By Dustin Gardiner, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
August 30, 2022
California legislators are on the verge of passing a bill to overhaul the state’s ailing bottle-deposit program, but the effort is drawing jeers from some recycling advocates over what they see as a host of last-minute pork spending.
The bill is the culmination of years of attempts to fix the state’s deposit program, which is on life support after recycling centers closed in droves in recent years. It would require consumers to start paying California Redemption Value, or CRV, deposits — a 5- or 10-cent charge they can get back if they return their empty containers — every time they buy a bottle of wine or liquor, among other changes.
Environmentalists had widely endorsed the measure, until a provision was added that they said could help the country’s largest wine corporation, E&J Gallo Winery, rake in millions in payments from the state.
In a flurry of 11th-hour amendments, the bill was changed to allow the state to make up to $60 million in “market development payments” each year to glass bottle manufacturers that use recycled glass. Those payments could cost the state up to $300 million over the next six years, according to an analysis from the Container Recycling Institute, an advocacy group.
Susan Collins, the institute’s president, said her group withdrew its support for the bill, SB1013, because there’s no rationale for the state to write millions of dollars in checks to glass companies that are already making a profit recycling bottles.
“It just feels really tragic to see money being siphoned away for no purpose,” she told The Chronicle. “Not a single penny of that money is justified. The funding will pay companies to do exactly the same thing they’ve been doing for decades.”
There are a handful of large glass-bottle manufacturing plants in California that stand to benefit from the payments. The most obvious is Gallo, the Modesto-based winery whose subsidiary, Gallo Glass Company, operates the largest glass container plant in the United States.
A spokesperson for Gallo declined to comment. The company manufactures bottles for its more than 100 different wine and distilled spirit brands, as well as for other wine and beverage companies.
SB1013 is widely expected to pass before the Legislature must adjourn for the year at midnight Wednesday. One of the most powerful Democrats at the state Capitol, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins from San Diego, is carrying the bill.
Atkins didn’t directly address the Container Recycling Institute’s concerns in a statement, though she said the bill would “provide new opportunities to improve the overall bottle recycling process and help us get more bottles out of the waste stream.” She said the Legislature will perform its oversight role to make sure the funds are spent appropriately.
Money for the payments would come from consumers’ unclaimed nickel and dime deposits. The bottle-deposit program already has a $635 million surplus because the state’s recycling rate has plummeted, meaning fewer consumers are reclaiming deposits.
SB1013 would add liquor and wine containers to the program, which consumers must already pay into every time they buy a bottle or can of beer, soda and juice. Starting in 2024, the bill would require consumers to pay a deposit of 10 cents on bottles of wine and liquor with more than 24 ounces, and 5 cents for containers with less than 24 ounces.
California’s bottle-deposit program has been in a downward spiral for years. The amount of bottles and cans recycled has fallen to about 69%, down from about 85% at the program’s peak in 2013.
Recycling centers, where consumers redeem empty bottles and cans for their deposit money, have closed en masse in the past five years because of factors such as global tumult in the recycling market and soaring operating costs. There are 1,263 recycling centers in the state today, down from about 2,500 a decade ago.
Legislators have suggested that adding wine and spirit bottles to the program could provide CalRecycle, the state’s recycling agency, with additional revenue to help open new redemption centers where consumers can take their empties. SB1013 would also require grocery stores to either redeem containers in-store or form cooperatives to open new recycling centers.
Mark Murray, director of Californians Against Waste, a recycling advocacy group that supports the bill, said while it would technically allow up to $60 million in payments to glass-bottle makers, there’s no way that volume of glass could be recycled in the state. He estimated that the state might pay out $16 million to glass companies in the first year.
Murray said the payments are necessary because many beverage companies import their bottles from Mexico or other states because it’s more expensive to manufacture glass in California. He said the payments would help grow the in-state market for recycled glass.
“If we want to have glass bottles as an alternative to plastic bottles, we have to be prepared to invest in California recycled glass manufacturing and jobs,” he said.
Still, other recycling advocates say they fear the payments could eventually bankrupt the program. In addition to the up to $300 million earmarked for payments to glass-bottle makers, the state plans to spend more than $600 million in the next six years to improve recycling rates and open more redemption centers.
Collins said the program’s current surplus could quickly evaporate if it’s spent unwisely. She added, “There’s no room to be giving out all the money to entities that don’t need it.”
Two other recycling advocacy groups, Consumer Watchdog and the Story of Stuff Project also blasted what they called the bill’s giveaways to major corporations. They criticized legislators for unveiling the final version last week, leaving no time for amendments.
“It’s basically a handout for Gallo,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog. “It’s just piggish pork money that’s going in the wrong place.”