It’s still the simplest environmental act a consumer can take in California: Recycle a used bottle or aluminum can.
But complex shifts in the global commodities market, aggravated by California’s dated recycling system, have forced the closure of hundreds of recycling centers statewide. State lawmakers have been working to develop at least a stopgap solution. Unfortunately, that won’t be enough.
California needs to reboot its entire recycling program.
At issue is the state’s “bottle bill” program, which was enacted in the 1980s when most communities lacked curbside pickup. Though it has served its purpose over the years, even at its outset, the bottle bill was flawed.
Born from the remnants of a failed 1982 ballot measure that would have given consumers the nickel deposit and in-store take-back that so many other states have, the California law was a political compromise. The aim was to encourage recycling, yes, but also to control costs for beverage manufacturers and recyclers while giving retailers a way out of the unsanitary and cumbersome chore of making in-store redemptions.
Though it has served its purpose over the years, even at its outset, California’s 30-plus-year-old bottle bill was flawed.
The result was a system in which manufacturers of beverage containers paid a “processing fee” to help cover the costs of thousands of recyclers in the event the scrap value of recycled goods didn’t cover their expenses. Consumers got a smaller rebate than in other states, and the savings helped underwrite thousands of recycling centers – most in grocery store parking lots.
That sufficed for a while. But over the decades, environmental awareness and waste management mandates have pushed recycling here to whole new levels. Most municipalities now have curbside programs that do the recycling for consumers and keep the rebate themselves. Churches and nonprofits are also lined up to take recyclables off consumers’ hands.
Meanwhile, the state’s complex interlocking system of recycling fees and payments has been strained by these and other changes, from curbside gleaning so common in Northern San Joaquin Valley communities to high U.S. labor costs that cut into private recyclers’ profits. Now global commodity prices have fallen, cutting into the scrap value of aluminum, glass and other recyclable materials.
The result is an outdated and unsustainable infrastructure. The number of recycling centers statewide has fallen from around 2,100 to fewer than 1,800 in recent years, mirroring a trend across the nation.
The fix passed by the Assembly last month before lawmakers took their summer break was prompted by grocers, who by law are on the hook for taking back recyclables if the centers in their parking lots close.
They can opt out only by paying a $100-per-day fee, which is obviously expensive; the patch proposed by the Assembly would give them a reprieve and increase subsidies to some recyclers, but the bandage would terminate after eight months.
Gov. Jerry Brown and key lawmakers who understand the Rube Goldberg contraption that is California recycling need to find a way to simplify and improve the program for the modern era. Recycling has needed an update for decades. Time to stop kicking the that recyclable can down the road.