SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — It’s been a year since KPIX first uncovered systemic troubles with California’s bottle and can recycling program. During the pandemic things just got worse. Now lawmakers are looking for a fix.
We pay 5 cents or 10 cents deposit for almost every beverage in a bottle or can that we buy and we’re supposed to get that money back. But the latest data from the state’s recycling regulator CalRecycle shows only 60 percent of Californians who pay for those deposits are claiming their CRV refunds and we found a lot of reasons why.READ MORE: Many California Retailers Flout Bottle, Can Recycling Law
“We don’t do it,” was the answer we got when we brought bottles and cans to a Safeway store in San Francisco in January of 2020 to get our nickels and dimes back. Our undercover investigation revealed many retailers were unwilling to redeem, even though under California law they are required to. During the pandemic they got a break. But late last year when the state lifted the moratorium we still had problems.
The only other option for Bay Area residents is to wait in long lines to redeem their nickels and dimes at one of the few remaining recycling centers. We spoke to one customer, Ana Packard, who says she doesn’t like to drive 11 miles.
“Sometimes you really need that little bit of money for gas and for whatever coming up,” said Packard.
“It’s broken and it needs to be fixed,” said state Senator Bob Wieckowski.
He has been trying to fix the bottle bill ever since he came to Sacramento 11 years ago.
“We were visionaries in 1985 when we developed this bill. We’ve amended it so many times that it has just lost its course. I can’t put another band-aid on this” said Senator Wieckowski.
This year Wieckowski has introduced SB 38, that essentially takes the program away from the state and puts it in the hands of the industry. The bottom line is that Californians don’t have a convenient, easy way to recycle their products. They don’t get their nickel or dime back when they try to recycle.
“So this takes the current system, gets rid of it, and puts the responsibility on the manufacturers, the producers of the bottles,” said Wieckowski.
Wieckowski’s bill proposes a system similar to Oregon’s that uses buyback machines in stores.
“So you can put your cans and bottles in, or the bags you can drop off. So it’s seamless,” said Wieckowski.
Data compiled by Consumer Watchdog shows Oregon has the third best redemption rate out of ten states at 86 percent. California is third to last at 58.9 percent, down a full 10 percent since the beginning of 2020.READ MORE: Recology Agrees To $100 Million Settlement, Refunds For Trash, Recycling Overcharges
But passing SB 38 is not going to be easy. Wieckowski’s two prior bottle bills failed, opposed among local recyclers like Tri_Ced Community Recycling in Union City, the largest non-profit recycling operation in Northern California.
“I would not be in favor of putting all of that infrastructure money in the hands of the private sector who creates these commodities,” said CEO Robert Valle, who is also an Alameda County Supervisor.
He’s got other ideas: “I would give another nickel for every container, and I would start banning plastic one time non refillable bottles,” said Valle.
He wants CalRecycle to bail out struggling recyclers with more subsidies, proposed in another bill AB 1454.
He says the money would come from a $400 million slush fund of unredeemed nickels and dimes sitting in Sacramento.
“I believe that the state Attorney General Rob Bonta should take a serious look at how the state is holding money that belongs to consumers that’s not being given back to them. That’s called a tax,” said Valle.
His center is surviving, but more than a thousand others across the state have shut down in the just the past 8 years. Processors are feeling the pinch as well.
“We do need a major overhaul,” said Jeff Donlevy, General Manager of Ming’s Resources East Bay.
Donlevy says the supply of recyclable resources from recycling centers is way down.
“Our business is to get more clean recyclable material and that material, the plastic bottles, the water and soda bottles, those create jobs in California,” said Donlevy.
One way or another a fix will be welcome news for consumers who drive miles to get their money back like Ana Packard or continue to get turned away at their local retailer.
CalRecycle turned down our request for an interview but Director Rachel Machi Wagoner sent us this statement:
CalRecycle recognizes the need to modernize the 1986 bottle bill that helped clean up litter and turned more than 426 billion bottles and cans into valuable new products. It’s time for the program to evolve to meet the needs of California’s diverse regions. CalRecycle looks forward to implementing legislative upgrades to evolve the system to ensure more Californians can access this program and get back the money to which they are entitled.
Statement from Nate Rose Sr. Director, Communications California Grocers Association:
While we are still reviewing SB 38, the grocery community is familiar with how the Oregon Bottle Bill works. We have not yet decided if it can work in California because what works in a state of 4 million people might not work in a state of 40 million. There are definitely pieces, like the bag drop program, that make sense, but overall, there are some fundamental differences between Oregon and California. The Association look forward to working with the author and stakeholders on this legislation, if it continues to move.
As for the bottle bill, as a whole, it is in serious need of updating. In 2021, it does not make sense for consumers to bring back used containers into a grocery store for redemption. The system needs a thorough analysis to determine how to maximize a consumers opportunity to redeem and what role technology can play to improve and advance the system.
We look forward to working with the Legislature and Administration in developing proposals to bring the bottle bill back to a point where consumers can redeem containers and the State can achieve its recycling goals.