sitting in a bank account collecting dust,” Court said in a statement.
California consumers who buy beverages must pay a five-cent deposit for containers less than 24 ounces and 10 cents for containers 24 ounces or larger. Theoretically, the money is a deposit if they return the containers to a recycling center or a grocery store. The program includes soda, beer, juice and water sold in aluminum, glass and plastic containers.
Californians who don’t want to take their containers to redemption centers can toss them in blue curbside recycling bins. But many of those bottles and cans are contaminated by other waste and not recycled. Plus, consumers can’t get their deposits back.
Dustin Gardiner (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @dustingardiner