Recycling Bottles, Cans Is Easier Said Than Done

Published on


March 11, 2019

Tobie Mitchell is a recycling expert, working for the Ventura County Integrated Waste Management Division, but even she had trouble recently trying to redeem the deposits her family paid for bottles and cans.

“There are so few buy-back centers that even if you can find one open, you better plan on waiting in a long line behind people with strollers, bike carts and wagons piled high with bags of cans,” she said.

Last month, she waited in line nearly 30 minutes with her one bag of cans before handing off her bag to the guy behind her in line and leaving.

Curbside recycling is an easy option, and funds generated by haulers are considered during rate negotiations, so residents can derive an indirect benefit by recycling without going to a recycling center. However, the 5- to 10-cent fee consumers pay for beverage containers is meant to be reimbursable with little recycling effort, so for many people, convenient buy-back recycling is seen as a matter of basic fairness. For others, money is a necessary incentive to motivate recycling.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit group, recently released a report claiming Californians lost $308 million in deposits last year by landfilling containers they could have redeemed. Noting state legislation requiring the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) to fine large retailers for not providing in-store bottle and can redemption in cases where there is not a nearby recycling center, Consumer Watchdog cited “lax oversight” by state regulators as one of the factors reducing recycling rates.

CalRecycle spokesperson Mark Oldfield, citing reports documenting last year’s unredeemed deposits at just $272 million, explained part of the problem in an email, noting the recycling rate for bottles and cans declined from 85 percent in 2013 to 75 percent in 2018 due in part to “global market conditions making it less profitable to run a recycling center.” He also pointed to the $1.3 billion program’s successes. For example on enforcement, Oldfield pointed to a case of Walmart underpaying for containers. A CalRecycle audit found the problem, and “restitution and interest were paid.”

Enforcement, Oldfield noted, is generally “on a complaint basis.” One category of complaints relates to buyback centers. Here are some common rules that raise enforcement concerns:

  • Buyback centers pay 5 cents for most California Refund Value-marked containers but must pay at least 10 cents for bottles and cans 24 ounces or larger.
  • Buyback centers must post and adhere to posted hours.
  • Buyback centers must follow “the rule of 50,” paying by count rather than by weight for up to 50 containers of each material type if customers request a count-based rather than a weight-based payment.

As for convenience, the rules are more complicated. Large retailers without a buyback center in a half-mile radius have the option of either paying for empty containers in the store or paying CalRecycle $100 per day. According to CalRecycle’s most recently posted record, in the city of Ventura, 22 stores were exempted from the $100 daily fee because they registered with CalRecycle as redeeming containers in-store. In Camarillo, the number was seven; in Port Hueneme, six; in Ojai, five; in Simi Valley, two; in Thousand Oaks, one; and in Oxnard, one; with none in Moorpark, Santa Paula, and Fillmore.

Go to to find a recycling center near you. If there is not one, check to see if a store near you previously registered as paying for empty bottles and cans in the store. If you have a complaint about a recycling center, email [email protected]. For complaints about retailers, email [email protected]. Alternatively, for questions or complaints, call 800-RECYCLE.

A nonprofit sustainability advocacy group, the California Product Stewardship Council, would like to change the bottle bill. Senior adviser Heidi Sanborn stated, “We believe the bottle bill needs increased producer payments that go to the buy-back centers to cover the true cost of recycling to ensure we don’t close more buy-back centers and actually regain some that were lost.”

Californians Against Waste, the nonprofit group responsible for initiating California’s bottle bill in 1986 and now leading efforts to reform it, is currently working with state Sen. Henry Stern on legislation to improve bottle and can recycling. In the meantime, the complaint process is the best way to make a difference.


Eco-Tip is written by David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst for the Ventura County Public Works Agency. He can be reached at 658-4312 or [email protected].

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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