Opinion: California needs to update beverage container recycling law

Hunkered down during the pandemic, Californians have been drinking a lot of beverages. Recent reports show sales of beverages in single-use containers up 8% in 2020.

That’s a lot of bottles and cans. Given the major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from processing discarded aluminum, plastic and glass containers into new materials, the need to recycle them has never been greater.

California’s 35-year-old beverage container recycling law, known as the Bottle Bill, must be updated.

The Bottle Bill is one of the great recycling success stories in the nation. Nearly 50 million containers are recycled in California every day — amounting to more than 800,000 tons of material collected and processed into new materials each year.

The law has produced substantial economic and environmental benefits. Beverage container recycling in California generates more than $1.6 billion in economic activity annually and supports more than 10,000 jobs.

At one point, more than 80% of containers purchased in California were diverted from landfills and the litter stream. During the last few years, however, outdated state regulations and a depression in scrap prices contributed to the deterioration of the state’s recycling infrastructure, and the redemption rate declined. Last year, it dropped below 70 percent.

Because of the program’s sustained success, we know what works. When there is a healthy network of community recycling centers, the market response is strong. But recently that network has been shattered; since 2014, over 1,000 community-based recycling centers closed across the state.

A plan before the Legislature would restore the system and return the program to its earlier success levels. Using existing resources, it would update regulations so that payments to recycling centers would again cover the actual costs of recycling. Additionally, it would create incentives to open new centers in areas that are underserved or not served at all.

These reforms can be implemented without disturbing the program’s complementary role in supporting curbside recycling, the convenient means bringing recycling opportunities to the doors of millions of Californians.

Many consumers choose to place beverage containers in their curbside recycling carts. The revenue from redeeming these containers helps support the recycling of other, less valuable materials collected curbside.

Despite what some perceive, however, curbside recycling is responsible for just 10% of redeemed and recycled beverage containers. One big reason is that two-thirds of containers are consumed outside the home.

The key to updating California’s Bottle Bill lies in restoring the state’s recycling infrastructure. The numbers tell the story. Regions where recycling center networks have remained relatively robust, such as Los Angeles County and the San Joaquin Valley, continue to achieve recycling rates of 85% or higher. In contrast, in the 11-county San Francisco Bay Area where there is just one recycling center per 105,000 residents, the recycling rate has dipped to 54%. That’s appalling.

A separate proposal before the Legislature seeks to implement an entirely new approach to beverage container recycling, one that would effectively turn the program over to the beverage industry. This radical, untested approach is risky, particularly since it would likely result in fewer recyclables and devastate the state’s long-successful curbside recycling efforts.

We know California’s program can work. Even with the recent decline in recycling rates, it’s still resulting in the successful recycling of seven out of every 10 containers sold. No other material comes close to that rate.

With thoughtful fixes to update the program and eliminate some regulatory roadblocks, we can reinvigorate California’s Bottle Bill. We need it now more than ever. And we cannot demonize people salvaging bottles and cans: They live on the edge and often rely on redemption payments to survive.

Richard Valle is an Alameda County supervisor and president and CEO of Tri-CED Community Recycling. 

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Author: Richard Valle

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