By Steve Toloken, PLASTICS NEWS
January 20, 2020
California is looking next door to Oregon for how it can fix its container recycling system, potentially shifting toward one that would put the onus on the bottling industry to design and operate.
The state Senate Jan. 15 took up a proposal to overhaul California's complicated system, which has seen hundreds of local recycling centers close in the last year from financial problems, and move toward an industry-run model like that in Oregon and some other states and countries.
While it's a very complex debate, the legislation from state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, broadly aims to keep the deposit system, including for PET bottles, but revamp it to raise recycling rates and make it more financially stable.
Wieckowski and others said a better system could raise bottle recycling rates into the 80 or 90 percent-plus range seen in places like Oregon, Michigan, Germany and Norway. In 2018, California had a 76 percent container recycling rate within its bottle bill program, according to state figures.
Supporters of the overhaul also argue that California could make its system stronger financially if industry is responsible for operating it, with the state monitoring compliance and progress. The legislation would task an industry group with designing a system by April 2021.
"Zero cost to taxpayers, this is the future," Wieckowski said at a Jan. 15 hearing in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. "This is government saying to private industry, you guys run it, you're the best at it.
"It's modeled quite a bit on the Oregon program," he said, going on to describe a system that he envisions would also use technology to make the system more efficient and innovative, like smartphone apps to create accounts for consumers to use when returning bottles.
Wieckowski's legislation is closely tied into California's broader debate around single-use packaging and plastics, particularly in tough legislation that nearly passed the Legislature last year and would have required single-use packaging to have a 75 percent recycling rate by 2030 to be sold in the state.
That measure, known as Senate Bill 54, is currently in intense negotiations to win enough support to pass this year, according to the bill's lead author, Sen. Ben Allen, D-Redondo Beach. He's also chairman of the environmental committee.
"We've been having intense conversations with the glass folks, with the distributors, with the grocers, consumer groups, cities, the producers, manufacturers," Allen said. "We've been working very hard to get a deal together and we're coming very, very close."
Wieckowski, who is also a cosponsor of Allen's single-use packaging bill, said he would withdraw his bottle bill overhaul legislation if it would conflict with the more comprehensive SB-54. Allen's bill also calls for more industry-led producer responsibility programs like Wieckowski's.
One PET bottle industry group said it was open to an industry-run bottle system in concept but was not endorsing Wieckowski's plan because it wants to see the current system repaired.
"In concept, philosophically, we don't have an issue with an industry-led deposit program," said Anthony Molina, a lobbyist for the Plastic Recycling Corp. of California, a nonprofit consortium that works to market and manage the quality of recycled PET collected in the state.
But he said PRCC believes it's important to boost the current program while new concepts are debated and was taking an "oppose unless amended" position on the plan.
The legislation had opposition from other industries, like beer distributors who complained strongly it would fall too harshly on them or industry groups who complained about a fast implementation period.
Even an environmental group that was broadly supportive, Californians Against Waste, expressed concern over provisions in the bill that could hurt curbside recycling, suggesting how complicated getting buy-in on another program could be.
Some speakers noted that what also helps other places, like Oregon, boost their recycling rates is not the design of the system, but rather the size of the deposit. For most containers in California, the deposit is 5 cents, while for Oregon it's 10 cents.
Germany has a deposit of up to 25 cents per container and its recycling rate for those containers is 98 percent, according to a Jan. 14 report from the Los Angeles-based group Consumer Watchdog, which testified in support of Wieckowski's legislation.
"We feel that the central concept of this bill is right, that beverage companies have to take responsibility for the products the producers make," Jamie Court, the president of the group, said. "If you use a wrapper for a product, you are responsible for making sure it is recycled."
Container deposit systems are mushrooming around the world, with the number of people living in an area covered by one doubling from 300 million to 600 million just within the last three years, said Susan Collins, president of the Culver City, Calif.-based Container Recycling Institute, in testimony at the hearing.