By Kevin Smith, LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS
January 14, 2020
California lawmakers will consider legislation Wednesday, Jan. 15 to revamp the state’s struggling recycling program for bottles and cans — a program Consumer Watchdog fears may collapse unless significant changes are made.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit held a press conference Tuesday, Jan. 14 to highlight findings of its new report, “Trashed: How California Recycling Failed and How to Fix It.” The study was released as Sacramento lawmakers debate an overhaul of the state’s recycling programs.
The report notes that redemption centers are closing at an alarming rate, and consumers are getting back only about half of the $1.5 billion worth of nickel and dime deposits they pay each year.
Lance Klug, a spokesman for CalRecycle, he state department that oversees California’s recycling programs, said consumers paid in $1.35 billion in CRV (California Refund Value) deposits last year.
California consumers receive 5 cents for most glass bottles, plastic bottles or aluminum cans that hold less than 24 ounces and 10 cents for containers of 24 ounces or more, according to CalRecycle.
The state took a major hit in August when rePlanet closed 284 redemption centers. rePlanet CEO David Lawrence linked the closure to a reduction in state fees, the depressed pricing of recycled aluminum and plastic, and the rise in operating costs resulting from minimum wage increases and required health and workers compensation insurance.
“Half of our recycling centers have closed over the last six years,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court said. “Anywhere you buy a bottle or can … you should be able to take it back right there. You shouldn’t have to go under a freeway or go miles away.”
Retailers aren’t picking up the slack
The problem, Consumer Watchdog says, has been compounded by the fact that supermarket chains and other beverage retailers — although legally obligated to be recyclers of last resort — are often refusing to redeem consumer deposits. CalRecycle has only recently begun policing its program and punishing retailers who fail to comply, the report said.
Klug said his agency has stepped up enforcement of its recycling program.
“We have conducted 2,500 inspections of obligated retailers to ensure they are providing take-back of containers in-store,” he said via email. “The department continues to prioritize the most egregious cases against retailers refusing to comply with responsibilities, including a $3.6 million enforcement action against CVS.”
Klug said distributors paid $1.35 billion into the Beverage Container Recycling Fund in fiscal year 2018-19 based on the number of containers they sold to retailers. Distributors recovered that $1.35 billion from retailers, who recover it from California consumers.
“Last year Californians recycled approximately 18 billion containers through the program, a similar amount to how many were recycled the year before,” Klug said.
On Wednesday, Jan. 15, the Senate Environmental Quality Committee will take up Senate Bill 372.
Authored by Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, the measure would make the beverage industry accountable for recycling and redemption of its containers. Distributors of beverage containers in California would be required to form a stewardship organization, developing and submitting a plan and budget for the recovery and recycling of empty beverage containers.
Distributors in the new organization also would have to establish a stewardship fee paid by its members to assist in covering the costs of implementing the program.
Lack of access to redemption centers and the resulting wave of unclaimed deposits have boosted the CalRecycle’s available funds to about $345 million, Consumer Watchdog said, but beverage distributors, retailers and waste haulers are siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars that should go to consumers.
The report says California’s recycling rate for empty plastic, glass, and aluminum beverage containers has fallen from 85% to 75%, leaving the redemption rate at just 66%. But curbside waste haulers take away 12% of redeemable bottles and cans that are thrown in the trash, Court said, so the state’s real redemption rate is closer to 56%.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, lawmakers and recycling stakeholders agreed late last year that a major reform of the bottle-deposit system should be undertaken in 2020.
Consumer Watchdog recommends the following changes:
- Mandate that all major grocery store, big box, convenience and drugstore chains selling beverages take back empties and redeem deposits
- Require CalRecycle to enforce the existing bottle deposit law by levying meaningful fines on retail stores for each day, including retroactively, that they shirk their recycling responsibilities
- Add wine and distilled spirits to beverages with bottle deposits, including soda, juice and water, to raise the amount of money for the program by roughly $100 million annually
- If needed, raise consumer deposits to incentivize consumers to recycle empties
- Eliminate unjustified subsidies to waste haulers that are allowed to collect consumers’ deposits from recycling bins on top of other state payments not shown to improve the quality of recycling
- Shift the responsibility of container recycling onto the beverage industry with the Legislature setting a redemption target of 90% and financial penalties to be levied onto the beverage industry if the target is missed
Liza Tucker, Consumer Watchdog’s consumer advocate and author of the report, said redemption rates are much higher in other states that have recycling programs for bottles and cans.
“Everybody else is a whole lot higher because retailers in those other states are required to redeem,” she said. “In Michigan, you just go back to the store where you got your bottle. When I looked at all redemption rates, California is right smack dead in the middle. There is no way we are a leader, and we should be.”
Kevin Smith handles business news and editing for the Southern California News Group, which includes 11 newspapers, websites and social media channels. He covers everything from employment, technology and housing to retail, corporate mergers and business-based apps. Kevin often writes stories that highlight the local impact of trends occurring nationwide. And the focus is always to shed light on why those issues matter to readers in Southern California.