Nathan Morphew, left,  hauls away a load of plastic bottles brought in by James Carrigan, right, at the new CRV beverage container recycle center at the Community Church of Sebastopol on Thursday, March 31, 2022. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

How California’s failed recycling program has hurt local consumers

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Frustrated readers have written me that it’s become increasingly hard to turn in bottles and cans for cash as recycling redemption centers have seemed to disappear.

“I thought that bottle recycle fees were originally added to our grocery bills with the expectation that they would lead to less littering because people would collect them for the money,” a woman emailed me. “If one wanted to collect bottles for recycling, how could it be done now (without spending more in gas money than one would be rebated)?”

“I do not think it is fair we are charged a deposit when it cannot be redeemed,” another said. “It is a way of supplementing the income for many people.”

These readers are onto something.

My colleague Mary Callahan recently dug into the 35-year-old “Bottle Bill” program where consumers pay a 5- or 10-cent fee on containers that can be recouped when the cans and bottles are turned in at recycling centers or retailers.

Overall, bottle bills have proved an effective recycling incentive in the 10 states that have implemented them.

But in California, the shuttering of almost half of container redemption sites over the past decade has made it difficult for residents to cash in, leading to $635 million in unclaimed deposits sitting with the state.

Sonoma County lost almost 85% of its recycling centers in the past 10 years, and some Northern California counties have none. In Marin County, each site serves 131,000 people on average, according to data from the Container Recycling Institute.

“It’s been disastrous for consumers because they’ve basically been in a situation where they haven’t had a way of getting their deposits back,” said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy nonprofit.

“When you make it so inconvenient, people give up on it.”

A three-month Consumer Watchdog investigation in 2019 found that “for every nickel bottle deposit that California consumers pay in the checkout line, they only get back 2.65 cents.”

Having a functioning redemption program is particularly important to environmental goals given that curbside recycling is often contaminated and unfit or difficult to reprocess. Sometimes it just ends up in landfills.

“The bottle deposit is the principal recycling tool in the state, and it’s been left to languish,” Court told me. “When we lost all those redemption centers, there was nothing to fill the void.”

The Bottle Bill system is struggling for a number of reasons that Callahan laid out, many of which are tied to the fact that California runs the program instead of the beverage industry like in almost all other states.

But retailers and grocers have also played a central role in limiting options for consumers. By law, they’re required to redeem containers in-store when there’s no nearby recycling site (which has increasingly been the case).

However, stores can opt out by paying a $100 daily fee to the state’s recycling program, an easy workaround that leaves would-be recyclers in the lurch.

“The retailers which are legally required to pick up the slack aren’t doing it and haven’t done it for a long time,” Court said, “and the state’s not forcing them honestly.”

(ZeroWaste Sonoma, Sonoma County’s waste management agency, has a list of county retailers that have opted out.)

CalRecycle has reportedly granted chains more than 1,200 exemptions, almost half since 2013. Stores owned by Albertsons Companies Inc. such as Safeway, as well as Walmart Inc. and its subsidiary Sam’s Club have each been given more than 100 state exemptions. In 2019, CVS Pharmacy Inc. got hit with a $3.6 million penalty for failing to accept containers or pay the fee in a number of its California locations.

Meanwhile, over time, the state has dipped into the unclaimed deposit pot for projects and funds unrelated to recycling, like balancing the general budget. It also recently got in hot water for misreporting the amount of accumulated funds.

Policymakers now are taking several steps toward turning around the embattled system. California Senate Bill 38, which is under consideration by the Assembly after passing the Senate, would make beverage producers responsible for the redemption program.

CalRecycle, which manages the state’s recycling program, has been launching redemption-related pilot programs, including one with Sonoma County to add up to 10 new redemption sites. The first just opened in Sebastopol and others are slated for Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sonoma, Healdsburg and Cloverdale.

The agency also is partnering with CVS to install 20 reverse vending machines at its stores in unserved areas in the state where consumers can redeem their deposits.

In April, the state’s proposed budget to boost redemption via a variety of efforts using $330 million in surplus deposit funds was welcome news to many advocates. With so many proposals, though, some warn there’ll be a need to lean on experts, communities and data to ensure the money is used efficiently and effectively with an eye toward the program’s long-term sustainability.

“In Your Corner” is a new column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or marisa.endicott@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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