By Michael Finney & Renee Koury, KABC TV-7 San Francisco, CA
September 18, 2019
DALY CITY, Calif. (KGO) -- The sudden shutdown of the state's largest recycling company has sparked outrage among consumers who say they've lost any reasonable way to redeem the deposits on their bottles and cans.
And if they're not getting the deposits back, they ask, who is?
"They shouldn't charge the CRV (deposits) if they're not going to give it back," snapped Angela Gonzalez of Daly City, as she stood next to three Hefty bags filled with cans and bottles piling up in her garage. She used to cash them in at a RePlanet recycling center near her house until the company shut down all 274 of its California locations this summer.
"When you go to the store, you pay for that (deposit)," said Barbara Kretschmer of Pacifica. "So I believe I should get it back." Kretschmer used to put her bottle refunds into a savings account for her grandchildren. Now, after the RePlanet centers closed, she's left with no nearby place to cash them in.
"What I want to know is, where's the money going?" Gonzalez said. "People are gonna wake up and say I have bottles and cans. If we're not getting our money back, who is getting our money?"
Those nickels and dimes we pay for each container do add up. The state collects about $1.3 billion in bottle deposits every year and redeems just over $1 billion. But not all of the returns go to consumers who paid at the cash register.
Increasingly, Californians are forfeiting deposits and putting bottles and cans into their curbside recycling bins. That means garbage companies can collect the refunds. They receive about nine percent of those CRV deposits according to CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of the program. Garbage companies also share another $15 million a year in subsidies for providing curbside programs. And with more recycle bins at the curb, the state may require fewer of the "buy-back" recycling centers where consumers can redeem containers.
It also leaves CalRecycle flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in leftover cash. The agency projects a $273 million surplus from last fiscal year, while the governor's budget puts the figure at $307 million. Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group, says some of that money should be used to support the few remaining recycle centers in the state so consumers can redeem their bottles and cans as the law intended.
"If they took just $10 or $20 million of that and used it to support remaining centers, which they could do tomorrow, it would save the system till we get a better fix," Consumer Watchdog's Jamie Court said. "It's millions left sitting in a bank account because they aren't using that money to make it easier for consumers to redeem their containers."
CalRecycle claims it cannot decide to allocate more to recycle centers, because the state's 33-year-old bottle law dictates how the money can be spent. Officials say only lawmakers can re-direct the finds. The 1986 measure originally imposed deposits as an incentive to return bottles and cans for a refund, instead of throwing them in the trash.
However, recycle centers say the state's reimbursements are too low to keep them afloat as market forces have changed over the past three decades. Rents and labor costs have skyrocketed while the prices they get for recycled materials have plummeted. China, once the biggest importer of U.S. recyclables, has stopped buying most of it due to contamination, useless plastics, and mixed paper.
So are consumers out of luck for recouping their deposits?
State officials say without enough recycle centers, the law requires beverage retailers to step up. Stores that sell beverages must redeem your bottles and cans or pay a $100-per-day fee to the state if there is no recycling center within a half-mile of their store. After RePlanet closed, Cal Recycle posted a list of about 3,700 beverage retailers statewide who have agreed to redeem your bottles and cans rather than pay that $100-per-day fee.
But are they doing so? We decided to help Kretschmer and Gonzalez try.
"Hello, are you the manager?" Kretschmer was on the phone with a local grocer on the state's in-store redemption list.
"I was told I could bring back my bottles and cans to your store and you would pay the redemption value," Kretschmer said to the manager. "It's a California law and they say you are on the list to take back bottles and cans... So if I come to your store, will you give me my redemption value?"
In our next 7 On Your Side report, we'll show you what happened.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.