Californians pay an additional nickel or dime every time they buy a can of soda or a bottle of beer. This deposit can be returned to the recycling center. The California Bottle Bill was first introduced as a bill in the state of Oregon back in 1971. It passed and became law on March 8, 1972. The Bottle Bill's objective is to increase recycling which will reduce litter, landfill and improve water quality.
The deposit works by people bringing their bottles and cans to recycling centers where they get five cents back. This means that people get extra money and recycle more. It also encourages them to collect their cans and bottles, lessening the burden on municipal waste centers. In practice, however, billions upon billions of containers are not recycled and the money is lost. Only 68% of all bottles and cans are currently recycled leaving a huge opportunity for improvement.
California's bottle deposit program holds at least $350,000,000 in unclaimed nickels and dimes and any given time. This surplus was built up over several years due to falling redemption rates as a result of changes in the recycling industry. The reason consumers aren't returning cans and bottles is that there are far fewer recycling centers than five years ago. This has created what can be called "recycling deserts".
San Francisco is the poster child of the negative effects of the bottle-recycling program. According to Californians Against Waste, the redemption rate per capita for the city is the lowest of any county in California, despite its eco-friendly reputation. To combat the declining situation, the city launched a new recycling program using mobile redemption trucks. This move was designed to reverse the decline in recycling after many of the city's recycling centers closed.
Today, there are just 1,200 recycling centers across the state, as opposed to 2,600 in 2013, the program's single most which saw recycling of 85% of cans and bottles.
Many factors have led to the closure of recycling centers in large numbers, including soaring realty prices and turmoil in the global scrap market, such shifting aluminum prices or a shrinking market for plastic. California's recycling program is at an impasse. The direction that state legislators choose to go in this year will determine whether or not the program recovers.
Two starkly different approaches are dividing legislators: Waste haulers and advocates want to preserve the current system while making subtle changes to ensure that recycling centers remain open. Consumer Watchdog, along with a number of environmental groups, want the beverage industry to take responsibility for providing sufficient centers, as they are the main producers of this type of recyclable waste.
Rachel Machi Wagoner is the director of CalRecycle. She said that it was clear that the state's redemption program, which was created in late 1980s, wasn't flexible enough for the changes of the past five decades.
She said that there is an overwhelming desire to make the program more effective, but not enough agreement about what that should look like. It's the "how" that is the problem. The program recycled approximately 18 billion cans and bottles in 2020. However, more than 8.2 million recyclable containers ended up in landfills or litter as a result.
AB1454 is a measure supported by waste haulers and Californians Against Waste. It seeks to make it easier to keep recycle centers open by increasing CalRecycle's payments to help subsidize some material processing costs. It could also grant grants to open new centers in areas that are underserved.
Director of Californians Against Waste, Mark Murray said he supports this approach to fixing the existing program. He said that the state could more easily support recycling centers if it paid higher subsidies to cover their costs. The state currently provides "processing payments" for recycling centers to offset the costs of handling materials that aren’t profitable. The payments are calculated using data that dates back two years. Murray stated that a "very specific flaw" could not be fixed by handing the job to beverage companies as Consumer Watchdog and other environmental organizations propose.
Consumer Watchdog stated that this approach is based on recycling programs in other states such as Oregon which have higher redemption rates and place the burden on the industry. He stated that the program will not work if consumers don't have enough places to recycle their cans and bottles. CalRecycle and the governor must face the problem and find a solution.
The new city program , also known as BottleBank, is now available. Residents can download the app and bring their bottles and cans to mobile redemption stations around the city. Charles Sheehan is chief policy officer for the Department of the Environment. He said that the program was designed to make it easier to redeem bottles and cans. Uncrushed cans and bottles can be brought to the city's rotating redemption points and placed in bags with scannable codes. These barcodes can later be scanned and the containers inside will be counted. Consumers can then be reimbursed via digital payment sites like Venmo. Sheehan stated that the city hopes the program is a model for creative ways California can revive bottle recycling.
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