California sits on a $ 600 million pile of uncollected nickel and dime deposits in recyclable cans and bottles and now wants to give some of it back to consumers.
To get the state’s nearly 40 million residents to recycle more and send more deposits back to them, Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration on Friday unveiled a plan to temporarily double to a penny the refund for a 12-ounce (355 milliliter) bottle or can . California is already paying 10 cents for containers over 24 ounces (709 milliliters), and it will temporarily double to 20 cents.
The move would make California one of the highest-paying recycling programs in the country. Rachel Machi Wagoner, director of California’s Department of Recycling and Resource Recovery, said the effort would help California regain the leading recycling policy it was 35 years ago when it launched its cash reimbursement program.
When someone in California buys a regular-sized soda, a fee of 5 cents is charged, which can be retrieved if the container is returned for recycling. Under Newsom’s plan, the deposit would remain the same, but the return amount would double. The aim is to increase the recycling rate for beverage containers from 70% to at least 80%.
Oregon and Michigan already offer 10-cent refunds, and advocacy groups say the amount for each glass or plastic bottle or aluminum can has been enough to allow consumers to recycle at least nine out of every 10 containers.
Proponent of Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court, a frequent critic of the recycling program, called the plan “a very positive step” and “a courageous proposal to give people their money back.”
“That money does no good to anyone sitting in the bank,” Court said. “We need a complete structural solution, but this is a good temporary step.”
California’s proposal nurtures the latest national effort to increase recycling as beverage distributors face increased pressure to include higher percentages of recycled material in their containers, National Stewardship Action Council CEO Heidi Sanborn said.
Only 10 of the 50 states have deposit programs now, but many are considering them – potentially creating confusing patchwork and beverage labels filled with different states’ deposit amounts, something she said distributors want to avoid.
California’s doubling of reimbursements would be temporary – a duration of the change has not yet been decided – and is expected to cost $ 100 million. If approved by the Legislative Assembly, the reimbursement increase will take effect sometime during the next fiscal year beginning July 1st.
It’s uncertain whether a boost in recycling will last when the higher price ends, Sanborn acknowledged, but she hopes instead California will decide to make the increase permanent. She also hopes that pressure from states will spur the US rep. Alan Lowenthal of California and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon to make a national bottle bill.
Newsom’s plan also seeks to address a bottleneck that began years ago when several recycling centers in the neighborhood closed, and Consumer Watchdog said many grocery stores also refused to take empty items back into the store as needed.
To increase access, Newsom’s administration proposes to spend $ 100 million on grants to add about 2,000 automated recycling machines, also known as return vending machines, to colleges, colleges and retailers. Consumers dump their empty containers into the machines, which issue a refund.
An additional $ 55 million would go to state-funded mobile recycling programs in rural and other areas with few recycling opportunities.
Consumers are very sad that “they are not able to return their bottles and cans and get their money back as promised,” said Sanborn, who also heads California’s Statewide Commission for Recycling Markets & Curbside Recycling.
Sanborn blamed the closure of many California recycling centers for the state not being able to quickly adjust its complicated payment formula to meet changing market conditions.
Many of California’s recyclable materials go to China, which in 2017 tightened standards for accepting contaminated materials, including plastics. The movement “completely threw the recycling industry” nationwide, said Kate O’Neill, a University of California, Berkeley, environmental science professor and author of the 2019 book “Waste.”
The U.S. market is recovering now with the addition of domestic recycling facilities, but there is still a problem matching supply and demand, O’Neill said.
Recycling officials had expected beverage consumption to fall during the pandemic, as it does during most economic downturns, Wagoner said. Instead, container sales in California increased by $ 2.5 billion over three years to $ 27 billion last fiscal year, meaning a record number of deposits flowing into the state recycling fund.
The number of refundable containers recycled in California, meanwhile, hit a record high of more than 18.8 billion in 2021 – but it still left plenty of money on the table.
Repeated attempts to improve the state’s recycling system have struggled in the Legislature, even as California seeks to increase its recycling rates, minimize food waste, and work toward a circular recycling economy.
Wagoner said Friday’s proposal is a temporary step, while the administration continues talks with lawmakers on permanent corrections.
Democratic State Sen. Bob Wieckowski said he tried a bill last year with proposals similar to what the administration is now proposing, “and they did not want to hear about it.” He expects people to now stockpile their recyclable items until the double redemption period, only to face long queues when it begins.
His proposal this year would give manufacturers more responsibility for reusing their containers.
“It has a slightly gimmicky nature,” Wieckowski said of the state’s plan. “We have 45 Band-Aids on this program, and from time to time you have to get out of the Band-Aid industry.”
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