State has nearly $140 million of unredeemed bottle deposits

By Stephanie Melchior, MONTEREY HERALD

March 13, 2021

https://www.montereyherald.com/2021/03/13/figuring-out-an-easier-way-to…

MONTEREY– Even before the pandemic hit, beverage bottle redemption centers had been closing all around the state, making it harder for people to collect their nickel and dime deposits. Turns out, all that pocket change adds up. Since August 2019, nearly $140 million of unredeemed bottle deposits have piled up in the state’s Beverage Container Recycling fund. Proposed legislation aims to change that.

State Senate Bill 38 (SB 38) would substantially reform the state’s existing bottle redemption system, shifting the responsibility of bottle recycling from the state to the manufacturers.

Introduced by state Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), the aim of SB 38 is to make it easier for consumers to recycle their bottles and collect their deposits.

Currently, Calrecycle manages the state’s bottle deposit system. If SB 38 is passed, it would shift this responsibility to a consortium of beverage container producers within the state, such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. That is how most states with successful deposit programs operate.

The idea, said Wieckowski,  is that if you make a product, you are responsible for it until the end of its life.  This concept, called “extended producer responsibility,” isn’t foreign to California. There are several industry-led stewardship programs in the state that handle the disposal or reuse of products such as mattresses, paint and carpets.

The consortium (called the “beverage container stewardship organization” in the bill) ensures extended producer responsibility, but also gives the container producers a say in how the stewardship program runs.

“If you have a beverage consortium running everything,” said Liza Tucker, consumer advocate at Consumer Watchdog, “all the players have a seat at the table. And they work out an equitable system of fair payment between each other.”

Consumer Watchdog is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting consumer interests against corporate injustice.

Under this system, the beverage distributors (rather than the state) would collect unredeemed deposits and would be able to use those funds to finance their collection programs.

But beyond increasing producer stewardship, there’s another incentive for beverage distributors to manage the bottle collection system: increasing the availability of clean, good quality materials to be used in making new products.

Many Californians use single-stream curbside recycling — where all recyclable materials are collected together in the blue bin, instead of being sorted separately into categories like paper, aluminum and glass. Although single-stream seems convenient to the user, fully recyclable material can become so contaminated with garbage that it has to be thrown away.

According to a 2020 Consumer Watchdog report, only 60% of glass recovered from single-stream recycling programs is suitable for high-end recycled products such as fiberglass and new bottles.  Some 19% of glass can be used in low-end applications like asphalt, but 21% goes straight to the landfill because of contamination with non-glass material.

By contrast, 98% of glass recovered from bottle deposit programs can be used in high-end products.

A better bottle deposit system means a bigger supply of clean, high-quality materials for beverage distributors to make into new bottles, which is cheaper and more sustainable than making new products.

“California’s beverage companies want our 100% recyclable bottles back so they can be remade into new ones,” the American Beverage Association, the trade association representing all non-alcoholic beverage companies in the country, wrote in a prepared statement in response to an inquiry by the Herald. “We share the goal of creating a circular economy for all materials and look forward to working with legislators on the many ideas before them to do that.”

The proposed legislation comes as recycling centers continue to close.

“Every place in California is hurting for (recycling) convenience centers,” said Wieckowski.

According to Tucker, Monterey County has only 14 redemption centers serving nearly half a million people.

Many redemption centers have shut down in recent years due to high operating costs, including the Monterey Regional Waste Management District’s last June. Many supermarkets that should be accepting bottle returns opt-out by paying $100 a day to the Beverage Container Recycling Fund.

According to Tucker, because bottle redemption has become so inconvenient, bottle deposits have essentially become a “de facto tax” on consumers, who will just toss their bottles in the blue bin, forfeiting their deposit to their waste haulers.  “Once you put it in a blue recycling bin, it’s gone,” said Tucker. “And you’ve just donated an extra five or 10 cents to the trash company that you’re already paying through the nose for regular trash services through your city.”

With SB 38, Wieckowski envisions deploying more drop-off centers and setting up reverse vending machines at grocery stores and around the city to facilitate bottle collection. These machines (which “basically gobble up your empties, and spit out store credit—or cash,” said Tucker) use barcodes to identify your product and can automatically issue your refund.

The goal is to make bottle redemption as convenient as possible

Although California’s redemption rates peaked in 2013 at 85%, those rates have fallen substantially in the last few years. In fact, of the 10 bottle-redeeming states in the U.S., California now ranks seventh, with a bottle redemption rate of 58.9%. (For comparison, Michigan is in the top spot with a rate of 89%).

Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz)  said the bill is “absolutely a step in the right direction,” and that it will open a conversation between all the different parties who are involved, including grocers, landfill operators and recycling centers.

Despite California’s reputation for being a leader in environmentalism, “Nobody’s copying our recycling,” said Wieckowski. “If a Martian came down here, they’d look and they’d say, ‘We’re not going to do it that way.’”

“We think of ourselves in California as recyclers,” he said. “This is going to actually make us good recyclers.”

SB 38 is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Environmental Quality Committee Monday (senv.senate.ca.gov) and still must clear several more hurdles if it is to become a law.