Californians consume a staggering 64 million single-use plastic, metal and glass beverage containers every day — more than 1 million tons of beverage packaging annually.
Thanks to the “Bottle Bill” — California’s 30-year-old recycling incentive policy — for the better part of the last decade, more than 80 percent of beverage packaging has been recycled.
In a state that prides itself on its commitment to recycling, no other product, material or program has come close to matching the Bottle Bill’s level of recycling success. And no other beverage container recycling program in North America has been found to be as cost-effective.
While nickel and dime refund values are responsible for stimulating consumer collection — 68 percent of containers are still redeemed for cash by consumers — a key to program success has been beverage industry payments that cover the cost of recycling when scrap values are insufficient to do so.
But starting in January 2016, the wheels began to fall off. Despite record low material scrap prices, state determined processing payments failed to cover net recycling costs or provide legislatively mandated “reasonable financial returns.” CalRecycle cited inflexible and outdated regulations and statutory provisions for the snafu which immediately began shorting the state’s public and private recycling infrastructure upward of $2 million per month.
The response of the marketplace was swift. On Jan. 31, 2016, Replanet, which runs the state’s largest recycling network, announced the closing of 191 centers and the layoff of 278 employees. Others followed suit, and by April 1, 2016, more than 400 centers had closed.
Efforts by stakeholders and the state Assembly to address the problem in the 2016-17 state budget were ultimately opposed by the governor’s office, amid vague calls for a more comprehensive reform.
Fast forward to May 2017: The promised reform proposal from the governor’s office has yet to materialize. Recycling center closures have reached more than 560 centers — roughly 25 percent of the infrastructure. Revenue loss to the public and private recycling operators is on track to exceed $50 million by the end of June, at the same time that the program’s year-end fund balance is expected to top $250 million. In the meantime, container recycling rates have fallen below 80 percent for the first time since 2008.
Frustrated members of the Legislature have all but given up on the governor’s office to offer necessary administrative changes. In April, state Senate Environmental Quality Committee Chairman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, introduced legislation to simply hand the $1.3 billion per year recycling program over to the beverage industry to operate.
While the governor’s office and legislators argue over details of a fix, the failure to resolve the issue is costing consumers and the state’s once pre-eminent recycling infrastructure tens of millions of dollars.
The reduced recycling means that every day 2 million additional containers are littered or landfilled, including more than 1 million plastic bottles every day. The loss of recycling centers has hit rural areas especially hard. For consumers who try to supplement family income by redeeming containers, the loss of buy-back recycling locations has reduced total redemption payback by more than $3 million per month.
The governor’s proposed 2017-18 budget presents a critical opportunity for policy makers to come together and fix what’s been broken: Use surplus program revenue to return recycling center funding to 2015 levels, and provide supplemental funding to reopen closed rural centers. It should also include a timeline for closing container exemption loopholes and require beer and soft drink makers to cover at least half the cost of recycling their containers — about two-tenths of a cent per container sold.
As recently as 2013, the California Bottle Bill was humming along at an 85 percent recycling rate, diverting more than 1 million tons of plastic, glass and metal, and contributing thousands of jobs and more than $2 billion to the state’s economy, while delivering the equivalent of 1.45 million tons of reduced carbon dioxide emissions.
Consumers and stakeholders would certainly welcome a program update and expansion, but while we wait for a consensus on that, policy makers should stick to the basics and fix what’s broken.
Murray is executive director of Californians Against Waste.
Learn more about the Bottle Bill Crisis