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By Don Thompson, ASSOCIATED PRESS

March 28, 2019

California consumers lost out on at least $308 million in nickel deposits on cans and bottles in 2018, largely because it's increasingly difficult to find a place to recycle them, according to a new report. In the last five years, about 40 percent of California's recycling centers have closed, with more than 100 closing in Los Angeles County alone. The state says 1,600 centers remain open statewide, but advocacy group Consumer Watchdog said there are still barriers to Californians finding a place to recycle and that many grocery stores won't take back the empties.

The group's report, released today, suggests several reforms to California's 33-year-old recycling program, which has struggled to be profitable. Democratic state Sen. Henry Stern has also proposed changes to the program.

Consumer Watchdog faults state regulators for lax oversight, saying they should more aggressively fine major retailers that won't redeem containers or undercount the number of deposits they collect.

It says the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, known as CalRecycle, should spend more money to promote recycling centers and punish companies that hoard deposits. "Overall, the program has been highly successful, but recent years have brought challenges," responded CalRecycle spokesman Mark Oldfield, citing broader market conditions.

He said the agency is looking for ways to help increase buyback locations but put the amount of unredeemed deposits at $272 million, which the consumer group says omits administrative fees that bring the total to $308 million.

The consumer group provided an advance copy of its report to the Associated Press. It recommends doubling the amount of deposits to a dime for each glass or plastic bottle or aluminum can to encourage more consumers to recycle, similar to the deposits required in Oregon and Michigan.

Consumers there recycle at least 9 of every 10 containers. About 3 in 4 containers are recycled in California, but that includes those redeemed by bulk haulers as well as individual consumers.

California currently charges 5 cents for containers under 24 ounces and 10 cents for larger containers. Beyond the $308 million in unclaimed deposits, the group alleges consumers are missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars more, including $200 million in deposits that go to commercial trash haulers and bulk collectors.

It also cites a 2014 report from the Container Recycling Institute that shows an undercount in bottle deposits paid by consumers, though Oldfield said that number has never been substantiated. On the legislative side, Stern's bill would restrict which retailers must accept containers and allow about $3 million in annual incentives to low-volume recycling centers to try to keep them open.

A similar bill passed last year, but former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed it.