Op-Ed Commentary by Liza Tucker, Consumer Watchdog for The Mercury News
March 13, 2021
Good luck these days getting your bottle and can deposits back in California. Those willing to go the extra mile for their nickels and dimes find redemption centers shuttered or the lines hours long. Out of 58 counties, 31 have five or fewer redemption centers still open.
And beverage retailers that signed up to be a last resort are illegally turning away up to two-thirds of consumers trying to redeem inside stores.
But the real culprits are waste haulers and the state. The haulers collect empties, and the deposits on those beverage containers, put in curbside recycling bins because consumers have nowhere else to go. And the state dramatically overpays those haulers for contaminating and landfilling them.
In successful systems like those in Oregon, Michigan and Vermont, consumers have wide access to convenient reverse vending machines and automated drop-off points that take empties. This enables consumers to get back up to 89% of their deposits.
But Californians get back little more than half of the $1.5 billion they pay each year in checkout lines. Much of the rest goes to waste haulers and redemption centers.
In 2017, haulers operating recycling programs were paid $170 million by the state for container recycling. But they recycled only 12% of the containers in the program, according to analysis of state data by the nonprofit Container Recycling Institute. Redemption centers, however, were paid only $155 million for handling 88% of the containers.
That’s in part why redemption centers have closed in droves, leaving consumers with few places to get their deposits back. Supermarkets and other retailers legally required to redeem deposit containers when there are no redemption centers nearby lack financial incentives to do so.
Meanwhile, waste haulers reap a windfall. California pays them 20 times their costs for separating materials at giant sorting facilities, according to an unpublished 2018 report CalRecycle ordered and Consumer Watchdog obtained via a Public Records Act request.
Waste haulers and state politicians like it this way. Billion-dollar companies such as Recology, Republic Services and Waste Management donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to California politicians to keep the gravy train going.
Waste haulers’ “single stream” curbside collection bins defeat the purpose of the state bottle recycling system. Empty beverage containers get tossed in with greasy pizza boxes and sticky peanut butter jars. In transit, garbage trucks jostle loads, break bottles and lace contamination throughout. By the time loads exit giant sorting plants, at least a quarter of empty beverage containers get landfilled.
Adding insult to injury, California is the only state that pays haulers for processing these empties and the only state that allows them to keep the container deposits. The dirty truth is waste haulers want our bottle deposits, but not a functioning redemption system.
A system this deformed deprives in-state manufacturers of clean materials to make new containers and increases landfilling, litter and greenhouse gas emissions from making new products from scratch. This defeats Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call for a “circular economy” that treats waste as an economic resource to be reduced, reused or remanufactured.
That is why lawmakers must pass Senate Bill 38, authored by Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont. The bill hands responsibility for recycling empty containers to the companies that make, distribute and sell the beverages.
As other states have shown, setting a high redemption target and letting an industry consortium keep unclaimed deposits results in modernized systems with high redemption rates.
Giving the beverage industry that profits off the beverages the responsibility to recycle their wrappers will get the bottle deposit program back on track. Only then will California have a true circular economy and be a true climate leader.
Liza Tucker is a consumer advocate with Consumer Watchdog.