Suspend and Overhaul Bottle Bill

The views expressed here do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Northern California Recycling Association.

By Aaron Forkash. Aaron Metals Company, in Oakland since 1976 and in Hayward since 2011, California State Certified Recycling Center, PR 0026/RC 0926, 5/11/2020

The State of California must immediately suspend the collection of redemption deposits and begin overhauling the California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act.

Popularly known as the Bottle Bill, the underlying legislation has been exposed by the Coronavirus pandemic for its manifold faults; just as the pandemic reveals some of our nation’s social and economic injustices.

The statewide shelter-in-place order prompted by the pandemic prevents consumers from redeeming recyclable materials at nearly non-existent redemption centers. Consumers have no reason to risk infection and violate the shelter-in-place order as there is now wide-spread access to curbside collection.

Simply put: If there’s nowhere to redeem, suspend the collection scheme.

The Bottle Bill has been in a steady and irreversible decline since the late ‘80s as the economic growth of California’s urban regions forced the closure of redemption centers.

The last few years revealed what are now major flaws with California’s buy-back system: the gradual and inevitable disappearance of the supermarket redemption sites, the closure of small recycling centers and the cessation of larger recycling companies participating in the unprofitable program. All amplified, no doubt, thanks to the risk of infection related to the Coronavirus pandemic – since viral droplets live in saliva and in the container’s residual moisture. Add to this increasing operational costs and the contemporaneous refusal of China to receive and use the contaminated scrap material.

Ultimately, however, curbside pick up — being a much greener option — led to the Bottle Bill’s irreversible undoing.

According to a 2019 Los Angeles Times article, in 2018 consumers left $308 million in unredeemed deposits on the table. The story clearly supports my contention that the lack of redemption centers limits a consumer’s access to the collected deposits.

The system relies on California’s established recycling industry. In fact, California’s recycling centers once operated on the front lines of the State’s buy-back program. However, rather than defending and working to strengthen the State’s recycling industry, CalRecycle, the regulatory agency enforcing the program, has been unsupportive.

CalRecycle appears more focused on preventing and prosecuting fraud. In the aftermath of one of their crime-fighting ventures, a CalRecycle rep had the temerity to be quoted thusly: “Defrauding the recycling fund is stealing from the state of California and its citizens.” Ironic, isn’t it, considering the hundred millions of dollars California citizens can no longer collect due to the reduced numbers of recycling sites.

CalRecycle’s staff attorneys should have brought legal action against cities denying permits for new recycling sites and existing recycling sites trying to expand. As well, they should have aggressively responded to residents who lodged nuisance complaints against the remaining sites — not chasing down out-of-state cans.

Now is the time for Gov. Gavin Newsom to act. As the State tentatively takes steps to ‘reopen’ let’s not return to a flawed system. The state cannot be allowed to continue to collect deposits without giving Californians opportunities for redemption.

By executive order, the governor is in a position to suspend the collection scheme. The purpose? To motivate CalRecycle and the Legislature to dismantle and reconfigure the Bottle Bill to a producer responsible model which mandates the phase-out of single-use plastic and glass. Within such a framework, the beverage maker is responsible for the use-life of each container it produces; tracking its location from distribution, purchase, disposal and return. The new system must promote the use of (disinfectable) reusable containers.

The recycling industry stands ready and willing to partner with CalRecycle to build a robust recycling system worthy of the consumers it serves.

California continues to collect deposits knowing access to redeem recyclables is inadequate. Let’s stop it now!